By Bonnie Stanard
Anachronisms are the bane of serious historical fiction writers. If we rack up too many, our validity as researchers if not writers is called into question. For those of us who spend a lot of time figuring out things like whether alcoholic drinks were served with a straw in 1858, Leonardo Dicaprio had us choking on our popcorn in the movie Django Unchained. There he was on the screen, surrounded by his slaves and sipping a coconut daiquiri with a straw. Whatever the blood and gore, that straw was indefensible.
As improbable as the straw were some of the situations. Any black person, slave or free, who wore a pistol in 1858 wouldn’t have worn it long. Nor would he sit at a dinner table with white people. And since slaves were considered property worth from $500 to $1500, what owner would damage his own property? And there was a lot of damage here.
But wait a minute. Director Quentin Tarantino signals that the movie is unorthodox on the posters used for promotion. How can anybody take seriously a 19th Century cowboy wearing sunglasses? Obviously Django is not intended as a traditional Western.
In a review of Django, Stephanie Zacharek of NPR claims that if the movie “takes significant liberties with history … , it also faces certain historical truths head-on.” She doesn’t elaborate on these truths and I’m still wondering what they could be. She also says it isn’t a screed because “there’s too much joy in it.” Huh? Did she say “joy?” Amusement … maybe.
Those of us expecting a cowboy adventure of the more typical sort were twisting in our seats by the second half, hardly aware of the playfulness. Early on, I scoffed at the poor approximation of what was supposed to be cotton plants growing in a field. However, Tarantino had everything under control. He hadn’t been so stupid as to accidentally make cotton look like soy beans with blooming boles.
Anyway, director Quentin Tarantino is not easy to interpret. The historical inaccuracies are a way of messing with the concept of suspending disbelief. Even as we immerse ourselves in the story, we are kept out of Django’s world. The movie is a tongue-in-cheek offering that dares you to like it. It’s deliberately provocative.
It’s listed as an “Action” movie but begs for another label, one that will acknowledge the element of absurdity. It’s been well received by critics and has an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. If it weren’t for the violence, I’d watch the movie again with the hope of more insight into Tarantino’s unconventional talent.
For all Zacharek says about Tarantino, her comment about his use of the n-word prompted the most responses, some of them acrimonious (http://www.npr.org/2012/12/24/166898958/tarantinos-genius-unchained). There are critics who reduce Django to that one issue and would throw Tarantino under the bus for using the word. Several weeks ago on my WritePersona blog, I addressed this dilemma, one that haunts those of us who place our stories in the South in the 19th Century. (http://writepersona.blogspot.com -- scroll down to “Tough Words”)