Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino’s ode to 1970s Blaxploitation flicks and the famed Italian spaghetti westerns of the same name, tells the story of the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) who goes on an orgy of revenge killings to rescue his wife Brunhilda (Kerry Washington) from her sadistic owner. Set in the American South two years before the Civil War, Django (though in many ways a western) is rooted in slavery–it is the film’s backdrop, the driving force behind the plot and what creates both heroes and villains of its main characters. Yet the slavery of Django bears only a passing resemblance to the slavery of our national past. Rather, it is the slavery of popular folklore, social mythology and age-old Hollywood caricatures–the slavery of our imaginations.
A lengthy post for a lengthy film. As always, spoilers.
From the onset, we realize Django is special. Not only is he a one-time runaway, but he is fortunate enough to be rescued from slavery by a German dentist turned bounty hunter, Doctor Schultz (Christopher Waltz). It is Schultz who teaches Django the art of gun-slinging and inducts him into the fraternity of bounty hunters–amazingly within one winter. Schultz will also turn Django into a killer-extraordinaire, instilling within him an ethos on the righteous use of violence in the struggle of good versus evil. He even teaches Django new vocabulary, stories and proper dress. As an older guide, Schultz is Django’s Obi-wan, taking the hero from his shackled existence to new realms of possibilities.
It is a common story device that can easily morph into the unsavory white-savior motif when race is introduced. Whether Schultz fits this role is debatable; Tarantino states expressly he sought to avoid it, comparing his story instead to the Western movie cliché of the gunslinger who takes on the young cowpoke. But Django is also a film about slavery, where the white savior trope is not without precedent. The most similar case is likely the film Burn! (1969), where William Walker (Marlon Brando) instructs the slave Jose Delores on how to become a rebel. It is a cinematic trope that shares similarities with common slaveholder folklore, which blamed “white agitators” for rebellious slaves–thought to be too docile or dim-witted to act on their own. Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion was blamed on white Northern abolitionists; in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), frightened planters told tales of whites in blackface, who they were certain incited slaves to murder them in their beds.
Schultz’s effect on slaves goes beyond his young protegé. In the opening act, he encounters the slave coffle of which Django is a part. As he lifts his lantern to the varied faces of the male slaves, they cower and lower their eyes in fear. Schultz even goes as far as to place a shotgun in a slave’s arms to hold for him; with eyes as round as Mantan Moreland, the bewildered slave can do nothing but look on in stupor. Both Schultz, and the laughing audience, share in on the gag–there’s no chance this shivering and dazed figure would ever think of turning the gun on his captors. That is, until Schultz suggests it to them, step by step. Moving with the stiffness of men awakening from a long sleep, they manage to kill the white slaver and make their escape. Schultz, it turns out, is the elusive white agitator of the slave holders’ imagination. Like Jose Delores, Django manages to come into his own as the film progresses, but like Glory and Amistad before him, is tied to his white benefactor.
Django’s Imagined Slavery
Unfortunately, for most of the other slaves in Django, there is no such white fairy godfather. Without this guidance, they are left as bumbling, docile, frightened or content with their lot as their predecessors of the old plantation epics. Many are in fact based on the many slave archetypes of Hollywood past. One of the first slaves with a speaking role in the film (most are rendered voiceless) is a young woman named Betina, the property of the flamboyant plantation owner “Big Daddy” (Don Johnson), whose tongue-in-cheek name plays on modern-day notions of domineering masculine sexuality. Betina, with her high-pitched voice and airy demeanor, is reminiscent of the character Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) of Gone with the Wind, whose similar infantile nature became immortalized with her hysterical, “I don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ babies!” Both channel aspects of the pickaninny, a well-established caricature which depicted slaves as mischievous children or inherently child-like.
