Unleashing “Django Unchained”: Epiphanies for White America

White Guilt won’t solve anything. Neither will White Denial. Trying to figure out where one sits on that spectrum is a distinct privilege for white people, like me. People of color don’t have those moments of luxury, those moments when they get to pause and wonder about all the complexities of a social and political system designed to favor white people and white communities.

As I sat in a dark theater watching Django Unchained last week I was glad for little light. What I watched belongs in shadows and in dark corners and all those places where human beings rightly cower in the face of horror. Watching that film I felt assaulted by violence, torn by conflicting loyalties, wrenched by poignant moments of tenderness, amused by reversals of fortune, and appalled by the human capacity to act with unspeakable cruelty. Yet none of that compares to what African Americans feel when watching the same film. Of that, at least, I am certain.django

I’m eager to learn from my African American colleagues and friends about their responses to that Quentin Tarantino film. It is of course quintessentially Tarantino – ridiculously violent, comically absurd, and horribly distasteful. For all its excess, the film prompted me to discern anew how to live as a white person in a society still reeling from the legacy of racial brutality.

I worry and I fret that even half of the violence or even a portion of the denial of human dignity portrayed in that film captures the historical reality of institutional slavery. But that’s White Guilt talking and it’s not helpful. Equally unhelpful is to suppose that all that horror is neatly sequestered in the shrouds of history and has nothing to do with us today. That’s White Denial talking.

If Djangodjango2 Unchained is going to contribute anything more than Oscar-worthy performances all of us will need to unleash its dangerous message. And Django is dangerous in the same way the Christian Gospel is dangerous, and for this reason: flesh matters.

Tarantino would seem to elicit precisely the opposite as we see flesh flayed, beaten, punctured, ripped apart, bleeding, and generally abused in nearly every manner imaginable. Perhaps that’s the wake-up call Christian communities need if we’re going to take our incarnational faith more seriously – to take human flesh more seriously.

epiphany_magi2I saw Django in this Christian liturgical season following The Epiphany – the feast of the manifestation of God’s Word made flesh. This season in concert with that film poses some gut-wrenching questions for white Christians like me. What kind of “flesh” do we mean, really? How is my white flesh consistently considered better than other kinds of flesh, not just abstractly or theoretically but concretely, in the communities where I work, worship, and play? What can and what should I do about that?

This liturgical season began with the story of the Magi traveling far from home, asking questions, and offering gifts when they arrived. White people committed to dismantling systemic racism can follow that same pattern by leaving our comfort zones, learning what we need to know by asking uncomfortable questions, and then offering ourselves to the divine mission of respecting and celebrating all and not just some flesh.

Regardless of the cinematic merits of Django Unchained, unleashing its insights in this season following the Epiphany and leading into Lent could provoke some profound conversations and conversions. I like to remember that those words – “conversation” and “conversion” – come from the same linguistic root. Engaging in genuine conversation makes us vulnerable to life-changing insights, exactly what all of us need in a society built on white supremacy. (One of those insights might link the portrayal of violence to the problem of violence, though Tarantino himself rather testily disagrees.)

At the very least Django beckons white people to consider why and how our white flesh still matters more than any other kind – and that would surely be an epiphany worthy of this peculiar season.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

43 thoughts on “Unleashing “Django Unchained”: Epiphanies for White America”

  1. Since you asked, here a few of the wide variety of reactions from the African-American community and other POC on Django: http://www.racialicious.com/?s=django

    Overall, if it had a similar effect to the one you describe on the majority of white people who saw it, then I would say it has a positive effect in spite of its weaknesses. But I do understand the concerns and upset of many POC at the issues in the movie.

    1. Racialicious seems to imply that there is no “real blackness” outside of the impacts of racism. I disagree. While any “real blackness” is the direct descendent of the Slave trade and the Middle Passage and institutionalized racism in freed lands, it does continue to exist without the need for perceived realism. It’s simple really.

      Take a diaspora of people from a continent, take from them their language, their culture, their heritage, and their homelands. Bury that cultural identity in centuries of enforced ignorance. Abuse, mistreat and discriminate against these same people on the basis of a collective skin tone. Then allow them, via struggle, to approach freedom, equality and the “American Dream”. What does the parent say to their child about “who they are, as a people”? We can’t point to a country. We are so far removed from when our ancestors arrived (and most didn’t come with paperwork that would identify even their point of departure from Africa, let alone where they were actually from). The only place we can say we are from, is here (America). Oh but we aren’t ‘Native Americans’, we are transplanted Americans who were brought here as slaves. We were brought from Africa, but where on that continent 5x the size of the US are we from? We don’t know, so we claim the whole continent and attach it to our American-ness because this land does not see us as equal and that land we do not know.

