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U.Va. Faculty Goes to the Movies: Douglas Blackmon on Django Unchained

Have you ever wondered what your favorite professors would think of your favorite films? Would you jump at the chance to compare notes with a media or politics expert after viewing today’s most relevant and exciting pictures? While our section can’t offer you an outing of this exact sort, our new “U.Va. Faculty Goes to the Movies” series will give you the next best thing, as A&E sits down with some of the biggest names on Grounds to get their thoughts on the hottest — and most controversial — Hollywood productions.

This week I had the chance to chat about Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s controversial mega-hit, with Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Blackmon, who heads the Miller Center’s Forum Program. The movie tells the harrowing story of freed slave Django’s (Jamie Foxx) quest to free his wife with the help of a charming bounty hunter named Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The film plays right into the interests of Blackmon, whose New York Times best-seller Slavery By Another Name hones in on the African-American experience from the Civil War era to the onset of World War II.

As Blackmon and I began our conversation, the film’s more controversial elements immediately came to the forefront.

“Generally speaking, the images of slaves shown, such as the slaves on Candyland, are all too well-dressed and too well-fed and appear to be living lives that are nowhere near as desperate as the reality of slavery was,” Blackmon said. “The second, much bigger problem, is the basic implication of the film that no enslaved African-Americans ever forcefully resisted their white enslavers and that’s simply not true. It’s really disrespectful because so many enslaved people did fight back in great jeopardy and peril and in almost every case were ruthlessly massacred.”

Django’s revolt is certainly the plot-driver, as well as climax of the movie, and it constitutes an undeniably electrifying series of scenes and images. I asked Blackmon about Tarantino’s motivations in making such a politically charged movie.

“My impression, based on Django and Inglourious Basterds, is it seems to me that Tarantino is really interested in this question of why oppressed people don’t fight back more vigorously,” Blackmon said. “Or he just recognizes the emotional entertainment value of a revenge fantasy in those scenarios. What’s different about Django and Inglourious Basterds, versus films like the Charles Bronson movies in the ‘70s, is they’re kind of historical vigilantes but Tarantino recognizes that with a lot of viewers it’s really satisfying to see the old oppressors really get their due.”

These emotionally charged revenge tales certainly leave their mark, and the Golden Globes acknowledged that by rewarding Tarantino with Best Original Screenplay for Django.

“The screenplay has some very funny moments, such as when the white mob gets in the fight over the KKK masks, and [it] does get into the ludicrous quality about the idiots that were white supremacy,” Blackmon said.

But Blackmon felt that even these funny scenes are problematic in their own right, and he sees them as being few and far between.

“The artistic problem I had with it, and where it left me a little disappointed in Tarantino, is that all the white people who die in Django, except for Schultz, clearly deserve to die,” he said. “One of the things that has been interesting in other Tarantino films has been to confuse the morality of who should live and who should die. Django in the end is a simple morality play where the good guy rises against the bad guys and kills all of them. End of story.”

The fact that viewers can see a black slave revolting and killing an entire plantation family as a morality play certainly speaks to the violent tastes and expectations of the American public today, Blackmon added, especially considering just how popular the film has been thus far.

“There’s a market for some of the other complicated treatments of this stuff, and if that’s the case, it’s performed a truly great service and demonstrates something really good about the American intellect that you don’t have a total turn-off when people realize it has to do with slavery,” Blackmon said. “That’s the real value of Tarantino — that he’s edgy and will lure you into a theater just to see what he’s done. The fact that he chooses to do this with complex things, even if he doesn’t do it perfectly, is great.”