As the film continues we encounter the full range of slave stereotypes popularized by Old South nostalgia and Hollywood–the Mammy, the Tom, the wanton and sexualized Jezebel, all eager to please their owners. Most of the slave men play the role of subservient bucks–in the mold of Big Sam of Gone with the Wind, whose massive strength is forever, willingly, in service to his mistress. In this fictionalized slave society, whites have complete control over slaves–both body and mind. Tarantino drives this home in a scene where the sadistic slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) forces two black men to fight to the death. The audience is treated to a scene of hand to hand brutality, as grappling dark bodies–sweaty and stripped to the waist–engage in murderous blood sport for white amusement. It doesn’t end until one slave gouges out the eyes of the other, and then caves in his head with a hammer.
There is nothing in the historical record of any such event; some owners had slaves engage in boxing matches, but not to the death. While an owner might kill slaves outright in fits of rage or for disobedience, black bodies (as property) were simply too valuable for such simple sacrifice. And even though some slaves were used to punish others (as riders and overseers), getting them to murder each other for sport was another matter. This scene was likely lifted from Mandingo (1975), which Tarantino has long hailed as a favorite. In it, two slaves similarly struggle to the death before a cheering white crowd–one of them ultimately tearing out the others jugular with his teeth. Both scenes, in their mythology, attempt to serve as metaphor; even if no such thing occurred during slavery, it is symbolic of the careless disregard slave owners had for black life.
The problem then, as now, is that it at the same time renders slaves as mindless brutes, disturbingly similar to the feral blacks of Birth of a Nation. It’s all too easy to forget slaves were human beings who lived in a larger slave community, not blank slates whose personalities were written by their owners. In Mandingo, we at least get a glimpse into nuanced slave personalities, where two other male slaves continually warn against becoming a “white man’s fighting animal;” after the murderous match, the winner is chastised by another slave who tells him, “congratulations, it’s not every day a black man gets to kill another black man.” This is a slave community fashioned in the collectivism of the Civil Rights and Black Power era, that sees themselves as a cohesive, oppressed grouping.
The slaves of Tarantino’s Django, in contrast, have little recognizable community. They are merely extensions of their owners. Their actions are done willingly or by force. They stand by silently as backdrops while white men–and Jamie Foxx–speak and interact. They run and fetch and do as they are told, without even a scornful look. In one scene, a slave woman plays idly on a swing without a care in the world–while just feet away another slave is brutally whipped. The only slave who appears to show any initiative or self-concern, a runaway, cowers and whimpers for his life before being torn apart by dogs. If the 1970s, following the turbulent Black Protest Era, gave us rebellious slaves, conspiring slaves, and a slave community with its own mind, the 21st century seems to give us slaves so beaten down by their condition they are rendered helpless.
In one memorable scene, slave owner Calvin Candie wistfully delves into the nature of black docility, asking how is it none of his slaves think of rebelling? Invoking the pseudo-scientific racialisms of phrenology, Candie ruminates on the inherent inferiority of blacks, who he declares are biologically fitted for subservience. As evidence, he pulls out the skull of a former slave, who he claimed shaved his father each day with a razor and never thought of slitting his throat. This simplistic understanding of slavery is borne out of modern popular ideas, which seems to posit that slavery might have ended sooner, if only slaves had fought back. It does not take into account those slaves who did slit their owners necks, or poured boiling water down their throats, or poisoned them or decided to fight back–something that slaveholders, even in their denials, knew all too well. To paraphrase Biggie, what you think all the guns was for? It seems unwilling to realize that in the unequal power relationships, any such act of violence always led to dire possibilities–being separated from families, having loved ones punished or execution. Slavery after all was not something a few bad people did, it was an institution backed up by the military weight and authority of the United States; murderous acts against whites always ended in greater and vastly unequal violence upon the slave populace. Nat Turner’s brief rebellion killed about 60 whites; white militia reprisals would brutally execute some 200 slaves in turn, most of who had nothing to do with the insurrection. In framing this question of why slaves “didn’t rebel,” the victims are turned into participants of their own bondage. It is a question divorced from the realities of slavery, and tied more so to modern political ideologies of black self-reliance, in which black dignity is found in those who achieve on their own merits, despite what obstacles are placed in their way. It is the common cry of “No excuses,” taken to its illogical conclusion.
