When she first shows up onscreen, it’s as a memory of her husband, Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave from whom she was separated when he was sold off to another owner. She appears beautiful, on a swing under a sweeping, picturesque tree, and introduces herself with just one line: “They call me Hildi,” she says, smiling and bashful. For much of the film, she is hardly real, a vision, a fantasy — existing only in Django’s imagination as he bathes in a creek or rides a horse.
Hildi’s interiority barely surpasses the one-dimensional; when she’s not an angelic presence for Django, usually some kind of act of violence is being enacted upon her: tortured at her master’s command, held hostage with a gun to her head during the climactic shootout.
But what complicates Hildi is the history of how black women, and especially slaves, have been treated in real life (raped, beaten) and depicted onscreen (as mammies or Jezebels). While Tarantino doesn’t shy away from showing the mistreatment of Hildi, he does so to elicit empathy for her, through the eyes of Django. She’s even given the tiniest bit of agency — trying to run away. When Django finally lands at the plantation of her new owner, she has been trapped in a hot box for hours as punishment.
Hildi and Django stir up that familiar combination of excitement and dread. Everything happens to Hildi; there isn’t much for her to do — but then, how often has a black woman been the object of affection, in a way that doesn’t feel creepy, in the movies? It’s a low bar to clear, and an object of affection is an object — but also, it still kind of works? There is something to be said for the existence of the tender love story that somehow peeks its head out from the disturbing and over-the-top Tarantino-isms we’re used to.
White womanhood comes with different baggage, but “Once Upon a Time …” elicited a similar conflict within me. As Tarantino pointed out in that Entertainment Weekly interview, how often has Tate’s life been filtered through pop culture over the past several decades as opposed to the gruesome circumstances of her death? No, the director doesn’t give her much of a life here, either, but the absence of her death — the Manson family members don’t murder Sharon and her house guests on that fateful night in the film — feels somewhat cathartic.