As modern technology increases and evolves within the U.S., old traditions such as reading literature have begun to fade. As screens take over our lives, people are less inclined to pick up a book and read for pleasure or learning. This is not to say that reading has become obsolete, but it is becoming more and more evident that young Americans would much rather watch a movie, a television show, or a documentary than read a book. Despite the fact that people may not read as often as they used to, the movies and shows that they watch now are still based upon written works: the screenplays. Writers can still present knowledge, allegory, themes, and ideas in their work and attract a wide audience through live action film. For instance, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained deals with themes such as slavery and abolitionism much like early American works of literature such as The Heroic Slave.
In the U.S. today, it seems as if practically every household has access to the internet. The internet has an infinite supply of sources which makes gaining information so much easier than it was in the eighteen-hundreds when The Heroic Slave was written. In that time, not everyone was literate and therefore many people were unable to educate themselves. Books were a luxury; not every household had the means to worry about building their personal library. The Heroic Slave was written with the intent to shed light on slavery from the perspective of a slave who was a human with thoughts, emotions, and good morals. It was to show that slaves weren’t just livestock or property, but that they were people who deserved their freedom. In fact, the novel opens up with a soliloquy as the protagonist laments over the fact that a snake is born with more freedom than himself, “here I am, a man—yes, a man! —with thoughts and wishes, with powers and faculties as far as angel’s flight above that hated reptile, yet he is my superior” (5). The novel, however, could only reach a limited audience because racism was far more prominent; people were much less likely to pick up a book written by a black author, and a large portion of the populace was illiterate leaving them unable to read at all. Education in America has immensely improved throughout the centuries and although most people can read, it is not a favored pastime. That is why a movie like Django is able to capture such a large audience in which it can pass on similar motifs and themes as The Heroic Slave. The entire film is available on YouTube for free, meaning that any person with access to the internet is able to view it; the movie already has 1.5 million views on YouTube and was only published on the site eight months ago.
Django Unchained is directed by the notorious Tarantino, who is famous for his gore-filled thrillers. Tarantino has had a very successful career in the film industry and has produced many cult-classics such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. The popularity of these films shows how well gory films are received by an American audience. Violence sells. By combining elements of the classic spaghetti western with his own directorial flare, and America’s history with slavery, Tarantino creates an adaptation of classic slave literature in order to make a statement on America’s cruel past while simultaneously attracting a wide audience. While slavery has been abolished for centuries, it has seared some long-lasting effects into American society. Django Unchained reminds America of its horrid past with slavery as it follows Django on his journey to rescue his wife.
While Django Unchained is far more violent and vulgar than Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave, the plotline still bears many similarities with Douglass’s novel. Both protagonists gain their freedom by escaping, both protagonists have the help of a white companion, and both protagonists risk their lives and their freedom in order to rescue their wives who are still enslaved. In The Heroic Slave, Madison encounters Mr. Listwell, a white abolitionist who aids him in his slave rebellion by supplying him with files to pick the locks on his shackles. Django meets a German man named Dr. Schultz who happens to be a bounty hunter that kills white criminals. Dr. Schultz does not agree with slavery and sees Django as what he truly is: another human being. Dr. Schultz actually frees Django when he kills the slave traders that had him in their captivity. He enlists Django as his partner and the two travel throughout the south. Django eventually trusts Dr. Schultz enough to tell him about his wife, Brunhilda, and Schultz agrees to help him rescue her from slavery. The scene where Django tells of Brunhilda is very reminiscent of Madison telling Mr. Listwell about his attempt to save his wife, “I could not bear the thought of leaving her in the cruel jaws of slavery, without making an effort to rescue her” (36). Both characters’ freedom means nothing to them while their lives are still enslaved.
One of the main differences between Django and The Heroic Slave is the bloody twist, as it is an action movie directed by Tarantino. When Django becomes a bounty hunter, he soon realizes that he is a skilled sharpshooter. He is able to draw his gun in a flash and shoot with precise accuracy. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Django takes pride in this skill and actually enjoys slaughtering white men. Though they are killing lawfully (they only kill criminals who are wanted dead or alive) it seems as though Django is also killing for revenge. He enjoys taking out the racist white people who tortured him as a slave. Madison, on the other hand, strictly made it a point not to kill for revenge during his slave rebellion, “God is my witness that liberty, not malice, is the motive for this night’s work… we do not thirst for your blood, we demand only our rightful freedom” (48-49). Many of Tarantino’s other films focus on revenge as a theme, such as Kill Bill. A mission of revenge is something people like to watch on the big screen, and while Django’s thirst for revenge is a character flaw, it is that mission of revenge that the American audience is attracted to.
Today we are able to gain knowledge in so many different forms through technology. For example, the online anthology used in Rethinking American Literature makes obtaining required texts much easier for students. Many students are on a tight budget and any text the students can use online for free helps immensely. Many other sources beyond books can help spread knowledge as well; almost any film or documentary is out on the internet somewhere ready to be downloaded or streamed. YouTube is a favored tool of both students and teachers alike as it has many contributors producing educational content as well as pop culture. As technology advances, students have access to a plethora of sources that can enhance their learning experience in any field of study.
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