Django- A Slave Apart
It is in part this depiction of docile and cowering slaves that allows Django to stand out as the remarkable hero. He is the answer to Candie’s claims of black inferiority. Rebellious, determined, unafraid, he is everything these other slaves are not. Not only does he become a bounty hunter, but relishes in getting paid to kill whites. He is brash, mouthy and unapologetic in his black skin. He’s so suave, even his horse dances. Feigning the role of a so-called “black slaver,” he fantastically struts about pulling white men off horses, sitting at their tables and mouthing off to them at will. He is the ideal of modern black masculinity, thrust back in time to correct the wrongs of the past: the “black Terminator” of our daydreams. With his swaggering cool, Jamie Foxx’s Django (brilliantly played by the actor) could have walked off the film shoot of any Hip Hop video rather than 1858. In fact, at his boldest, Django’s acts are accompanied by bass-heavy Hip Hop tracks, one of them featuring the grunting “Teflon Don” Rick Ross–a similarly inflated and fictionalized persona.
Tarantino helps our hero along by providing a cast full of “bad whites,” all deserving of death. None of these enemies are very nuanced: a horde of anachronistic and bumbling klan members, sadistic slave owners and a plethora of boorish, drooling overseers more akin to orcs than people. They allow the audience to celebrate Django’s violence without any conflicting emotions. White viewers can cheer the vengeful slave’s exploits as well; the figures he kills are such caricatures, no one can possibly relate to them–except maybe some conservatives. The slave owners and participants in this fictionalized slave past aren’t the everyday businessmen, and traders, clergymen, heroes or founding fathers of our history; instead they are fantastic monsters, their acts of evil explained away by their seeming inhumanity. It is a cleverly disguised moral escape hatch, to allow white participation without any of that uncomfortable “white guilt.”
Like most Hollywood depictions of slavery since the 1960s, Django is steeped in masculinity. Blaxploitation films featuring slavery privileged black men, allowing them to develop dignity and power. Glory and Amistad differed little in this regard, the few black women in their scenes reduced to almost forgettable minor roles. Django breaks no new ground in this regard. Its slave women are either childish, used as sexual props or subservient and silent. The main female lead, Brunhilda (Kerry Washington), is allowed brief dialogue (some of it in English), but for the most part is a damsel in distress who screams and whimpers as she awaits her black knight.
The only heroic slave voice belongs to Django, the archetype of the black buck reinvented as a rebel. Yet he is a rebel of one, who shows little kinship, or concern, for the slaves about him. His singular focus is rescuing Brunhilda. The slaves he encounters along the way are just stock figures, some of which he treats with disdain or indifference. When a slave is being ripped apart by dogs or others are being made to fight to the death, Django (hiding behind the mask of an uncaring “black slaver”) never manages even a private wince or care. Having gained his freedom, having killed whites, he has transcended them; he is now the super-buck, they are still merely slaves.
Throughout the film Tarantino, in his usual fashion, deploys the n-word over 100 times. Much has been made of this, with some criticizing the gratuitous use and others defending it as historically accurate. But Tarantino’s use of the word is deliberate and has little to do with history. Pulling from riffs like Blazing Saddles (1974) the word is often deployed alongside some humorous moment, as absurdity, nearly always meant to induce laughter. The play between its original derogatory usage (nigger) and its more modern-day slang derivative (nigga), is teased continually–so that at times, viewers aren’t really certain which is being used. It also serves to differentiate the docile slaves who whites refer to as mindless things (niggers) from Django, whose bad-assness molds him as the more modern (nigga), imbued with all the power and fear that latter term is supposed to evoke. Jamie Foxx himself describes Django as the “Super Nigga/Nigger”–a slave set apart from rest.
