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This week in our Images Shaping History blog series, Resident Blogger Marilyn Hernandez takes a critical look at historical fiction movies. Her conversation asks important questions about the influence of films and the power of historical representations.

What do you think about historical fiction and Django Unchained?

Please comment below or discuss with us on .


Marilyn Hernandez

Marilyn Hernandez

Epic drama—otherwise known as period pieces—has always been one of my favorite film genres. All together the elaborate costumes, extravagant sets, and the overall historical pageantry create an allure of the past. Being transported to a particular era can be very seductive to audiences.

With the Oscars around the corner and with many of the nominated films being historical, I cannot help but ask: Do epic films help or hurt the entity of history?

An example of an Epic film: Gone with the Wind (1939) {Click on image for source information.}

In a historical sense, films give those who do not study history intensively an insight into a time period. I believe the function of fiction is to facilitate an understanding of the human condition. Blending the two worlds—history & fiction—can be a daunting task for filmmakers and as a result a movie can easily turn into the world of alternative history.

Let me discuss one such film that was nominated this Oscar season, Django Unchained.

Django Unchained was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film is set during the antebellum era in both the Deep South and also the Old West. At its core, the film is about a freed slaved who, with the help of a bounty hunter, tries to rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation. In true Tarantino fashion, the film is heavy with violence—with hints of humor.

The film’s gory violence, racial epithets, and clear fondness of excess (all characteristic of Tarnantino’s filmmaking style) put me in an conundrum while internalizing this film. One part of me enjoyed the excess and special effects, but the historian in me kept shouting in my head: “This isn’t completely correct! This is pure entertainment!”

Yes, going into a Tarantino film and expecting it to be a lesson in history is a little far fetched. However, I do respect the colorful representation of the era when it comes to the depiction of the brutality of slavery. In one scene a slave is eaten alive by dogs, clearly an effective and dramatic way to manipulate the audience’s emotions. This type of visual imagery creates an attachment to the social plight of the era, which is a powerful tactic in connecting to history.

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained {Click on image for source information.}

I believe that films can be utilized as weapons; every image becomes a bullet that shoots right through the mind, engraving a particular image. The image that Tarantino sculpts as wildly entertaining is obviously not historically accurate.

I keep asking myself, “Do fictional narratives hinder or hurt history?”

Christoph Waltz, who won a Golden Globe for his performance as the bounty hunter in the film Django Unchained, discusses this idea in more detail:

Waltz discusses the relationship between history and fiction @ 1:28:

Fiction is important. It does open up possibilities and causes audiences to question the ‘what ifs’ of the past. Many of my family members and friends who have seen the film have asked me, “Why didn’t the slaves just rise up?” This is a question that was also posed by Calvin Candie—the character in the film played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Perhaps this is a seed that Tarantino plants in the audience. Examining reactions to the movie is one way we can come to understand how the audience views entertainment and history.

The Audience Reaction

The social phenomenon known as twitter is a perfect place to see this popular culture discussion. Spike Lee, who is not too fond of the film, takes to twitter to show his discontent with the film:

Spike Lee Twitter

Spike Lee’s Twitter Status {Click on image for source information.}

In this twitter conversation, a tweeter tells Lee that he was overacting and it was just a movie.

This is Lee’s response to the dismissive tweet:

“Wrong. Birth Of A Nation Got Black Folks Lynched [sic]. Media Is Powerful. DON’T SLEEP. WAKE UP YO.”

DW Griffiths’ poster for his film The Birth of a Nation shows a glorification of the KKK and brutal images of African-Americans. {Click on image for source information.}

Media is a powerful force. The power of film shapes how we view our shared human history. We cannot deny that films are a source of how we interact with history. And, not every filmmaker will regard the element of historical accuracy as the main objective in her or his creative process, yet elaborate fictional displays of history play into popular culture.

I am not saying that Django is either a horrible film or a film that illustrates the historical accuracy of slavery. I do, however, believe that fictional projections about history open conversations about the past and anything that connects people actively with history is okay in my book.

With that said, lets get our conversation started!

I ask you:

Is historical fiction is an effective way to internalize history?

Do entertaining movies help or hurt the conversations from a particular era?

At what point does artistic license supersede the balance between creative output and history?

Until Next Time,


Read Marilyn’s Previous Blog Post: Grit, Grit, & More Grit: A Take on the Immigration Experience in Film


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Cecilia Portillo

Cecilia Portillo





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