Are Films About Slavery Obligated To Tell The Truth? [Reader Forum]

Colorlines readers debate the value of 'Django Unchained' and share non-fiction resources regarding slavery.

By Nia King Jan 14, 2013

Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Django Unchained has caused a lot of controversy for its highly fictionalized and, dare I say, campy portrayal of slavery. This week we featured a commentary by academic Dexter Gabriel about the evolution of representations of slavery in film, and a piece by Imara Jones providing much of the factual information about slavery missing from the film. Is anything that gets people talking about slavery a good thing? What kinds of creative liberties are appropriate for a director to take when depicting a racially loaded topic such as slavery? Are people interpreting this film as fact or fantasy? Here’s what you had to say.

Louis Head:

This is a great piece. I do not believe, however, that Django is about surrendering discourse to Hollywood. If anything that film has resulted in an explosion of public discourse – one of the greatest discussions on racism and slavery that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Now, if only "Lincoln" did the same, given that it is supposed to be true to historical fact.

Venus Campbell:

There is a necessity to evaluate history from all angles. This includes Hollywood’s popularized reconstruction of history. Art (which some might say is not a Hollywood priority) in all its forms, visual, performance, written, etc., is often used not to define history but to encourage conversation and thoughtfulness. I appreciate Django and Lincoln for reminding America that slavery isn’t a forgotten memory but a solid pillar in America’s past.

Caleb Granger:

Sadly, most people watch these movies and don’t realize that it’s supposed to be a work of fiction and bears little resemblance to ugly truth nor do they want to explore the fact that the effects of European white colonialism are still being felt today as much as ever. They prefer instead to see it as all ancient history and pat themselves on the back for "how far we’ve come."

Deborah Martin:

Tell it Caleb. I’m in Staten island and can tell you that most of the people in the Sandy storm mess don’t even know that areas like Dongan Hills are named after one of the biggest slave traders in New York, the Rosebank was a slave settlement once and that there were lynchings on Snug Harbor.

Brian Johnson:

You missed the biggest fact missing from the film. The slaves were not all black. The violent slave drivers shown in the film did not limit their violence to whipping and beating. Rape was standard as well, and there was no birth control in those days. Do the math. Plantations had mixed people everywhere. Working in the field, house, etc. Black filmmakers are also just as guilty of this process of removing mixed people from African American history.

Barbara Jones:

This is such vital and interesting information and it applies to our current financial position. We must continue to get this information out – as our young people begin to understand that they are part of this country’s financial history – not as recipients of "entitlements" but as the descendants of those who actually contributed to the economic wealth of the USA and these rich families.

Ángelo Martínez:

Django Unchained was FICTION why does everyone want to hold it up to fact-checking? These 10 points are correct but had nothing to do with the film. I know so many people that have been discouraged from seeing a great film because the net is flooded with articles about how historically inaccurate the film is. It’s a cowboy styled revenge film where the hero is a black man…


There’s also, as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb pointed out, the issue of how Tarantino portrays the idea of a black person actively fighting against slavery as an alternative history, when in fact, it’s actual history. Because those slaves were real human beings who, like any real human being, possessed intelligence, will and personal agency and more times than our white-washed history (pun intended) wants to admit, tried to do something themselves about them, their families and other fellow blacks being made slaves.


The interesting thing is that in spite of the wealth that slavery produced for the southern planters, they were still unable to live within their means. Thomas Jefferson’s story of perpetual debt and rescuing his descendants from poverty through the sale of slaves is not an uncommon one for those times. So many of those planters lived beyond their means to support their lifestyles, or had such minimal experience and know-how to produce in accordance to what they required economically and materially, that their slaves represented the most stable and income producing "property" they owned.

Slaves, beyond being the brains and brawn behind any successes and riches the southern planters were able to accrue, represented a guaranteed multiplier on any investment made in them as property and slavery was used as a shock absorber when the bottom fell out of markets for tobacco, cotton or other crops and plantation industries.

The boom/bust cycles that we still experience in the capitalist design were very much in play in the US prior to the Civil War. The lack of know-how and hands-on experience in the very "fields" that the planters wished to master aside, the capitalist system insured that, without the kind of class-based buffer to absorb the periodic downward swing of the economy and protect the "masters’" over-extended resource hoarding, the plantation system and the entire economic engine of the New World would not have succeeded.

In this way there is a parallel between one of the benefits the ruling classes procured from slavery and our current economic debacle and the current threats to sustaining economic support programs and livelihood for workers in the lower classes who find themselves unemployed in times of downward economic dips.

Khalid Long:

While I certainly applaud the fantastic performances of the cast members, designers, crew, and even QT’s creative energies…I simply refuse to join the line of celebrators that argue: "Finally, a black Hero who cares for his family, resists oppression, and overcomes obstacles." Who do I think are heroes in literature, visual literacy, and etc? Walter Lee (Raisin/Sun), Troy Maxson (Fences), Clay (Dutchman), Boy Willie, Doaker, Willie Boy (The Piano Lesson), Tom Briggs (A Sunday Morning in the South), and many others, are heroes. These are the men that are illustrated in page-to-stage illustrations of Black experiences – the good, bad, and ugly experiences. Toni Morrison made the following comment regarding the current nature of films: ""Well intentioned isn’t good enough."

Here are some of the resources recommended by readers for those interested in learning more about the non-fiction version of slavery. For more recommendations from the community, check the comments.

  • Authors John Hope Franklin and Howard Zinn
  • "Capitalism and Slavery" and "From Columbus to Castro: the History of the Caribbean" by Eric Williams
  • "The Atlantic Slave Trade" by Herbert Klein
  • "Sugar and Slaves." – Richard Dunn
  • "Black Reconstruction in America" by W.E.B. DuBois
  • "The World That Made New Orleans" – Ned Sublette
  • "The Warmth Of Other Suns" by Isabelle Wilkerson
  • "Black Jacobins" by CLR James
  • Traces of the Trade documentary
  • "Technology and the African-American Experience" edited by Bruce Sinclair
  • "A Hammer in their Hands" edited by Carol Pursell

Each week, we round up the best comments in our community. Join the conversation here on, and on Facebook and Twitter.