This disconnection with other slaves unfortunately renders Django unable, or unwilling, to actually speak out about slavery the institution. It is his mentor Doctor Schultz who makes the few brief statements of antislavery, who displays horror at slavery’s brutality, who makes a last impassioned plea in defense of black humanity and who eventually sacrifices his life to kill the symbol of slavery’s tyranny, Calvin Candie. Django in comparison never exhibits any other care than rescuing his wife. Even as he offs overseers, it seems be for sheer individual pleasure than some larger cause. A few have compared Django to Dangerfield Newby, the former slave who accompanied John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry–in part to also save his wife. But that’s where the comparison ends. Unlike Django, Newby’s motive was not singly his wife–he was part of a larger plot to inspire a mass insurrection that would end slavery. Newby would give his life to save his family, and to implement a grandiose plot of overthrowing slavery. Django has no further concern than his own. He is a rebellious slave, but no slave rebel. This does not diminish his heroism; slaves resisted for many reasons, including personal, individual gain. But we shouldn’t confuse the two.
The standout figure of Django Unchained is likely the villainous character Stephen, played by Samuel Jackson. Described by Jackson as a figure that will make him the “most hated black man” in cinematic history, Stephen is the elderly black slave caretaker of Candyland–the plantation of Calvin Candie. Affable, filled with laughter and ever seeking to please, Stephen is the quintessential Tom. Throughout the era of the plantation epics, this caricature could be seen played by Uncle Billy (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), dancing happily with a young Shirley Temple. He appeared repeatedly, taking on his last major roles as the old dutiful coachman Uncle Peter in Gone with the Wind (1939) and the carefree Uncle Remus of Song of the South (1946).
After the 1960s, the Hollywood Tom underwent dramatic transformation. In Slaves (1969) Ossie Davis’s Luke is a loyal Tom who turns out to be in cahoots with the slave rebels–joining them in insurrection. In Mandingo (1975), the slave Agamemnon (Richard Ward) puts on the face of the faithful self-effacing Tom, at one point even agreeing with his master on the non-existence of his own soul. But within the protective space of the slave community he slips his mask, revealing a bitter figure that chafes at bondage; by movie’s end, he kills his master. No one mistook Roots (1977) Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) for a faithful Tom, even if he slipped into that emasculated skin from time to time; his faithfulness was a ruse, a false face for “puttin’ on ole massa,” allowing him a cunning advantage over whites.
Samuel Jackson’s Stephen is none of these. He is the real thing–a full-fledged Tom, loyal to the end and wholly invested in the slave regime.This Tom has its origins less in slavery, and more in the Southern nostalgia of the post-slavery experience. By the late nineteenth century the faithful Tom had become a staple of Southern reminiscence on The Lost Cause. In literature, theatrical performances, orations and everyday observation, white Southerners conducted daily rituals to his memory. Held up in stark contrast was the emerging generation of young blacks, “newfangled Niggers” who were “lazy and thriftless,” much too “serious, self-conscious” or “sullen” and “insolent,” seeming to “retrograde towards barbarism.” The solution for dealing with this troubling present was to look to the past, where loyal Toms toiled happily on the slave plantations of white imaginations. This caricature eventually transferred to the early cinematic screen, where white men in blackface portrayed the loyal Tom. In Confederate Spy (1910), Uncle Daniel is a faithful slave who turns spy for the Confederacy; sacrificing his life before a Northern firing squad, he dies content, knowing that he “did it for massa’s sake.” In For Massa’s Sake (1911) the faithful Uncle Joe volunteers to be sold back into slavery to pay off his master’s debts. A statue to this archetype’s memory can still be found in Louisiana today, dedicated to Uncle Jack, a bowing humble figure described as “the good darky.”
