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Bringing My Family’s History Into Focus Through The Lens Of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’

Bringing My Family's History Into Focus Through The Lens Of Quentin Tarantino's 'Django Unchained'

I was initially hesitant to post this, because we’ve beaten this Django Unchained thing to death already! We’ve stripped it, dissected it, criticized it, shamed it, praised and even exalted it! We’ve done it all (almost) at this point.

And as Reginald Hudlin (one of the film’s producers) noted in response to an item I posted on Facebook last night, the film hasn’t even been out for a full week yet!

But we’ve been on it since it was announced last year, so, I suppose, from my POV, we’ve definitely milked it dry, from almost every possible position.

One thing I will say is that, in case you didn’t already know, black people aren’t exactly a monolith – although some have and continue to believe that we all think, feel, appreciate, and consume the exact same way. We could say that the diversity in reactions to this polarizing film, represents the diversity in our experiences and ways of thinking. It might sound silly for me to even have to say that, but you’ll be surprised by what others think they know or don’t know about the so-called “black experience.”

And with that, I’ll say that this should be the very last Django Unchained post on S&A – at least for a long while (unless, of course, something significant happens that demands we report it; like Sergio’s weekly Sunday box office report, for example, as the film enters its first weekend in release).

As I said, I initially hesitated to post, but I thought this was a POV worth sharing, regardless of your stance on the film. I’m sure it’ll elicit some reactions.

In short, actress Daniele Watts (photo above) who plays Coco (Calvin Candie’s – Leonardo DiCaprio’s – doting servant) in Django Unchained, sent us this essay she penned, which discusses her experiences working on the film, as well as the discovery she made while researching for her role – that her great-grandfather was a white man – and how the cumulative effect of her role in the film, her research and discovery, impacted her.

I’ll stop talking now and let you read the essay Daniele sent us, which is embedded below:

Bringing My Family’s History into Focus through the Lens of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

It was a hot, rainy New Orleans night…the kind of humid where you can feel the history hanging in the air; spirits occasionally wafting in through the windows – or they would have if I had windows that could open. I was on the 7th floor of the crew hotel, and though my quarters lacked the lavish balconies of the A-list talent, I was thrilled to have the chance to spend my days acting opposite Oscar nominated heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio – the first icon to ever grace the walls of my childhood bedroom. We were steeping ourselves in the old south, his character to play: Calvin Candie – the heir to a large cotton plantation, and I, Coco, his doting servant, kept like a pet in a cupcake-like French-maid outfit.

I’ve always loved the research that goes into creating characters who lived in the past. My father led the way, enchanting the wide-eyed little girl version of me with awe inspiring stories of his growing up poor in Los Angeles, with nine brothers and sisters, sniffing glue and stealing bikes to survive the 1960s Watts Riots. Staying true to the overachiever I’d been reared to be, my Jamaican mother’s words echoing in my ears, “black people in this country have to work twice as hard to get what white people get,” and backed by a sincere desire to contribute both to my acclaimed scene partners, and our much lauded director, Quentin Tarantino; I found myself researching my family genealogy on that lightning filled night in New Orleans. My surroundings transformed by my imagination and the excitement of the historical moment, from a modest hotel room into a mystical excavation site!

I was following a lead my father had admonished a few months prior. Something about our families’ connection to a white man – a Mississippi legend – Newton Knight; “It’s important for you to know about this stuff – it goes way the heck deeper than you think!” He was enthusiastic as usual when it came to telling me stories, but at the moment, the grown-up version of Daniele was oh-too-gleefully distracted by the sugarcoated frivolities flashing on the Christmas saturated television screen to pay attention.

Now in New Orleans, wishing I had listened, I was searching voraciously for any information that would give me something interesting to talk about on set the next day. I began Googling my supposed distant relative, Newton Knight. Expecting a tedious hunt for a mundane historical figure, my jaw began to drop as I immediately found pages, upon pages of Google hits – for a man to whom I soon became very anxious to see how closely I was related.

