How Historically Accurate is Tarantino's Django Unchained? Seven Points.

A few weeks ago, on my first Thursday night back in D.C., I watched the new movie Django Unchained at the theater with some friends. I had never watched a Quentin Tarantino film before, but I knew the director was known for his films' violence, and that certainly held true in Django Unchained. I don't know what the exact body count was for the film, but there were probably between 50 and 80 people killed. Even with all that violence, however, I think I understood what Tarantino was aiming to do, and I really enjoyed the movie.

That having been said, as a historian I have to ask myself—how accurate was Django Unchained? In this post I will address seven points in the film I thought were plausible, unlikely, or just plain untrue. In fact, using the word "accurate" is a bit of a misrepresentation, since none of the main plot points are factually true. Instead, this is really about evaluating how believable this movie is to your average American viewer, who should be at least somewhat acquainted with mid-19th-century American history. I think Tarantino made Django Unchained in order to create a black hero of the western ("southern") genre, reinsert slavery into the American consciousness, and use violence in a shocking and cathartic way to avenge (symbolically) the blood that was spilled by the American institution of slavery. Much of the film's historical inaccuracy or artistic license enables the achievement of these goals, but there may also be certain points where I think that it undermines them.

Spoilers follow, so if you haven't watched the movie, I'd recommended doing that first. Then come back to read this afterward.

Landscape Incongruities

Snow! (source)
The first scene places us in Texas, in 1858. Two whites on horseback are taking a line of slaves in chains across dramatic landscape. Is this realistic? I don't know for sure, but my guess is that it probably isn't. Certainly there would have been slaves moved between different plantations and worksites, but my understanding of slavery in Texas was that it really existed in the coastal lowlands where cotton was grown, and this intro scene was likely filmed in Wyoming (other parts of the film were done in California and Louisiana) so the geography just wasn't matching up for me. Other scenes which had heavy snow also seemed unrealistic. Are we really supposed to believe Django and Schultz went all the way to the Rockies for bounties? For most people during this time period, that would have been the journey of a lifetime.

A German in the South

King Schultz and Django (source)
The second point: How historically believable is the character of Dr. King Schultz, a German immigrant become bounty hunter, posing as a traveling dentist? Honestly, I have to give a point to Tarantino here: I find Schultz to be a historically believable character, not only because Christoph Waltz is a great actor, but also because there have always been many Germans who immigrated to the United States, particularly in the 19th century, and there have indeed been laws in the course of U.S. history that facilitated and even promoted citizen bounty hunting for criminals. The only possible problem here concerns how prevalent such laws might have been in the Deep South of the 1850s, but since we are dealing with a film that is Western in spirit, the audience gets easily drawn into the concept.

The KKK Made Silly?

One part that some people found funny but I found ridiculous was the scene with the white-hooded horde. No character actually says "Ku Klux Klan" anything, but they all wear white hoods and then get into a lengthy discussion about how the hoods get in their eyes. To me, this whole scene seemed cheap, gratuitous and nonsensical. How could you possibly make a film set years before the Emancipation Proclamation that includes a fake KKK group? The robes and hoods were meant to hide identities as the Klan committed terroristic acts to restore white supremacy in the decades following the Civil War. Why would you want to hide your identity, commit acts of terror, or restore white supremacy as a white American when slavery was still legal and whites were still supreme?

Mandingo Fighting: False but Believable

Candie at the fight's end (source)
One of the most contentious portrayals in the film is that of "Mandingo fighting"—a practice wherein slaveowners supposedly pitted slaves against one another for sport like some sort of human cockfight or an unromanticized and racialized gladiator ring. I say "supposedly" because historians seem to have zero evidence of slaves being forced to fight each other to the death in the American South. (See articles here and here on the issue.) In spite of the Mandingo fighting scene and plot point not being factual, however, it is believable—both to the audience, and apparently to Tarantino himself. After all, these slaves were people who were considered property, often tortured and worked to death. How outlandish does it really seem that a sadistic slaveowner like Leonardo DiCaprio *cough*—excuse me, Calvin Candie—would turn his "property" to deadly sport?

Stephen, Slave and Master

Stephen, played by SLJ (source)
Surprisingly, some people have cast doubt on whether there could have been a person like Stephen—Calvin Candie's head house slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson. I actually find Stephen's character to be a very accurate and chilling portrayal of how power corrupts—even for a person in a nominal position of racial inferiority. Indeed, the movie reveals Stephen to be very influential over Calvin, a vile sort of interdependence between the two with the master-slave relationship turned partially on its head. Stephen, in his way, holds power over everyone on the plantation, and it is hardly unimaginable that slaves in that position in history would have sent other blacks to torture and death in order to hold that power.

How Many Shots You Got There?

Here's a point—bullets. I know this has been the case in countless Hollywood movies, and I know that this goes along with the particular style of violence that's a part of Tarantino's "artistry," but nothing about the way the huge shootout in the film goes down has any relation to what the reality of firearms technology must have been in the South of the 1850s. I didn't really count the number of bullets that were expended in each round, but even if someone on Tarantino's team did, (which I doubt), the impression given to the audience is still that Django and his adversaries are wielding semi-automatic weapons of the future. If you still haven't seen the movie or plan to watch it again, pay attention to the reloading.

Deep South Down Under

director plays dress-up (source)
And lastly, how about Australians in Mississippi? Yes, that's right, when Django is transported unsuccessfully to a mine to live out the rest of his life in misery, his captors speak with Australian accents, and they include the director himself. I personally think that director cameos are arrogant, but this wasn't just a cameo for Tarantino—it was a multi-line speaking part! And the idea that these mining men (in Mississippi) would be Australian, well, that's ludicrous. I guess the only redeeming part of the scene was that Tarantino got blown up with dynamite—and you can bet he counted on that to win everybody over.

All of these points feed into the essential goals of the film, as I see them: Tarantino aims to make Django a glorious hero, bringing to mind classic damsel-in-distress stories as well as the spaghetti western. In order to do this, a fanciful storyline is created wherein a slave becomes free, becomes a bounty hunter, and saves his wife while killing dozens of whites. While certainly a fantasy, I think the story resonates, and it succeeds in making a hero. Additionally, the film forcibly and unashamedly shoves the audience into a brutal and violent world, filled with dialogue and action that can be witty, profane, or frightening, but which all lays bare a horrific vision of slavery that should absolutely challenge and provoke Americans. Lastly, the film really delivers on vengeance, and most people will enjoy it, especially as it's carried out in ways that seem both emotionally and historically justified.

Ultimately, however, Tarantino is manipulating history, not portraying it, and the movie's elements of "fact" are connected more to filmography than to the 19th century. While Django Unchained is wildly successful in achieving its director's objectives, as I understand them, there are certain points in the film that come off as just too far removed from reality—the landscape, the KKK, the bullets and the Australians. I really did enjoy this movie: I thought Jamie Foxx's acting was great, the music was great, and the film stirred up my emotions in just the right way. I even thought the connection to the story of Siegfried worked great. I must admit, though, I would have loved this film even more without a few of its crazy inaccuracies.