Django’s Stephen is fashioned in the image of this imaginary Tom, the faithful Uncle of Birth of a Nation (1915) who remains loyal to his owners even after slavery, and takes up arms in their defense against other blacks. He is the Tom who became an epithet in the 1960s, the “Uncle Tom” (taken, somewhat erroneously, from abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin) who betrays his race to curry favor with whites. Tarantino imbues this classic Tom with intellect, guile and a sadistic streak, whose self-hatred lashes out at the other blacks about him. The noticeably darkest-skinned character in the film, Stephen is incomprehensibly evil, shuffling about with his staff and spitting vitriol at other blacks, making “nigger jokes” and laughing heartily with the whites–an un-hip surreal version of Mr. Glass reborn as Aaron McGruder’s “Uncle Ruckus.” We soon learn in fact he is the brains behind Candyland, a type of mentor “Nigger Jim” to his owner Dandie’s Huck Finn.
By the climax of the film, Stephen emerges as the main villain for Django, setting up a plot based on the “house versus field slave” trope. Popularized by Malcolm X in the 1960s to criticize contemporary black politics, this theory purports that house slaves were inherently tied to their owners due to proximity; they received better treatment and food, and so took on the personality of their masters. The historical record of course shows this reading of the slave past to be overly simplistic. While there were slaves who indeed preferred work in the house over the grueling tasks of the field, it is difficult to generalize their experience. The slave record is riddled with house slaves who, due to their proximity to their masters, suffered some of the worst abuses. In Oklahoma, a mistress stabbed her slave cook in the eye, because her potato was served cold; a Georgia house slave recounted how her young cousin was struck with a board and killed, after accidentally dropping the master’s infant; a Missouri slave related the rape of her mother, a kitchen slave, by her mistresses three sons. Neither were house slaves always more obedient. It was house slaves who spied on their owners for other slaves; who attempted to poison their food; who became part of popular slave folklore for (allegedly) murdering their owners’ infants. This is not to say there were no slaves–either in the field or the house–who acted for their own gain, or against the will of the slave community. Some slaves betrayed insurrection plots, served as drivers and overseers and could be selfish, even brutal, to fellow slaves; they were, again, human beings, with all the requisite frailties. But the Tom archetype, described by Django at one point as the lowest type of slave, is more myth than reality.
Despite the historical evidence, the popular image of the house slave remains one-dimensional and derogatory in popular black discourse. It is an epithet, the eponymous ancestor of modern-day “traitorous” blacks lacking racial awareness–the opposite of the field slave, certain in his black identity, unapologetic and always “down for the cause.” Tarantino, who seems to study black culture with the scrutiny of an anthropologist, fashions Stephen in this mold–in part the Tom of Old South nostalgia, in part the traitorous slave of African-American folklore. The struggle between Django and Stephen thus comes to symbolize this “house slave versus field slave” dynamic. While Django allows the other slaves to flee his vengeful wrath, Stephen suffers the fate of the whites with who he loves so dear. Left to die in the plantation, he is incapable of redemption, his last breath spent declaring his eternal loyalty as Candyland explodes around him.
Through Stephen, the old Tom, once thought dead and buried with the 1960s, has made his triumphant return to cinema, exhibiting a new-found streak of evil genius. In Tarantino’s retelling of history, whites and traitorous blacks colluded to maintain slavery. Even the average slaves, by their lack of resistance, seem to share some responsibility. Only a special slave, “one in ten thousand” as Django
names himself is named, is able to rise above it. Django Unchained gives us a vision of slavery born from modern urban mythologies like the Willie Lynch forgery, where slaves are “made” and can escape their bondage through self-actualization. It is a slavery that privileges individual heroism over collective action, and where black masculinity and swagger alone can overcome any obstacle. It is not the slavery of our past, but rather the slavery of some alternate history, created in part from old Hollywood, modern political discourse and contemporary folklore; it is the slavery of our imaginations, refashioned as myth and metaphor. What that ultimately tells us about ourselves, will be for some future generation to look back and reflect upon.