Mere days after the wide release of Quentin Tarantino's latest cinematic opus, Django Unchained, cinephile tongues are still wagging. Actor Samuel L. Jackson said it is a movie about the realities of slavery -- "it is just couched in a spaghetti western-cum-blacksploitation movie/Hong-Kong bullet ballet."
Any film which juxtaposes the vicious cruelty of transatlantic slavery with the spaghetti western genre is bound to draw attention. As writer-director Tarantino states in a recent NPR interview, "there's not this big demand for movies that deal with the darkest part of America's history, and the part that we're still paying for to this day." Yet Tarantino gave himself permission to provide a vessel for catharsis while taking some artistic liberties with historical events.
In Django Unchained, the protagonist makes the fictional journey from slavery to freedom in the Antebellum Southern United States circa 1858. As President Obama reminded us in an official statement, Tuesday marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation which announced the end of slavery in the USA in 1863 -- five years after the imaginary Django character gained his freedom.
Tarantino's plot draws Django to Candie-Land, a prosperous plantation which allows its owner all the luxuries money can buy, including a fetish for French culture. As Django's thirst for freedom was eventually quenched via a long, torturous and bloody journey, so was the struggle for the first freed slave state. Like the fictitious Candie-Land, Saint-Domingue was where lucrative plantations, shaped by the brutal exploitation of half a million captive African people, produced "the single richest colony in the world," France's imperial pride, and also became the cradle of abolition.
Toussaint L'Ouverture played the leading role in the real-life drama alongside and his revolutionary army of self-emancipated barefoot slaves, defeating the three great empires of the eighteenth century -- Spain, England, and France -- and finally winning independence after a decade of toil. It was on this day in 1804 that Haiti declared its independence; 30 years before Canada (then a British colony) ended the slave practice and three score before the USA followed suit. As pundits question what significant event would prompt Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to release a statement while she is hospitalized, the answer is that the Haitian Revolution remains the first and only successful slave revolution in human history.
Perhaps part of a global awakening, leaders increasingly acknowledge the wrongs which have long been ignored, denied or swept under the rug and the triumphs which their forefathers (and former U.S. Presidents) denied or suppressed. It is perhaps no coincidence that Tarantino's fantasy film gives a hat tip to Alexandre Dumas, a prolific Franco-Haitian novelist of that era.
In Tarantino's tale, Django takes the name "Freeman," subsequently living up to his moniker by freeing other human beings from their chains. Toussaint L'Ouverture also lived up to his name, opening the floodgates of freedom for the oppressed. L'Ouverture seeded an idea: that slaves could aspire to equality. That idea's roots, numerous and deep, have sprung back in the epic period piece that is Django Unchained.