By Contributor on February 25, 2013

I'm glad "Django Unchained" won best original screenplay at the Oscars.

For months, I avoided "Django Unchained," assuming that it would be another big picture history lesson, a sober and handwringing treatment of slavery, like "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which I teach at the University of Vermont.

But "Django" doesn't contain solutions to the problem of how we represent this shameful period in American's past as much as it poses a question: Can a story about slavery also be a story about style?

When Django is unchained in the opening scene in the movie, he walks away from the links and throws off the blanket that had been covering his shoulders. Then, we see his back. Crisscrossed with the scars of the lash, Django's back is an iconic back; it is a "Roots" back. It resembles the back of Peter, a slave turned Union Army soldier, whose scarred back was featured in a photograph that was widely distributed in the North during the Civil War to attest to the frankest and most irreducible truth of slavery.

Like Peter the Slave, Django's scarred back is an image that needs no accompanying words in order to inspire our shame, rage and disgust. The only thing is, through Tarantino's lens (and with an accompanying "whoosh" as the blanket falls from Django's shoulders), that back is a sexy back, too.

I hadn't expected to enjoy "Django Unchained" but I did, notwithstanding two brutally graphic scenes that didn't get easier on second viewing.

I was riveted by the exquisitely diabolical performances of Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio, and I rooted, without cynicism, for Jamie Foxx's Django to save Kerry Washington's Broomhilda and burn down the master's house. But the image I continue to think about is the image of Django's back, and Tarantino's quiet but powerful cinematic revisiting of the symbol of the slave's scarred back as the purest and most authentic story about slavery.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Roots" were composed to testify both to the horrors of slavery and to the irrepressible spirit of black people. The circumstances that produced "Django Unchained" are hardly as urgent as they were in Harriet Beecher Stowe's America.

But Tarantino's film exists because slavery is still the most compelling, troubling, and vexing story America has to tell. And "Django Unchained" is fresh because it reveals how much of the heart of the story resides, even today, in the style of the telling.

Emily Bernard is associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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