A Different Kind of Revenge Film

Writing over at Mother Jones, Adam Serwer makes a smart point about ethnic revenge flicks like Inglorious Basterds and the forthcoming Django Unchained. “The true “revenge” of Inglorious Basterds,” Adam writes, “is in the banishment of a particular stereotype, the idea of the weak, fearful Jew who goes helplessly into the ovens.”

The problem with Django Unchained is that African Americans have never had a problem with being portrayed as aggressive and prone to violence. Indeed, that’s the stereotype we’ve worked to reject. As Adam notes, “[A] film in which a slave kills his masters may vicariously avenge a historical injustice, but it lacks the catharsis of defying the accepted narrative that narrowly limits what being black is supposed to mean.” In his eyes, a real black revenge story isn’t Django Unchained, it’s The Cosby Show.

I don’t disagree! But I think Adam is a little too neat in dismissing the value of a film like Django Unchained could have in subverting other expectations. The thing about Nazis is that they’re the usual sortof villains – few people sympathize with them, and even fewer people see their legacy as something worthwhile. No one likes them, and so it’s easy to kill them en masse. The same isn’t true of antebellum and Civil War-era America. With few exceptions, Confederates are glorified in Hollywood – either as the honorable losers of a war, or as vengence-seeking crusaders. It’s a variation on the Lost Cause mythology – slavery plays only a bit part in most popular depictions of the Confederacy, and Confederates are almost always portrayed as tragic figures.

If Tarantino produces a movie in which evil Confederates (or their forbearers) are viciously murdered by vengeful slaves, it will be a radical departure from how this period is normally portrayed. Whether that would appeal to black audiences is an open question, but there’s no doubt that it would shock and surprise a lot of people.