Racism has been depicted since the beginning of film, from black face (The Birth of a Nation) to modern cinema (Django Unchained and Selma). New movies seem to show that race is still a hot issue in Hollywood and around the United States. More and more movies seem to be bringing race issues to the forefront of their films, shocking audiences and giving them a picture of the past. Through the medium of film, these issues are easier to comprehend and they help to educate people on the past. However, these issues can also be used in order to help fight present day racism. Django Unchained and Selma are two examples of modern films that bring racism to the forefront, educating people on past race struggles and how they may have been overcome, whether it be through physical fighting or through words.
While Django Unchained depicts the physical slavery of African-Americans, Selma depicts a more ideological slavery while sharing some aspects of brutality with Django Unchained. Through these two movies, the audience gains a deeper connection to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement through a lens of racism that isn’t introduced in primary schools.
Physical Slavery and Django Unchained
Before Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino was not afraid to touch on the topic of race. One of his earlier films, Pulp Fiction, introduced racial differences through the acting performances of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. However, Django Unchained brings racism to the forefront of cinema, narrating a freed slave’s journey to redemption in the South. After Django, an African-American slave, is freed from his owners by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz, he becomes a new person in order to try to fit in with society and build a bond with Dr. Schultz. This transformation helps set the image of a pre-Civil War America.
Although Django Unchained is a fictional film, it does provide a specific image of what southern society might have been like during the time of slavery. This image is more brutal than what is taught in most schools. For example, in one scene we see Django’s wife getting lashed by a plantation worker. While I had certainly learned about the use of whips during slavery, I had never clearly thought about what this might have looked like. This truly portrays the brutality of slave-owners toward their slaves, connecting the audience with racism involved in slavery.
Another scene that brings racism to the forefront of the movie takes place on a plantation owned by Calvin Candie. In this scene, the audience is introduced to what is called Mandingo fighting. In this sporting event, two black men end up fighting until one no longer can. The audience sees Candie watching the fight and encouraging the fighters to hurt each other. There is scholarly argument over whether this type of sporting event really occurred, but there is no argument that this portrays the true brutality that slavery included (Makarechi). It also portrays that while slave owners were interested in making a profit, they were also often blatantly racist. Candie makes plenty of money, yet finds hobby in watching black men fight each other for money. This isn’t an aspect of slave-owners that I was ever taught in school. Rather, they always seemed rational in their use of slavery in order to make more money through quicker production.
Going even further into the minds of slave-owners, in one scene Calvin Candie brings out a skull to discuss the phrenology of African-Americans. Before watching Django Unchained, I had never even heard of the term phrenology. In this scene, Candie describes the skull of Old Ben, a servant of his father. He saws off a piece of the skull, showing three dimples and claims that they are “most associated with servility.” Before the Civil War, white slave owners used phrenology and other sources in order to justify their ownership. Today, it seems crazy to think that slavery ever even existed. Phrenology is used in Django Unchained to justify the inequality of blacks as compared to whites, thereby creating justification for racism. Although most of the movie is based on physical slavery, this scene seems to bring about ideological slavery.
Ideological Slavery and Selma
Ideological slavery contrasts with physical slavery in the sense that it may not involve the physical treatment of a group of people. This type of slavery can be seen in the times leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. During this time, African-Americans and other citizens of the United States were not granted access to rights that white Americans had. In this sense, they were slaves to an idea. The idea was that they were unequal to white Americans. Although African-Americans were no longer physical slaves to whites, they were still not granted equality. This led up to the Civil Rights Movement.
The movie Selma centers on Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery. At the time, Selma was a very dangerous place for black people to live due to the white supremacy that surrounded it. The opening scene of the film displays the racial tension through a church bombing that killed four African-American girls. While the film certainly has a brutal aspect similar to Django Unchained, it does not focus around the brutality. Rather, it focuses on widespread ideas that held back equality for African-Americans.
One of the rights held from African-Americans was the right to vote. This is shown in one of the opening scenes of the movie. The scene shows Annie Lee Cooper, a black woman, attempting to register to vote. When she walks up to the registration booth, the white man in charge of it asks her multiple questions about the United States. He starts by asking her to recite the preamble of the Constitution, which she does perfectly. Then, feeling outsmarted he asks her to name all of the judges in their county. Since she cannot answer that, she is denied the right to vote. In a sense, Annie Lee Cooper is a slave to this judge even though he does not legally own her. By denying her the right to vote, he is displaying a racist attitude by placing himself on a higher pedestal than her. Cooper is a slave to white ideology, which puts her on a lower level simply because she has a different skin color.
Although Selma is not quite as brutal as Django Unchained, there are quite a few scenes that show brutality in the South. Even though this film takes place long after the years of slavery, there is still plenty of violence. This is displayed when a group of black protesters attempt to start the march to Montgomery. When they cross the first bridge, they are beaten by the local police force and forced to retreat. In high school and college classes, I have previously learned about the KKK and white supremacy, but never have I envisioned this kind of brutality taking place in broad daylight. Furthermore, I have never seen race brutality brought about by an entire police force. This only helped to provide back up for the racist ideology of white society even after the Civil War.
In order to battle the racist ideology, the lead actor in Selma portrays exactly how the power of words can help to battle racism. After Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he provided African-Americans with hope through peaceful protest. After seeing that the violent tactics of Malcolm X did not work, MLK worked to gain rights through more peaceful methods. The movie’s lead actor, David Oyelowo, gives off a near perfect performance of the power that King’s words gave to African-Americans. Through riveting speeches, Oyelowo gives the audience a connection to MLK that cannot be seen through text. It is hard to comprehend the power that can be given through just one speech, but Selma brings its audience into the Deep South, giving them a sense of sympathy for African-Americans.
Both Django Unchained and Selma bring race struggles to the center of their plots. However, it is important to remember that Django Unchained is fictional, while Selma is based on a true story. This is important because Django Unchained may not be a 100% accurate portrayal of slavery in the south. Yet, it is an effective movie since it shows a lot of the brutality involved with slavery. This exaggeration shocks the audience, but it also gives them a more direct connection with the racism involved with slavery. Django becomes a hero to the audience for overcoming his struggles with racism, motivating the audience to become more proactive in fighting against discrimination.
On the other hand, Selma shows the audience the power that words can have in fighting for civil rights and defeating racism. This provides the audience with the strategy of peaceful protest and verbal fighting. David Oyelowo’s performance inspires the audience to discuss race issues. Without discussion, racism cannot be defeated in contemporary society. Furthermore, Selma gives the audience hope for achieving progress with racial struggles. Just one man was capable of drastically changing the lives of almost every African-American through his use of words and nonviolence.
Cinema can provide views that are not taught in high school or college classes. They produce images that attempt to show accurate portrayals of racism in the past and in the present. Just these images can call people to action, changing previous views that they may have had on the topic. A lot of the time, classes will give a more sheltered view of past events, whereas movies will often go out of their way to detail past events with brutal images. In this sense, movies can help to fight racism in a way that textbooks cannot.
Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington. The Weinstein Company, 2012. Film.
Makarechi, Kia. "'Django Unchained' Mandingo Fighting: Real Or Not?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Selma. Dir. Ava Duvernay. Perf. David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth. Cloud Eight Films, 2014. Film.