Captain Knight is described as having pale blue eyes fixed in an “eagle-like gaze”, with long white hair that hung around his shoulders. A backwoodsman, Mississippian, who in 1862 “walked off in disgust” from his Confederate army unit, and came home to form a band of renegades that, like “swamp-foxes,” defied capture. He is mythologized as a figure, sanguine as Robin Hood, who fought to keep Jones County Mississippi free from the oppression of the confederate troops – or what he called “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight. In Knight, I found a white man who was anti-slavery, freed his black lover, Rachel, and formed a collaboration with her that forever changed the face of Jones County history. She helped with supplies and food, and may have played a pivotal role in his band’s ability to evade Confederate troops in the dark swamps of Mississippi’s Piney Woods. And when it came time for them to die, he left instructions for her to be buried next to him – at a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to be buried in the same cemetery. I found that I was related to a controversial figure who honored his mixed race children, and unlike most “tragic mulattoes” of the time, gave them his last name – Knight, providing for them “as though they were white”. Dozens of books and articles have been written – including a major motion film, Tap Roots, directed by George Marshall, former President of the Screen Directors Guild – honoring his legacy (Research Courtesy of Free State of Jones, by Victoria Bynum; Introduction to Tap Roots, by James H Street; and, by Bill Minor).

In my hotel room that night, this man took the form of a spirit flying in the face of all my unchallenged subconscious assumptions that if I had any ‘white in me,’ it must be because one of my grandmothers was raped by an ‘evil plantation master’ hundreds of years ago. This white man was actually showing up on my computer screen as a hero; a caretaker who set up his black lover with a house of her own, and unlike many white men of the time who were keeping “open secrets,” he did not hide their relationship – despite the discomforting ripples this created for local residents both black and white. How is it, that in all these years, I never knew that I was the descendant of two verifiable legends? Up until that point I had just assumed I was the descendant of slaves, not exactly something to brag about! I experienced a strange moment of awakening that night when I began to realize that I am the product of a fascinating legacy.

In an effort to make the myth more real for myself, I imagined my own grandfather, who was always calling me “little miss star,” looking up to this white man, his mother’s father, and calling him “Grandpa”. Indeed! This legendary figure was actually my great-grandfather! What magical synchronicity, and a testament to the transformational power of the arts that I experienced this life changing revelation because of my love for movies – which are nothing more than a grand exercise in make-believe! The call to artistic expression was prompting me to use my imagination and intellegence to understand myself, and where I come from, more deeply. That understanding allowed me to express myself as Coco, a slave girl who feels something close to love because of the attention she receives from a charming, ruthlessly violent, white man. I wondered how my grandmother Rachel must have felt to be cared for by one of the most powerful white men in all of Mississippi.

Now that I’d found such a juicy connection to real history, it became even more exciting to understand Django Unchained as it relates to the America we live in today. I looked at the evolution of black Americans, from the more community-focused ancestors in Africa, to the combative conditioning reflected in the words of the “Willie Lynch letter: Making of a Slave.” I considered the subsequent black on black conflict caused by the creation of the “Uncle Tom” archetype – or someone like the character Samuel Jackson plays – a black person benefitting over other black people because of their relationship with “the white man.” My own grandmother Rachel, and the fictional character of Coco, are not far from that archetype. I reflected on my own life, and the somewhat uncomfortable knowledge that I have been treated more graciously, because of an easier assimilation into so called ‘whiteness,’ than black folk who have not had it as easy. The words of Calvin Candie and his assessment of “the exceptional nigger” began to ring hauntingly in my head. It feels a bit disgusting to even admit this, but it is cathartic to know there is now an international piece of cinema that examines these ideas without getting trapped in the tired ‘poor me,’ victim version of the story. This knowledge helps me to have faith in the possibility that black folk and white folk can come together to release these limiting beliefs, and even laugh at ourselves a little in the process. When I listen to the resounding theme evident throughout Django Unchained, I am inspired by human beings who continued to pursue love even as they walked the dirty road of survival.

