Historical Atonement

I read this LA Times article on African American reactions to Quentin Taratino’s “Django Unchained.” While I haven’t seen the movie, it started to confirm some things I had thought about the movie as a concept.

If you don’t already know, “Django Unchained” is what’s being called a “historical revenge” film. Like Tarantino’s earlier “Inglorious Bastards”–which used the historical reality of WWII to follow a fictional band of Jewish-American US soldiers who were out on a bloody search-and-destroy mission in Nazi Germany–“Django” fictionalizes US Southern slavery as a former slave and white mercenary “go guerrilla” on the plantation owners who embody anti-black racism and violent white supremacy.

Again, I haven’t seen the movie. I’m sure I will when it comes out on DVD. But when I first saw the preview, it struck me as a problematic concept. Whereas “Inglorious Bastards” could exercise a mythical revenge impulse by placing Jewish-American boys in the position of power, I don’t think the same works for slavery. First, “we” won WWII. Hitler died. Nazis were purged, hunted, and often tried. The typical non-Jewish, US American viewer is never guilty or persecuted in the “real history” they perceive. The “revenge” is voyeurism; we watch Jewish-Americans get the vengeance we imagine they desire.

“We” includes us all–white, Jewish, black, good.

“Django” is different as a concept because the history is different. As the LA Times piece does well to convey, we all continue to live with the legacy of this history. In short, it isn’t “past” (or hasn’t “passed”) yet.


But the vengeance is also different here. While the film mirrors “Bastards” by putting a liberated slave in the position of power, the vengeance he seeks is really for whites.

The typical white, US American viewer needs to seek revenge in this historical scenario because s/he does not yet (even now!) know how to seek and earn atonement. Slavery is not only a continuing historical force for the generations of African Americans who live in its wake, but it is also a continuing force structuring white lives and white possibilities. We often think that if we had lived in the past we would have been different than them, for whichever messy historical topic. Unfortunately, that is not so. One of the reasons “we” desire this is to think more of ourselves. (“I am not racist.”) One of the reasons “we” can not achieve this is that “we” are complicit in the continuing legacy of this past.

“We” is really, white US American.

I often tell students, the notion of “evil” is a complicated concept historically. For one, I’m not sure it is measurable since it’s a normative judgement. If you can’t “prove” evil with historical documents then I’m not sure it has much use.

The other reason it isn’t fruitful, critical terrain is that it removes context from human actions. If we say white slaveowners were “evil” we answer who and why they were. Our need for explanation is done. The historical question, however, is how can a person become that? What shaped their worldview so as to make them into a person I find so objectionable? The answers we find when we ask those historical questions tell us as much about the past as they do the present.

“Django Unchained” puts the white slaveowner in the position of “evil.” It allows the white, US American viewer to distance themselves from the possibility that this “evil” icon could have been them. It liberates whites from the position of guilt by allowing them, now, to side with the slave.

The tragedy of race and US history is that this “evil” of slaveowner and slavery defender was you. As much as I am sure future generations will find your moral and (in)humanistic decisions unfathomable for their times, you/we are all part of the past because we have been the engine that sustains it into this present.

An honest reckoning with the past is the pathway to dismantling its negative force in the present. We have to know the past to do that. We need to build critical empathy to do that. We need to contend with the ignorance of our past actions unwittingly sustaining the pain of the past into our present and learn how to make intentional steps forward for a different future.

I’m not sure an ahistorical revenge film on slavery could ever do that.

2 thoughts on “Historical Atonement

  1. As Christians lke to say,”Love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we discuss evil as though it were an attribute of individuals we divide the world into two camps: the evil and the good. Life, and history, is never that simple. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner but a visionary of freedom. John Brown was an abolitionist, but a murderer. The institution of slavery was evil, but the men who supported it and the men who opposed it were human: always a combination of kind and cruel, generous and selfish, cowardly and brave.

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