Some perspective on the violence in “Django Unchained”

There has been much talk about the violence in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Django Unchained”. I think two things should be mentioned.

First, Tarantino is no less violent than other directors such as Steven Spielberg. If anything, Spielberg can be more violent at times. I think Spielberg gets a pass on the amount of violence in his films for a number of reasons: the violence is seen as historic and not exploitive, he doesn’t have violence in all his films, and many of his films have an overall positive theme or message. That aside, when he uses violence, it is (at least to me) more shocking than Tarantino’s. For example, here is part of the Omaha Beach scene from “Saving Private Ryan”.

The actual scene goes on for much longer, culminating in the Americans slaughtering the Germans (or more like Romanians) coming out of the pill box. It’s a very long extended scene of hyper violence, and it is only one of many in the film. This can also be seen in his film, “Schindler’s List”. This is not to say the violence is wrong: it is very appropriate for the film he is making. But this is also true of Tarantino.

Second, as bad as it was in the film, the treatment of slaves and later freed slaves could be much worse than anything Tarantino depicted. As one example, this story of Henry Smith has stuck with me as a result of reading just how horrific it was. This passage is from Wikipedia, but if you follow the New York Times link at the bottom of the page in Wikipedia, you can read more detail of the story. Henry Smith was accused on killing a young white girl named Myrtle. He fled the town the crime occurred in, but..

was captured and brought back to Paris (Texas) by train, where a mob of an estimated 10,000 whites placed him on a carnival float and carried him through town and out into a prairie. There, he was placed upon a scaffold and tortured for fifty minutes by members of the girl’s family, who thrust hot iron brands into his flesh, starting with his feet and legs and working upward to his head. The family members involved included Myrtle’s father, uncles, and twelve-year-old brother. A February 2, 1893 article in the New York Sun stated that, “Every groan from the fiend, every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd.” Eventually, the hot irons were thrust into his eye sockets and down his throat. Afterwards, finding he was still breathing, the crowd poured oil on him and set him on fire. According to some newspaper accounts, Smith remained alive during the burning. He is said to have torn himself away from the post and fallen off the scaffolding, where he perished. The crowd then fought over the hot ashes to collect his bones and teeth as souvenirs.

Tarantino uses violence as part of how he communicates a story, as well as to viscerally engage his audience. It may seem shocking and excessive to some, but in the context of other filmmakers and in the context of the story he is telling, it makes sense in his latest film.

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