These ideas initially energized me and I was eager to share an inspiring story of the love between my grandfather and grandmother – two heroes who, against all odds, found love in the midst of oppression. But as I dug deeper, I realized there was also a dark side to my grandparent’s legend. Some accounts say that Newton was an imposing figure who would kill people just because he didn’t like them. Other accounts say that he ran his home in a harem-like fashion, having sexual relationships with his own daughter, George Ann; and his white wife, Serena. And as for Serena, wasn’t she publically degraded her husband’s relationships with other lovers? Was my great-grandfather an emancipator, a chauvinist, a lover of black women, or nothing more than a rapist? And was my great-grandmother, a progressive abolitionist who looked past Newt’s whiteness, and saw a compassionate human being, or was she merely taking advantage of the attention she was recieving from “the white man?” The more research I did, the muddier the story became.

Would it be shortsighted for me to describe my grandfather as a hero when his legacy is a bit questionable? And if its possible that I am a descendant of a morally ambiguous past, then isn’t it also probable that we all are; not just the oversimplified hero stories we’ve been digesting of the honorable founding fathers or the struggling, god fearing slaves? Though these may seem like obvious questions, I find it interesting that most films about this era of American history tend to gloss over the more gritty and revealing possibilities – but not Django!

The films drops us off on the dark side of American capitalism, and casts one of the most charming movie stars in the world as the source of our oppression. Even though Mr Dicaprio is on the record as saying he didn’t identify with his character, I believe that his performance speaks to the role that the ancient Shamen played in restoring balance to a community in need of healing. He channels and exorcises dark spirits, from such an authentic place, that we can see a part of ourselves even in that darkness. During the three weeks I spent with Dicaprio, as Calvin Candie and Coco, his character became a window for me to understand why people do the ‘unimaginable’. There was always a gleam of humor behind his eyes – a genuine feeling that he was present to the experience. The love and attention that he brought to the role shone a light for me on the power of storytelling.

His performance calls out to a country that is afraid to look closely at its shadow – or the darkest parts of our history. Through close attention, I was able to trace the evolution of this shadow, and try to understand the root of the unbalance. Now instead of Calvin Candie’s slaves, mint juleps, and cotton plantations; we have credit cards, cable tv, and The Tea Party advocating for adherence to the Constitution – a document written by people who benefitted economically from their belief that black people were less than human! Instead of distracting myself with material pacifiers, I was faced with the challenge of being present – Mr. Tarantino didin’t allow for the distraction of cell phones on set – which forced me to look deeper, and experience a life-opening realization as a result. I began to see that I have the choice of dismissing America’s history as morally incomprehensible – and thus our current state, and certain factions of white and black America, a bizarre and shameful continuation of that – or I can use my empathy and sense of humor to accept ‘the other,’ and understand more fully why these unbalanced dynamics continue to exist.

There is a West African word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the movie; “Sankofa” – which essentially means that one must go through the past to move forward. In this context, I appreciate the clarity that I’ve gained from my subsequent research. My curiousity took me beyond slavery to rediscover a young America that rebelled against its parent country, and in trying to prove its independence from Great Britain, developed its identity through material wealth – the verifiable bragging rights of success. I can recognize how the institution of slavery was born of this materialistic competition, and why the slaves to this society have developed self-concepts based on their own pursuit or denial of material independence. The psychological conditioning of American slave times has set off a chain of events pushing an entire country, both black and white, into a competitive modality.

When I finally attended the cast and crew screening, after months of these ideas marinating in my subconscious, it was thrilling to experience a film that activates history on so many levels! It was also the most brilliant artistic reflection of the scope of American violence that I’ve ever seen in a film; evoking fascinating shades of grey, or ethical ambiguity, which is often sidestepped when movies are pandering, and easy to swallow. The film takes us through the volcanic emotional arch of what happens to a ‘dream deferred.’ And in the carefully placed juxtoposition of hard hitting rap music against scenes of retribution, the film draws parallels to how the dark side of the America dream has found a voice in the ‘any means necessary’ mentality of urban gangs and today’s power hungry hip-hop. I found myself enraptured by Django for the same reasons that I was attracted to my father’s stories of the Watts riots; Instead of encouraging an impulse to do something violent, it gave me a deep feeling of release – even celebration – to have my feelings acknowledged through a masterful story.

