If Django Unchained wants to capture the raw terror of slavery, why does it shy away from historical examples of black agency?
In high school I got too excited about Nat Turner during American history. I even acted more excited than I actually was, knowing that my glee at ole Nat’s night on the town beating up white folks with Southern Living at Home’s bluntest selections scared the shit out of the other kids at the table.
At a boarding school on a financial aid scholarship, for many classes I was guaranteed to be the only black student at that table. Sympathy for “Lost Cause” romances could easily be found among students and some regarded Reconstruction as a doomed experiment, given the underdeveloped state of the black condition. “Blacks just had to hold on. Couldn’t make citizens out of slaves in a few years’ time. They’d have to buckle down and take the SATs before they could do all that.”
A peer once asked me why he should suffer the injustices of affirmative action, seeing as his great-great-great-grandpappy acted so kindly to his slaves. You know, brought them out to T.G.I. Fridays in his stagecoach every weekend; got them milkshakes. White students often claimed the same sort of victimization that one would find in a Southern newspaper after the Civil War, with its contentions of white plight at the heel of a black oppressor.
In response, I sought stories that could discomfit them. Nat Turner could do that for me and I was hoping Django Unchained could too. The problem is Django is no Nat Turner.
So far, much of the debate surrounding the film has obscured more than it has revealed, focusing on its use of “the ‘n’ word” and horrific depictions of slavery. Unfortunately, such criticisms make the debate too easy for the movie’s supporters.
Their reply is simple: “Tarantino is just trying to lay bare the grisly truths of slavery and the social and cultural norms of the time. And I know they sure as hell said ‘nigger’ bunches of times, so it makes sense that all the characters say ‘nigger’ bunches of times. He’s making us swallow a bitter pill all for our betterment.”
Of course, one might then wonder whether “motherfucker” was also a part of nineteenth-century Mississippi parlance, but no matter. I say let the “nigger” — happy whites like Tarantino have their fun. He’s just one of those kids in my American history class, once we got to discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in English. They always found the most the “nigger”-laden passages in the book to read aloud and each utterance had the word hurtling excitedly off their tongues.
But if the purpose of the film is to really capture the raw terror of slavery, why does it shy away from historical examples of black agency? Why does it look to the Spaghetti Western and Nordic fairy tales, before taking a glimpse at slave rebellion?
Once critics have finished defending the so-called realism of the language and the brutality, then the rest is surrendered to Tarantino’s imagination. And when it’s about a slave’s revenge why not let him go wild? It’s tempting, of course. Who wouldn’t hit the theater to see a slaver’s viscera blown across a cotton field? But it’s in this revenge fantasy where the film falls short of its own potential. Django Unchained ultimately has less to do with black vengeance than it does with machismo. Some might claim it’s about both, but Tarantino’s obsession with virility is dominant.
Not only are women marginal in the movie, but the central female character, Django’s wife Broomhilda, is afforded only a few lines. Her key role as the damsel-in-distress, who the hero must rescue from a “circle of fire.” The love story drives the plot, as Django, a freed slave turned bounty hunter by his friend Dr. Shultz, struggles to free his wife from the plantation of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo di Caprio. Unfortunately, Broomhilda is also the most rebellious female character. The other black women who appear in the film are just the usual fare of fawning house slaves — “as you please, Big Daddy” — or pleasured concubines. So I guess Kerry Washington made off pretty well not saying anything.
It’s hard to see how asserting a black man’s hyper-masculinity serves the idea of black agency much anymore or how it even breaks from existing racist tropes. Much is made of the Mandingo fights in the movie, but there’s a scene where Calvin Candie, who’s looking to sell one of his strongest Mandingo fighters, makes a remark about a slave who’s “one in ten thousand.” I couldn’t tell in that moment whether he was talking about Django or boasting about one of his Mandingo fighters.
And then it struck me in a moment of profound cynicism, maybe this whole movie was just a Mandingo fight orchestrated by Quentin Tarantino. In some respects, the central villain is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen — a carbon copy of the Boondocks‘ own Uncle Ruckus. So we have a more sophisticated Mandingo fight between Django and Steven, with none of that gouging out eyes with fingernails stuff; nope, just pure wit.
The scene where Django’s masculinity is most tested reveals one of the film’s more toxic statements. As punishment for causing a stir, Django is hung naked upside down in a barn where he awaits castration. The man to execute the job, Billy Crash, one of Candie’s overseers, seems to take more than just a sadistic pleasure from his assignment. Earlier in the movie, Billy Crash asks to take Django out in the moonlight and Django’s response, “will you be holding my hand?” In other words, “no homo.”
Right after nearly castrating Django, Billy Crash dips his knife in a bucket of water and walks away twirling it flamboyantly in hand. Immediately, I heard someone in the audience chuckle, “Hahaha, he’s gay.”
And of course, Crash’s punishment for his perversity is to be shot in the nuts. Perhaps this was not the director’s intent, but to see a character that many in the audience read as gay, delightedly engage in an act of genital mutilation only to have his own balls blown away, was troubling. This might sound familiar to anyone who’s seen Tarantino’s earlier film, Pulp Fiction, and recalls the scene toward the end where a pawnshop owner captures and rapes Marcellus, who soon takes revenge by shooting his assailant in the groin. Again, a character with homosexual desires is depicted as a violent pervert and his punishment by genital mutilation is seen as deserved.
It may be easy enough for some to ignore the sexist and homophobic tropes, since what they’re really going to see is a slave’s revenge fantasy, but Django Unchained‘s single obsession with the hero’s manhood renders more epic possibilities unimaginable. One question looms over the film — where’s the slave rebellion? Even Calvin Candie asks himself this.
Remarkably, a story about slave-on-slaver violence barely makes a nod at slave revolt. Some might say that such a grand gesture isn’t really in Tarantino’s repertoire, but Inglorious Basterds shows this to not be the case at all. In the movie he allows for history to be completely rewritten, as a band of Jewish-American soldiers and a Jewish theater owner murder the entire Nazi leadership in one night. Why then should something as plausible as a slave revolt be considered an absurdity?
There is one moment that seems like the perfect opportunity for Django to evolve from his lone gun-slinging to rallying others to fight. After fooling his captors and preparing his return to Candyland, Django goes over to the wagon where a few of Candie’s former slaves are sitting in a cage. One would imagine that now free and moved by Django’s feats at least one person, if not all, would join him and take the opportunity to reap revenge on the Candie plantation, where they themselves had lived dehumanizing lives as Mandingo fighters. Instead, they look on at Django awestruck, as he rides off. I guess their balls just weren’t quite as big as Jamie Foxx’s.
It’s a shame, because the history of North Atlantic slave revolts offers up a lot of interesting material. Try this: “For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen.” That’s Boisrond-Tonerre, Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ aide. Tarantino certainly couldn’t write that. Nope, we just get a fairly lackluster ending instead. Django kills some more white folks, blows up the plantation house all by himself, and then does a little dressage on his pony before heading off with Broomhilda.
There’s nothing remotely Fanonist about any of the film’s violence. No suggestion of solidarity or collective action. Nope, just one nigger in ten thousand.
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