In Hollywood, historical representation of America has been a popular subject to visit for entertainment and sometimes to provoke thoughts from the audience. America has a rich history, ranging from good to bad, but one of the most common historical genres in Hollywood is representation of slavery. Django Unchained, a 2012 movie by acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino, gained a lot of attention and success on box office and in terms of critics review as well. The movie industry used to rely entirely on fictious storylines and fictional settings that did not resemble real history much. However, that trend has changed significantly in recent years as historical accuracy has become an important factor of consideration in serious drama movies and some directors have shown incredible desire to remain as true to reality as possible. Django Unchained follows the trademark direction style of Tarantino as it has stylized gore and violent depiction of the historical America. Tarantino has been vocal about focusing on historical accuracy at any cost even if it is uncomfortable for the audience to watch.
Django Unchained tells the story of Django, a house slave in Texas and Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter. The unlikely duo of Django and Schultz continues to search for bounty while Django also tries to find and free his wife from slavery. Throughout the movie, the director has shown the ugly side of slavery in the South from uncomfortable depiction of activities like gladiator-like slave to slave Mandingo fights run by plantation owners, slave trading, KKK (Ku Klux Klan), poor plantation life of black people, relationship between white masters and slaves, and treatment of slaves (Moore). Even with the focus on historical accuracy, Django Unchained is a Hollywood movie and has likely used creative liberty to some extent.
Since release, Django Unchained has gained some criticism for taking excessive liberties with history. These criticisms are focused on the way the movie shows a black person killing wealthy white men and depiction of activities with no proven record. Separating the real history with fiction requires evaluating the content of the movie with historical data in the same time period in Texas and nearby states.
The slaves living on the plantations in American South around mid-18th century, were experiencing some of the worst quality of life among slaves at the time. These slaves did not have any right of their own as they were the property of their master. In the treatment of slaves, these slaves had worse quality of life, even in comparison with slaves in the Roman empire. Slaves living on the plantations in Antebellum South had to completely rely on their masters to fulfill their own basic needs such as food, clothes, shelter, and materials to build a shelter. Living with whatever the masters provided was a nature of life for a majority of the slaves as raising voice against the master or making a demand often met with swift punishment from the master. Django Unchained is set in the same era of the Antebellum American South.
Housing arrangements
In most plantations, slaves were allocated a small separate area to rest, cook and live. While some plantation owners provided empty buildings as living quarters for the slaves, others required that the slaves make their own buildings from raw materials and tools. In cases where the plantation slaves had to make their own housing arrangements, the houses made were quite similar to the building structures in Africa with thatched roofing atop the house (Berlin 51-96). Plantation owners rarely ever offered sufficient space for slave housing quarters and slaves were forced to live in a cramped space. Within a single small hut, more than half a dozen slaves living was a common occurrence.
Housing arrangement and access to amenities for the slaves was often decided by the work of individual slaves. Slaves who worked in the house of the plantation owner mostly fared well in terms of housing that was closer to the house and access to better quality of food, housing arrangement, and clothes. Field working slaves were treated worse and their housing arrangements were usually far from the house.
In Django Unchained, the plantation life and living standards of slaves is shown in some detail. In this depiction of plantation slaves, the director accurately showed the separate housing arrangements of field slaves while Django’s Wife, who was a house slave, had noticeably better clothing and amenities compared to field slaves.
Provision of food
In the antebellum South, the plantation owners thought of slaves as an investment and cut corners in every possible expenditure associated with the slaves. Slaves were given pots and pans to cook food in only in some cases and in many cases, they were supposed to make their own pots and pans using whatever material or broken pots they could find. Field slaves had to work most time of the day and therefore, they had very little time to source for ration and cook food. Lack of free time also meant that the slaves were not able to effectively work towards increasing the quality of their own life (Singleton 67-91). With limited investment in food by most plantation owners, slaves usually relied on cheap, sturdy diets such as cornbread and fatty meat. House slaves were often given leftovers from the house to eat.
The movie Django Unchained does not explicitly depict the food arrangement of the plantation slaves. However, the representation of slaves in the movie does give the perception of poor food provisions for the slaves as almost all slaves are shown as thin and malnourished slaves. In some scenes, makeshift pots and pans are visible showing an accurate representation of the life of slaves on the plantation in that era.
Provision of clothing
Slaves living on the plantations were entirely dependent on their owners for clothing provisions. In common practice, slaves in the antebellum South were offered a single pair of footwear with limited quantity of underwear and clothing. The plantation owners did not spend much money on clothing of slaves and the clothing material would often be of coarse quality while clothing being ill-fitting to most slaves (Berlin 51-96).. The situation was slightly better for slaves who worked inside the house of plantation owners for tasks like house cleaning, serving food, and cooking. These slaves were required to look decent and clean, often with better access to clothing.