As uncomfortable as this journey has been at times, I now see the value of tracing through these unexamined parts of my heritage. The violent acts that America has perpetrated against black people, and people of all colors, will continue to show up as self-imposed mental slavery unless we dig deep and unchain ourselves. It’s been exactly a year since my father first told me about our connection to Newton Knight. And now rather than dismissing history with ignorant assumptions – which inevitably left me as the victim of an ‘evil’ past, I have gained wisdom through this process of activating my empathy for America’s history. I believe that when we can accept this country’s messy tale, and find a way to accept our part in that mess, rather than judge ‘them’ – ‘the other,’ we are one step closer to being free of the hold this history of hate and oppression may have on us. Now, I feel empowered by the understanding that I have a choice of what story I want to tell myself.

More than anything, I am releasing the part of myself that has to choose a side. I’m finding myself learning from other cultures – of the ancient Chinese symbol for unity, the yin-yang; of the Indian goddess Siva, who represents the balance of creation and destruction – and finding hope in these beautiful metaphors for the light and dark extremes of human nature which alchemize to create our experience of life! Life happens; its complex and mysterious, and those contradictions find their way into our family histories. It takes brave artists, like Quentin Tarantino, and challenging works of art like Django Unchained to help us see this in ourselves … so we can use that clarity to create a new history, together… one that we can all feel proud of.

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I am just now coming back here to this post. Look last you can fool your self if you want with this we are the world type piece bit your righting betrays your mind set. You chose to honor and praise a set of your lineage who took advantage of their status at the time while completely ignoring the the effects this would have on the blacks around them. Instead of critically looking at it you want to frame it as love. If you know anything about love you would know that the one in love is the one who will be oppressed it is the one who chooses to stay in the status quo and makes every excuse for their oppressors. Freedom comes from removing loving your self above all others and removing your oppressors foot from your neck and demanding respect. MLK loved his proletariat first that was his motivation, Bob sang song about Africa not Europe, and the Lama surely isn't that love with China if he it means Tibet stays in Chains. But that's not what was repulsive about your piece what was disgusting was your attempt to use this love as a way to sell an action movie. AN ACTION MOVIE. You tried to hood wink us into seeing a movie (one which would have been seen anyway) as some kind of ground breaking racial bridge in the age of a black president and the internet. A bloody revenge flick that did nothing to examine the deep underbelly of slavery and the psychology of its effects on every one it touched. It was a very well done superficial action movie. I will say this DANIELE WATTS the issue here is love and how you and your ancestors have a habit of using it against others.

SoSo, MS- Knight


I humbly appreciate this article. Excellent writing! I too am a descendant of Newt Knight and the Jones County (Soso) Knight Family. In such as small town, many are cross relatives. I would love to correspond with you. There will be a Knight Family Reunion in July 2013.


I am sincerely humbled and thankful to Shadow And Act for hosting this discussion. I have been following the comments and discussion surround the post, and it has weighed heavily on my heart. I deeply appreciate everyone who has participated… and to those who were disturbed by my regard for my white ancestry, and my description of slavery as “not exactly something to brag about,” I've included a response on my Facebook: …I speak to your comments, not to defend my perspective, but in hopes of continuing the conversation in a positive way… I would have posted the entire response here, but there was not enough space for my thoughts and feelings. Thank you again for listening.

With Love,
Daniele Watts


The man in question is her grandfather's grandfather, correct? The woman in question is her grandfather's grandmother, correct? This would make them her 2nd great-grandparents (her great-great grandparents, two people in a generation of sixteen). I have no idea why the author keeps referring to these people interchangeably as her grandparents and great-grandparents. They are not. But I'm not exactly surprised that someone who believes being the descendant of slaves is "not exactly something to brag about" would try to make herself seem closer to a white ancestor.