      Real blackness is a communal identity with those who share your refugee status as a result of actions that precede you, legacies too large for you to change, a point of hatred you can’t change (see Michael Jackson) and a system that is willing and able to discard you at a moment’s notice. That is what black people share because it is an experience no other can claim. It’s not a personality or a stereotype…it is a connection to provide roots to a people un-rooted in their home-land.

  2. Dr. Jay . . . please listen and/or read Tavis Smiley’s response to Django Unchained. I believe Smiley’s is the true Christian message of what we, the white privileged folks, have to learn from our African-American sisters and brothers. Forgiveness, mercy and love. But we white privilege folks (me) still are fearful that those whom we have mistreated (blacks, women, immigrants) will rally together (and buy guns) and treat us as we have treated them. But if we truly look at the message of these sisters and brothers, they have only demonstrated our brother Jesus’ message of love of the other. Let it be so.

    1. Hello Beverly, I will try to locate Tavis’ response to Django. However in the future when commenting on something where you can refer others for further information or incite on a Public figure’s point of view, please if able, leave a link.
      Thank you,

    2. That’s interesting. I have never been fearful of that (“those whom we have mistreated (blacks, women, immigrants) will rally together (and buy guns) and treat us as we have treated them”). In fact I’ve always sort of poo-pooed that anyone could feel that way, so I’m glad to come across this wonderful post and all the comments here. Is that fear very prevalent, do you believe?

  3. I’m not sure if I agree with everything you wrote in this post, but I do know that White Guilt and White Denial is still present in today’s society. I read “The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” for class recently and Douglass spends a lot of time on plantation myths. Just this morning I watched a clip from CPAC where a white man listening to an African American talk about racism and Frederick Douglass asked if when Douglass sent his old master a letter saying, “I forgive you for all you’ve done to me”, Douglass meant–and I quote–“You mean feeding him and giving him shelter?”
    Still present, still disgusting as ever.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments here! And frankly, I’m not sure that even I agree with everything I wrote in this post. I wrote it shortly after seeing the film and have since had further thoughts about it. I’m still unsure exactly what to make of it. And thanks for quoting Frederick Douglass, whose work never ceases to amaze me.

      1. He is pretty amazing, as I realized upon first reading the Narrative for class. I’mn glad that he was rediscovered after so many years of being blacklisted by libraries and readers simply for being black.

  4. First off, let me just say I am getting over my shock that you went to see such a violent movie. I am not judging at all either, I am a babe in Christ and discovering many layers to our walk. However, even as a filmmaker myself I am becoming conscious of how fiction impacts reality. How we cannot determine what folks do with our stories, after we release them (so this must be considered when creating). In other words, I am still figuring out my line as a follower of Christ needs to be…but seriously realizing there needs to be some. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I am a fan of Tarantino. Still, some of what you’ve said here I think mentally brave and realistic, something I don’t hear alot of when considering racial commentary (which this film is from what I’ve read).

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply! I honestly still do not know what to make of that film, and yes the violence was shocking. I’m also not sure what to make of any possible connection between media violence and violence on the streets. I still think on some intuitive level that a link exists, but it’s so hard to demonstrate. Figuring out what one’s faith has to do with all this is the ongoing challenge for all of us who seek to follow that path. Do chime in again with your comments!

      1. Absolutely. :))) I guess I will have to see, what I make of it too. But I know going in T is violent, it’s a bit of his style so it’s compartmentalized as fictitious going in? Still I am aware of the experience and sight of violence on the brain. It has a similar affect to repeateded porn usage. There is an excellent book that talks about how violence (viewing/partaking) affects the brain called “Children in a Violent Society.” You should have a look. It details the link in something called ‘Community Violence.’ As far as my faith and how I am to think of this, I just have to keep asking the Lord and returning to the word (I suppose). Still figuring out…alot…

  5. Writing “Trying to figure out where one sits on that spectrum is a distinct privilege for white people” is an example of white-guilt.

    Claiming ” People of color don’t have those moments of luxury, those moments when they get to pause and wonder about all the complexities of a social and political system designed to favor white people and white communities.” seems racist to me.

    Just as it is white-guilt to push white-privilege, it is racist to claim that ‘people of color’ don’t have the opportunity to reflect on the disparity and unfairness of life in a system established by whites.

    I see what you are attempting to do, but it looks like you are trapped by your hypothesis, which seems to be victim to circular logic.

    Does that mean I don’t think white people have privilege? Of course not. Does it mean I think racism is eradicated? Not at all.

    But I don’t think wallowing in white-guilt, or denying “people of color” the obvious, that they do consider this, and regularly, is productive.

