D’Jango is basically a morality film. Intrinsic to its plot, ‘Mandingo Fighting’ is portrayed as an historical fact, complete with buyers and sellers of slaves forced to fight to the death for the entertainment and betting ‘sport’ of white folk, i.e., a human version of cockfighting. To that end, D’Jango’s writer/director (Quentin Tarantino) invites us to watch a fight scene that has us cringe even though we know it is staged.
Critics of the film elaborately focus their attention on whether or not Mandingo fighting actually existed as a sport. Not mentioned in their reviews but of greater interest to me is the way the Mandingo fighting scene is choreographed. Two men, purporting to be in the market for a Mandingo fighting slave, deal with a slave owner while a fight to the death is in progress. Their demeanor is similar to that of businessmen at a restaurant discussing a deal while a piano is played in the background. The scene is craftily played as though goods were being traded, not human beings.
Of course routine slave trafficking is amply documented, but the alleged practice of Mandingo fighting is a fiction despite Tarantino’s claim to the contrary. Countering his baseless claim, critics point out that slave owners obviously would not waste their best and strongest slaves on fights to the death because that would be bad economics. Others avidly search for any scrap of evidence that might prove the practice existed, as though slavery requires one more example of its profound evil. But there are no records to support the claim that Mandingo fighting ever existed. Unfortunately, that does not mean that there is a lack of documentation for the inhumanity of slavery that is equal to or far surpasses alleged Mandingo fighting.
Yet, even though we are not shocked by dozens of gladiatorial scenes that we know took place in ancient Rome, the D’Jango (Unchained) Mandingo fighting scene does shock us beyond the element of violence. That is partly because of a societal phenomenon. After many years of painful contemplation and film images of slavery in America, the real and well-documented specifics of slavery have faded into an almost abstract realm of “social consciousness.” D’Jango needed a fresh atrocity to rekindle our visceral loathing of slavery. What better than forced mortal combat in nineteenth-century America? Of course! But the tactic is a lie.
Had Tarantino designed the plot for D’Jango so that the forced Mandingo fight was presented as only one individual’s sadistic fetish-a concept totally consistent with the arch villain’s character-he would have achieved his overall goals for the narrative without meddling with historic truth.
I firmly believe that writers have a responsibility to present truth as they know it when they choose to write morality films whatever the style of the piece may be. Deception is not an ethical option. Being both the writer and director of D’Jango, Tarantino was in an ideal position to design the plot of D’Jango so that there would be no question about Mandingo fighting.
He dodged his responsibility.