I remember her from that short film, 'There's Something Strange About My Johnson'. She's really moving up, profile-wise. That 'Johnson' film should no doubt make Tambay's list of top posts in 2012. That was a good one.

Agent K

White Man on the Brain disease. The cure is simple people.


@NAMI That's a very good and interesting post from you.
Only this year, my family did the DNA test to trace our African ancestry. My maternal side was from a specific people in Cameroon, Africa. My paternal side was Gabon, Africa. My family was practially in tears upon learning this.
Then we went into the recently released 1940 Census files. Because of slavery, we are still working on our maternal side trying to trace before the Civil War. On the paternal side we were much more successful. My great, great grand father and great great great grand father were both White, and both were "married" to mulatto women–my greats grandmothers. According to the Census, they lived in the same household with their children.
I don't feel any less the descendant of slaves than I did before. Somewhere along that paternal line, there was rape.
I have no plans of seeing Django. I'm not impressed at all.

Lestine Rolle

What can I say? I have no words, excellent, excellent piece.


It was very brave of her to expose her ignorance but she still has a ways to go to fully rectify it. To a certain extent, it reminds me of the local whites here who like to paint their confederate predecessors in a better light – mostly to feel better about themselves.

Deborah Goodwin

Does Shadow and Act not edit opinion and
POV pieces because you're short handed?
I'd be happy to volunteer. Following you all respectfully.
D. Goodwin


As FutureDiplomat said:
"I enjoyed reading her essay, but did not like her phrasing here: "Up until that point I had just assumed I was the descendant of slaves, not exactly something to brag about!"

So, now she has found pride in knowing that her ancestry includes members of 'the winning' party in slavery. It's sad that these people are role models.

Danielle, honey, do yourself a favor and take up some history books on African resistance – and do not limit yourself to the USA alone. Information abound on how your people kicked ass in Africa, the Caribbean and South America.

Tonton Michel

I was all hypes to sew this movie till I read this over saturated love letter to white people, talk about overkill. I could barely stomach her cooing over the history of her white Knight ancestor and concubine wife. I am impressed she has time enough remove her lips from "Mr. DiCaprio's" butt long enough to write this. Yeah they cas the right one to play Coco no doubt. Its this romanticized mentality of black people when it comes to white people is what keeps under thumb. Great grandma was the side piece of a criminal and this movie is not a ground breaking piece of cinema that will change the face of race relations. I'm about to bootleg the hell out of this moivie


I agree with futurediplomat. It is the problem with Black people on a large scale across the globe. We are never truly proud of us collectively.

That's really how colonization happened and American slavery. They came to Africa with pants, long sleeve blouses, Christianity and tins of snuff and coffee and some of us thought it was better than what we had. The ones who refused to think of it that way were taken at gun point or yes, given as prisoners of war from rival villages. From the weave wearing/bleaching in West Africa, to the African-Americans who still get offended when you tell them they are African because they are descendants of African slaves who were brought over, the collective problem is we are ashamed of us.

Now, it doesn't help that someone came to our home (Africa) and told us the way we were living wasn't good enough (huts vs stone houses); or that what we were wearing wasn't good enough (natural fibers, not needing a lot of clothing in the hot sun and not feeling over-sexualized because we were mostly nude vs overbearingly long dresses and headwraps (are headwraps really African? Research that.); Or how we looked wasn't good enough (contrary to popular belief, African women didn't traditionally skin their heads – that was introduced by colonizers who didn't like seeing our large elaborate hairstyles or hair high off our head which to them seemed unkempt and "wild"…even though we were fine with it and the way God made it). Or what we ate wasn't real food (though now it seems the whole world is trying to eat how Africans always ate 100+ years ago and still do – think it's called Organic and Paleo now). And they didn't do it out of the kindness of their Christian hearts, they did it because they wanted more fertile land that was abundant with resources to syphon for their own people. We welcomed them out of kindness and mutual benefit until, but just like Texas' takeover, we got duped and it was too late. Educated as we are, why are we so afraid to state the obvious?