    You start by writing: “White guilt won’t solve anything,” then proceed to display classic white-guilt. This post IS white-guilt.

    1. Everyone has to enter the conversation from the point in their experience where they are. It does us no good to jump on someone because they enter at a point BEFORE where you enter. They are who they are and exist where they are, don’t begrudge a person who is not so invested in the topic as you have been. White guilt is very real and very present. White denial is equally as real and moreso present. Frankly, the struggle for real equality is among those who experience “white guilt” and “white denial” far more so than those who are past those points and have the ability to see it from a non-white perspective.

      Don’t beat up those who, by their own experience, represent the vanguard of the struggle. You and yours may have been the previous vanguard but you can do as much to set the struggle backward (by alienating them) as move it forward (by assimilating them).

      As Chris Rock said, “I don’t have time to dice yall up into little groups.” I can work toward getting all white people “guilty or denial” to a mark where we can openly discuss, or I can watch our progress be mired down into a struggle between a caste system of “white people who are down” and “white people who are not”. That is not helping us, it is just advancing you on some level. Cut that shit out!

  6. Djano the character was not racist…Jamie Fox in interviews about the character WAS however. I get that a slave killing slave owning white men is worthwhile but to go on and on like he did was a bit much. EG his behavior on SNL. I’m cool with his music and his acting but that is about it.

  7. I’m always struck by how personal inspiration is. You were inspired by something in the movie…while I was unequivocally repulsed. I guess that’s a good thing, we’re fortunate to have such freedoms. My feeling was the director was using race to strike a nerve. In that sense, I think he succeeded. It’s pretty hard not to strike nerves when you look at the devastation caused by racism in the US.

    Seeing this most profound and critical moral issue glibly molested in the hands of a director who can not grasp it, saddened me beyond belief. Racism will never be hip, it
    will never be cool and trying to make it so will not make it go away.

  8. I’ve not yet seen the film; so I can’t comment on it other than hear-say..Popped in since you were on the FP line up; and I’m glad I did. Well written piece, with fair observations based on our society even today. I can appreciate anything that is well written & has sincere insight. I’ll pop by & read more on your blog when time permits…

  9. This movie was extremely violent and almost uncomfortable to watch. There were African Americans sitting next to me and it was awkward to see how they reacted to the movie. It is important to for us to see how this was a part of our history and what we can learn about it.

  10. The use of the N-word, especially amongst fellow African-Americans is definitely provocative. Though I don’t agree with it, I can’t do much being a white boy from the ‘burbs. I wrote a somewhat relevant article on hip-hop, check it out

  11. i knew this movie would make people of European inclination uncomfortable but it was a glad movie and it is a fact that these Europeans have reconciled with their dark past, if not all, most.

  12. Being part of the black community, I believe it is starting to get old hearing if we get offended or insulted by certain things. As a person, NOBODY should be put in category, it’s childish on many levels. Its kinda like any child (too many) saying, “eww green food, that must be bad.” Long story short, the MOVIE is great, the minds of the people programmed by life’s trials and tribulations not so great.

  13. It was a Tarantino movie – Tarantino makes over the top, comic book films. Spike Lee makes movies relating to social commentary. Attempting to dissect Django Unchained in terms of faith or as a reflection of society is fruitless. You did however hit the nail on the head when mentioning white guilt.White guilt is the sole reason for your musings.
    I realize my last statement may be a little unfair. This is my first visit to your blog, and you strike me as genuine, intelligent, and sincere. That said; I can’t help but get a little worked up. A true epiphany would be if white America once and for all accepted a shameful past. Tarantino’s over the top theatrics strike like a hammer because they have the ring of truth. White guilt stems from the shame of perpetuating stereotypes. We aren’t to blame for the past but take full responsibility for doing nothing to change the future. This guilt is justified and in my view has little to do with faith.

  14. I’ve been meaning to see that movie but I don’t know if I can handle watching it. As a partly white American I just feel guilty about slavery as a whole. I know that almost all African Americans have forgiven that and don’t hold our generation to that problem but I still can’t help but think about it. It is a film that will open eyes though, that’s for sure.

  15. I don’t understand why people continue to see Christianity as a religion that prefers whites over any other race. I know there are whites that have abused the Scriptures, and misinterpreted them to fit their worldviews, but Biblical Theism is about all of humanity. All of mankind needs a relationship with God. That is the epiphany of God’s Word becoming flesh (human). Christ died to restore humanity, all races of it, to Himself. Until that gross misrepresentation of the Gospel is silenced, many people will miss out on the greatest gift mankind has need of — redemption.

