“Django Unchained” represents a triumph of style and substance

I’m glad “Django Unchained” won best original screenplay at the Oscars.

For months, I avoided “Django Unchained,” assuming that it would be another big picture history lesson, a sober and handwringing treatment of slavery, like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which I teach at the University of Vermont.

But “Django” doesn’t contain solutions to the problem of how we represent this shameful period in American’s past as much as it poses a question: Can a story about slavery also be a story about style?

When Django is unchained in the opening scene in the movie, he walks away from the links and throws off the blanket that had been covering his shoulders. Then, we see his back. Crisscrossed with the scars of the lash, Django’s back is an iconic back; it is a “Roots” back. It resembles the back of Peter, a slave turned Union Army soldier, whose scarred back was featured in a photograph that was widely distributed in the North during the Civil War to attest to the frankest and most irreducible truth of slavery.

Like Peter the Slave, Django’s scarred back is an image that needs no accompanying words in order to inspire our shame, rage and disgust. The only thing is, through Tarantino’s lens (and with an accompanying “whoosh” as the blanket falls from Django’s shoulders), that back is a sexy back, too.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy “Django Unchained” but I did, notwithstanding two brutally graphic scenes that didn’t get easier on second viewing.

I was riveted by the exquisitely diabolical performances of Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio, and I rooted, without cynicism, for Jamie Foxx’s Django to save Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda and burn down the master’s house. But the image I continue to think about is the image of Django’s back, and Tarantino’s quiet but powerful cinematic revisiting of the symbol of the slave’s scarred back as the purest and most authentic story about slavery.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Roots” were composed to testify both to the horrors of slavery and to the irrepressible spirit of black people. The circumstances that produced “Django Unchained” are hardly as urgent as they were in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s America.

But Tarantino’s film exists because slavery is still the most compelling, troubling, and vexing story America has to tell. And “Django Unchained” is fresh because it reveals how much of the heart of the story resides, even today, in the style of the telling.

Emily Bernard is associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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