The line in Django about why didn't we ever fight back…. we did, we tried for the most part. Not saying there weren't some who stuck to the White side for materialistic benifit during the buddings of capitalism but if you resisted, you were killed. And really, not many people want to die for a cause, if they can live, have their next meal and see their loved ones, even if it means they have to wake up and pick cotton in the morning. No one likes abuse but some learn to live with it. Others would rather die or die trying to escape and MANY did do that.

Regarding discovering her families legacy. So what if your great-grandddaddy was white. My great-great-grand daddy was White. Open secret. When you're family name is the same as one of the main streets in a Southern town, it's not hard to figure. But I learned that just from oral history and listening to older Aunts, Uncles and cousins – before google. I don't know about a love story but I know my White great-great-grand daddy gave my great grandmother a lot of stuff…land, property, etc. Why did it take Django for Daniele to even want to know that – about all her past? And are there a lot of other African-Americans out there who don't know (and don't care to know) or find out their families history up to the 1st landing because they feel ashamed? That is the real problem. Shame. And though that shame was initially put on us by White people (and still to some extent as their image/standards are constantly glorified and I do think we frighten them because our skin and stature is so different and I get the feeling to them it's overpowering and what you fear you hate – and other colonized races (Indians, Asians) were taught to hate what they hated….but I digress). No one can "make" you feel ashamed unless you let them. At least not for 200 years. At least not from the 1600s all the way until 2012. You've got to already think something is wrong with you.

So, I am sorry. I can't vibe off of the whole "look at me, I am so proud and fascinated about my heritage because of Django Unchained – what a great thing this Django is" line. I think it's sad that most Black people on the Earth know more about the history of the Americas and Europe than they do Africa. Like knowing it, reasearching African history labels you as angry. What is wrong with just knowing without being angry? Torturous things have happended to a lot of races and ethinic groups – it never stopped them from knowing or acknowledging the truth of the matter in it's entirety. I don't get why we run from it. The information is readily available. Yes via google but the libraries are still in business too.

I challenge Ms. Daniele to take the next step. Do a genealogy test. Read/research up on those ethnic groups (African and Caucasian) you came from. If you link to Ghana, who were they? And were they always in Ghana? If not when did they get there? Lots of ethnic groups in Africa weren't always where they were (that is another note because I know lots of Africans who have no clue about their history past their great-great grandfathers and have no desire to really know….but some other races, they can tell you from 500 AD!!- Why is that?). If she links to Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Research all of them. Go down that rabbit hole.

It shouldn't take a 2012 Blacksploitation film with a largely White male voice to make you interested in you.

(Excuse my typos)

Amira Smith

This is brilliant writing! Very honest. As I read the beginning, I was bracing myself at the naiveté that I felt she had, then she unfolded her thoughts more and I was feeling and understanding everything she said. Again, written sooo well. She actually had us pace through her thought process on what the movie inspired her to find in her own ancestry.


I enjoyed reading her essay, but did not like her phrasing here:

"Up until that point I had just assumed I was the descendant of slaves, not exactly something to brag about!"


Hellooo…. i'm origianlly from the Caribbean and Daniele Watts lovely piece is telling the story of all black peoples of the America's… The New World. Most, if not all, our forefathers were partly of European descent. And in the America's, films with a similar story have been told out of Brazil, in the Caribbean in recent times a short fiction narrative from the Dutch speaking Island of Curacao called, 'Buchi Fil'… but the REAL question and point is: WHO can really tell these stories. Would a Black filmmaker be given a similar 'green light' from well known film co. to make one? …with out being blocked half way down the road and funding stopped… being ostracized and demoted? …and shelved and almost hidden as some indie experiment, never to be out in the mainstreeam While this particular, ficticious Django, is a film from a VERY North American perspective, (that could be maybe refreshing) just who is really "allowed" to make these kinds of films in the US? Or, to have this Voice in filmmaking stories? …and the Budget to do them? …I think we all know the answer, hence the unhappiness and anxiety… So it WONT change, until thaat balance of power changes…

Terri Francis

This is why artists should be writing. *Now* we're talking.

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