The theme of ill-fitting clothing for the plantation slaves is a constant throughout Django Unchained movie. This is a focus on detail and accuracy in the movie that even the wife of the lead character, who is a house slave, is shown wearing clean yet ill-fitting clothes. The material of clothing worn by the slaves in the movie is also visibly cheap and not very comfortable for the slaves.
Throughout the movie, Django and Dr. Schultz, visit numerous plantations and meet slave masters, allowing for numerous depictions of slave life in a plantation. It is shown in the movie that slaves were required to not talk back to their masters, work in the fields, some were even made house maids, and live on the farm in poor conditions. The director also shows clear signs of violent beatings of the slaves by their masters for any mistake or disobedience. Looking back at history indicates that this depiction of plantation life for slaves as shown in the movie Django Unchained is largely accurate. Slaves on plantations in Southern America were really at the mercy of their masters and poor conditions of living and violent beating of the slaves was a common occurrence (Baptist 191-201). There are also plenty of evidence of skilled slaves getting slightly more respectable works such as in-house maid for female slaves (Hadden 11-23).
In most Hollywood movies based on tales of slavery in America, slaves are shown as black people deprived of any amenity or basic human rights. Therefore, the depiction of Django riding a horse in towns gained some attention and shock. This was a strange depiction of a black male in that era as most Hollywood movies and even previous movies by Tarantino have shown slaves to have only one mode of transportation- walking on their own feet. In fact, it was not a rare occurrence for black people and even slaves to ride horses in real-life (Gates Jr.). It was normal for plantation owners and slave owners to use slaves as jockeys even in colonial times. The personal slave of George Washington had his own horse and rode it often to accompany George Washington (Gates Jr.). While the movie Django Unchained did not show any other slave riding a horse, depiction of Django riding a horse freely in front of white people was accurate for even a plantation slave.
Historical accuracy is an important part of movies that present the storytelling in a way that tries to closely resemble history and elicit provocation from the audience. Urban (81-86) reviewed the movie Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave for historical accuracy. According to him, these movies present an intriguing story that makes much of the audience to confront the history and treatment of slavery at its peak. Urban notes that while Django Unchained is not as accurate in its depiction of the horrors of slavery as 12 Years a Slave, it does provide a true to life depiction of the barbarity and cruelty that slaves faced prior to the Civil War.
After a review of the events shown in Django Unchained with a historical perspective to compare the movie with, it is clear that Django Unchained is not a movie that is entirely historically accurate. However, the movie was never intended to be a completely accurate depiction of slavery in America and Tarantino has publicly stated that the complete historically accurate movies do not engage with the viewers enough and this is the primary reason that he chose to make Django Unchained in spaghetti western genre. Django Unchained is not a documentary and is also not a historical depiction of historical events similar to some other Hollywood movies like Lincoln and 12 Years A Slave. However, even in the fictional story of Django Unchained, Tarantino manages to hit enough accurate notes to the treatment of slaves in the mid-18th century. Even while taking liberties with accuracy for the sake of the director’s vision for storytelling, Django Unchained manages to show a quite realistic and accurate depiction of the struggles, depravity and treatment of slaves in the era of Southern barbaric treatment of slaves.
?To conclude, Django Unchained is an appreciable effort by director Quentin Tarantino to remain historically accurate to a reasonable extent even while telling a fictional mainstream story. The movie was never advertised as a documentary and accordingly, the creative freedom taken by the director is justified to make the movie more interesting. The depiction of slavery is gritty, brutal and depressing, which are mostly based on real accounts of slaves in the era. Removed from the fictional narrative of the lead character Django, the poor conditions of life shown for other slaves are very representative of the slaves in the era across the Antebellum South. There is a high accuracy in the movie in the depiction of slaves in the plantation and the hopelessness of slaves is captured well.
Works Cited
Anderson, William J. Life and narrative of William J. Anderson twenty-four years a slave or: the dark deeds of American slavery revealed ; also a simple and easy plan to abolish slavery in the United States, together with an account of the services of colored men in the Revol. Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, 1857.
Baptist, Edward E. Creating an Old South: Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier Before the Civil War. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Coetzee, Carli. “Django Unchained: A Black-Centered Superhero and Unchained Audiences.” Black Camera 7.2 (2016): 62-72.
Doddington, David. Slavery and Dogs in the Antebellum South. 23 February 2012. 19 November 2018. .
Gates Jr., Henry Louis. Did Dogs Really Eat Slaves, Like in ‘Django’? 14 January 2013. 18 November 2018. .
Hadden, Sally E. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge : Harvary University Press, 2001.
Moore, Nolan. Is “Django Unchained” historically accurate and does it matter. 7 July 2015. 19 November 2018. .
Singleton, Theresa A. The Archaeology ol Slavery and Plantation Life. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Urban, Andrew. “Review: Art as an Ally to Public History: 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained.” The Public Historian 36.1 (2014): 81-86.

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