Quentin Tarantino’s historic revisionist western saga ‘Django Unchained’ presents a provocative look at a dark era in US history. The story follows a handsome bounty hunter and his African-American companion, who team up to eliminate white slave owners, wardens, and racist clans in the dark and violent pre-war south. Although the film was received with overwhelming applause from fans and critics when it was released in late 2012, it sparked some controversy.
Some felt that the film’s repeated use of the n-word was very offensive, and some questioned its historical authenticity. With Hollywood stars like Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio on board and told with a menacing directorial lens, the film is quite a show in itself. But if the question of the historical authenticity of the story has popped into your mind, let us delve into it.
Is Django Unchained based on a true story?
No, ‘Django Unchained’ is not based on a true story. Tarantino is not a documentary director and his cinematic vision is primarily focused on telling a story. Therefore, whenever he deals with a historical era in cinema, he adds a signature quirk to transform and alter the story. Historical revisionism is a concept busy reinterpreting traditional historiography, and Tarantino has distorted history time and time again in his films, all for the sake of the art. A glimpse into Tarantino’s filmography shows that he doesn’t like being a history teacher. “Django Unchained”, along with “Inglorious Basterds” and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” form the body of Tarantino’s revisionist trilogy.
The revisionist western genre subverts the traditional western trope of good guys fighting criminals or Native Americans in a lawless county. Using morally ambiguous characters as protagonists, these films often distort history and morals to bring poetic justice. Therefore, the plantation explosion, like the movie explosion at the end of “Inglorious Basterds,” excites viewers by presenting an alternate (and somewhat upbeat) version of the story.
The script for the film was written by Tarantino himself, who took inspiration from Sergio Corbucci’s 1996 film “Django”. Tarantino was writing a book about the Italian director when he realized that the director’s films often dealt with topics such as fascism and dystopia. This gave him the idea of making a film that commented on relevant and poignant episodes of the story, but it would be more of a genre episode than a newsreel. He thought of a spaghetti western set in the prewar south before the Civil War and dubbed the genre “Southern”. Aside from “Django”, the name of the film is reminiscent of the American title of the 1959 Italian epic fantasy saga, “Hercules Unchained”, and “Angel Unchained”, a 1970 film about a biker taking revenge on a horde of White Americans.
Several sequences, including the opening title song, were borrowed from the Corbucci film. The original Django, Franco Nero, also played a role in the movie Tarantino. Coincidentally, the original “Django” was loosely based on another world cinema classic, namely “Yojimbo”, by Japanese author maestro Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s film was the inspiration for another Western classic, “A Fist Full of Dollars,” by Sergio Leone. These films also had a big impact on Tarantino’s directorial instinct.
The Corbucci movie has been a Tarantino favorite. In a fun Easter Egg, the film was previously hinted at in a memorable scene from its feature debut “Reservoir Dogs”. Towards the end, the menacing Mr. Blonde cuts off Inspector Nash’s right ear before pouring gasoline on him. Although in different contexts, there is a fairly similar spectacle in ‘Django’, where Hugo and his revolutionaries cut off Brother Jonathan’s right ear before shooting him in the back. This is just one of the many hypertext references that bind the Tarantinoverse together.
But let’s not stray too far from the topic. Additionally, a few other films inspired Tarantino to shape the story of “Django Unchained”. In one segment of the film, Django travels with Dr. Schultz over snow-covered terrain en route to Tennessee. Tarantino wrote the scenes as a tribute to another Corbucci film, “The Great Silence”.
The gladiator-like streak in the home of formidable businessman Calvin J. Candie may not be historically viable, but it reflects the southern overall depravity of the slave trade. Tarantino came up with the idea for the sequence for the 1975 blaxploitation film “Mandingo,” which highlights the practice of pinning slaves against each other.
In deciding on the characters’ wardrobe, costume designer Sharen Davis happily mixed archaic and modern clothing. The costumes were inspired by a plethora of spaghetti western movies and other cultural artifacts. The director relied on the Western TV show “Bonanza” to design the costumes for the film, specifically the hat worn by a character named Little Joe. From J. Lee Thompson’s 1977 western “The White Buffalo”, Charles Bronson’s character gave Django his sunglasses. The dandy valet costume that Dr Schultz prepares for Django was actually inspired by the 1770 painting “The Blue Boy” by English artist Thomas Gainsborough. Many other productions like “Kojak” and “Gone with the Wind” also inspired costume design.
With the exception of Django, most of the African Americans we see in the film are walking. But one would be amazed to know that slaves on horseback were much more common at the time than we thought. As they often served the role of jockeys, African Americans on horseback were not exactly uncommon in the pre-Civil War United States. Moreover, according to critic Alex Ross, the unlikely duo is not too detached from the story. Many German progressives defected to the United States and became involved in the anti-slavery movement in the 1840s.
However, the ironically amusing sequence of the sack-head shooting, presumably depicting a ritual encounter of members of the Klu Klux Klan, does not fit well with the story. Here they appear to have been operational since the pre-Civil War era, but the Klan did not exist before the Civil War. But the director maintained that the group of masked rednecks depicted in the scene are in fact “the Regulators,” a similar cult that the director claimed to be a spiritual precursor of the KKK. Coincidentally, the scene also alludes to a scene from the previous “Django”, only the red face covers were replaced with white in the movie Tarantino. So while the film isn’t occupied with historical details, it largely subverts the story to provide a very satisfying cinematic experience.
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