How Historically Accurate is Tarantino's Django Unchained? Seven Points.
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.
A German in the South
|King Schultz and Django (source)|
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)|
Stephen, Slave and Master
|Stephen, played by SLJ (source)|
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)|
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.