  16. Lets get the heck over our stubbornness to believe that racism and slavery only existed for black people. Way before black people sold their own people to be slaves in america because greed has no race issues, the chinese where enslaved as young as babies, sold to america (mainly cali) as sex slaves to be chained in a single filthy room, drugged up and raped numerous times a day leaving such psychical and emotional scars most never survived past their teens. And then before and still now NATIVE AMERICANS who in this “modern civilized country” are still, after hundreds of years of abuse and neglect,driven to the point of EXTINCTION -enslaved by the rest of americas ignorance and pushed to the back burner of american minds so history can just forget about the most TRAGIC destruction of one race by another! Every single person today is free-free to be. NO ONE should be whining about what happened to our ancestors of yesterday because each one of us has a relative from history that was tortured and enslaved some point in time!!! and all of this bickering about who has been the biggest victim of slavery and racism is f/n ridiculousness – stop whining and do something today so no one of any race has to still live in slavery tomorrow….
    P.S try being a women in this world ! no mater what color you are you’ll shut the hell up and weep for those who ARE enslaved at this very moment in time!!!! Help Them!

  17. Reading this post was very interesting to me, I am a college student (black), and I happened to see this movie.I have to say I watched this movie like any other. It seems to me that people in general are so caught up in actual racism. that they couldn’t allow them selves to truly like or dislike the movie.

    I for one did like the movie it was good to me, I honestly have to say I did not watch the movie being PRO (African-American) or having malicious thoughts about whites in particular. I feel that no human being should be treated in that way to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t make sense that people have to always (tiptoe) around topics or can’t have a opinion on something with out people accusing or demeaning them of being overly racists. Just a random thought anyways great post gave me something interesting to read =)

  18. Watching the film focused my thoughts on present slavery. I understand that it is not as brutal or visual as it was during American slavery but, it still exists. Today corporations are feasting on the unemployed with low wages and small benefit packages. Outsourced countries are still producing goods under unfavorable working conditions using underage workers to maximize production. The corporations are feeding on the unfortunate to make a profit. One again the public turns its eyes because its is socially excepted.

  19. I am white and yet I have no guilt or denial. Why should I. I did not buy into treating my fellow man as anything less then my equal. Posts of this nature are just as dangerous as out right racist chants. We should learn to take this for what it is, a poor attempt by Hollywood to UN-educate and distort our children.

  20. Hey, All! Thanks to everyone for amazing comments here! I find them challenging, hopeful, inspiring, and constructively critical. So much to think about! And please know that I’m thinking very carefully about each comment. I need time to digest. But I am very grateful that you all took time to respond here. It doesn’t just help me to grow but it furthers a vital conversation that I wish the whole country could have. Thank you.

  21. As a white man, I have never found my ‘color’ to favor me. The only time my skin color made any difference was when my room-mate was a black racist.

    Maybe some white people are born with a silver spoon …. I was not.

    There are more ‘whites’ on welfare than there are black people on welfare. The difference is not in ‘color,’ but in opportunity. If you are poor, the chance you will be able to succeed is much less than if you are middle class or above. IMHO.

    As for the movie, I am way over my profanity quota for the year.


  22. Reading this, and other Django, reviews reminds me of an incident on my commute…
    I’m chuckling over Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the woman opposite me asks if it is a good read. I reply that I’m enjoying it immensely. And I pause and think of her, a black woman, a bit and have to follow up with “of course I’m not black & it is about slavery”.

  23. First off, I think “Django” was a great movie. All this racist stuff needs to stop; it’s just a movie. True in a lot ways it was a lot like that back then. But we need to put it all behind us and remember that it is just a movie. We need to just relax and enjoy it and laugh. Honestly it was a it was hilarious in some parts of the movie. If you say it wasn’t your lying.

  24. There is nothing any human alive today can do to change history. What ALL people need to do is move forward in love for one another and stop being so upset about history. The power to change is within each individual. No one should feel guilty unless it is guilt from something one actually did to another. And if a person has guilt from something they did to another, their heart should lead them to make it right between thee and thou person harmed. None of this stuff is new under the sun. All need to learn the art of SELF ACCOUNTABILITY. The reality of all the racism, war hoopla, and whatever else is going on wrong in the world is that whether you believe in God or not, each individual will answer to Him in the end. Now that’s satisfaction! That’s just my opinion. To de lars!
    Movies are movies, made to jangle the jingle out of your pockets.

  25. I have a problem with Tarantino’s cinematics. But I agree that we all need to have an honest and open dialogue about racism in this country. It is my belief that, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing – to be accepted, respected and treated as human beings and equals. It’s really not that hard, but we need God’s grace to lead us to repentance and transformation.

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