There is an unpleasant moment about halfway through Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained. It involves two Mandingo fighters, two burly black men who fight to the death in the very upscale private lounge of a very upscale southern home. Tete a tete, the men punch, and jaw and gnaw at each other for a very long two minutes, until the stronger emerges victorious. Instructed by his brutal master Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to put him out of his misery, the victorious Mandingo takes a mallet and slams his fellow enslaved human being to smithereens.
It is one of many unpleasant moments in the film— many of which ironically take place in supremely refined and pleasant spaces – so brutal that it prompted some to leave the theater. “QT has gone too far,” I heard one say, grabbing his coat, preferring to brave the New York City cold. Another: “That just isn’t funny.” Both of these audience members, to my surprise, were white and both were reacting to moments when black bodies were brutalized.
There’s a controversial 1975 film called Mandingo, which is primarily concerned with the life of “mandingo fighters,” unlike Django. Often called one of the most racist films of all time, with dozens of rape and incest scenes which are said to exploit and fetishize black bodies, Quentin Tarantino called it one of only two instances “that a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie.” I’m guessing QT didn’t mind it.
I have also felt Mandingo got an unfair wrap. It is one of the few films that shows that the brutality and nefariousness of slavery extended far beyond working from sun up to sun down with no pay and getting whipped. Slaves bodies were indeed “used” as cotton pickers, blacksmiths and ironworkers, but also as chicken fighters (“Chicken George” in Roots), and sex toys and — as depicted in Mandingo – literally, as footrests for their masters. Bodies, that is, in the flesh human beings, were exploited in every way one could imagine and many more that one could not.
Django is one of those films that everyone knows something about going in. Spike Lee recently called the film “an insult to our ancestors” and declared that he would not see it, without really going into specifics. I read about 40 pages of the screenplay almost a year and a half ago and felt disappointed because it felt like all the witty dialogue, the memorable actions, the agency, belonged to German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played by the brilliant Christoph Waltz) instead of the supposed star Django (Jamie Foxx). I felt like Tarantino had more “fun” writing the Dr. Schultz character and all the white male characters for that matter – in a movie about slavery and starring a black slave no less.
People are quick to dismiss Spike Lee, who in the past has said that black stories should only be told by black filmmakers. Perhaps this was what was at work here and if so, I disagree. For me, however, my question was whether QT’s voice would fit the subject matter of slavery. I must say, the first 45 minutes left me uneasy. Basically, Schultz rescues Django from slavery and they go from town to town on the hunt for a bounty, three brothers named Brittle. Along the way, Schultz ruffles every southern feather (cotton seed?) imaginable, waltzing into white only spaces with a well-dressed Django and wondering why everyone is being so not nice. This provides for plenty of witty dialogue, but it left me uncomfortable. Take, for example, when Schultz rescues Django, kills off the slave traders and muses a moment with the remaining slaves about what they should do. Paraphrasing: “It seems to me you poor black souls have three choices.” Great writing – sure. Condescending and unfunny – yep.
I guess what I was expecting was immediate transcendence. A Nat Turner or Toussaint L’Ouverture kind of story, where the black man has agency from the very beginning. The difference between those black men and Django is that the latter of course is just recently unchained. Django has to learn a lot; how to shoot a gun for one, if he’s going to be a bounty hunter. Most importantly, though, Django has to learn how to become a “man” during a time when everything was done to stifle and suppress that manhood. With the help of his wily mentor, Dr. Schultz, former dentist, Django finds his dignity.
White folk as a headlining presence in mainstream Hollywood is no secret. When it comes to so-called black stories, whites are still often at the center. 1989’s Glory is told through the eyes of a young New England colonel who leads an all-black unit during the Civil War. Last year’s The Help featured young writer Skeeter, interviewing black maids and helping them tell their story. The-white-teacher-goes-into-inner-city is almost as cliché as the black guy dying first in a horror movie. From my understanding, the logic goes that most white Americans won’t flock to the theaters to see a movie headlined by non-whites. Instead, a white character (a non-racist white character to be precise) headlines and guides us through non-white spaces.
In Django we have Dr. Schultz, a German bounty hunter and former dentist who rides around in a cart with a big large molar on it. Already we have a picture of another iconic and transcendent QT character. But what of Django? For the first hour, Django is relegated to the sidelines, watching his mentor, oscillating between reactions of bemusement, awe and sometimes fear. Schultz, on the other, is whip-smart, doling out wisdom and justice to dumb southern hicks and ignorant slaves alike. This felt oddly dissonant for me. Django, indeed, is not a star.
The compromise of putting whites at the center of “black stories” often results in flawed storytelling, half of the story told in one point of view with one tone and the other half, in another. Django succumbs to these flaws, too, with a 3rd act that kind of feels tacked on just when Django comes front and center, agency and all. The screenplay begins to become uneven just when Django is centered—and central.
Roles matter and the crafting of these roles begins with a screenplay. A character with character – like Schultz – matters to an actor, matters to an audience and matters to the Academy. Try this on for size – of the Golden Globe nominations for this film, best picture, best supporting actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), best director (QT), best screenplay (QT), there is no black person amongst them. Again, this is a movie about slavery.
Django turns a corner about halfway through, when the story shifts from finding and tagging outlaws for money (Dr. Schultz’s goal!) to the pursuit of Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who works for brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie. Calvin is owner of one of the largest plantations in Mississippi, called Candyland, and many of his male slaves are Mandingo fighters.
There has been a spate of articles since Django Unchained’s release, disputing the existence of “Mandingo fighting” in the antebellum South. The most obvious argument is that slavery was an economic system, and it would be pretty foolish to soil one’s “property” through these to-the-death gladiatoresque battles. However, I have always believed that QT hasn’t been given his due in terms of his below-the-surface insights. Everyone is so occupied with his apparent literal spectacle – the flashy dialogue, the in your face violence – that they miss the subliminal.
One of my favorite Tarantino movies is Reservoir Dogs , about the immediate aftermath of a jewelry heist, and the 6-man team’s stealing away in an abandoned warehouse. The “n word” is almost used as much in that movie as it is in Django, much to the chagrin of Spike Lee and others. Throughout the film, the 6 criminals – all white – have a preoccupation of “professionalism.” You see, most criminal teams are too sloppy, too emotional and too stupid. What starts out as a united front slowly deteriorates. The men are soon shooting themselves. But not these guys.
They talk about “niggers” shooting themselves up, though, whether on the right side of the law or the wrong side. They’re inferior, after all. Of course, in the end, that’s precisely what happens to our antiheroes as one by one they kill each other off, the cops closing in on their location. So much for being superior. QT quietly throws a monkey wrench at concepts of white masculinity and supremacy, even as he’s mostly occupied with performing the sleight of hand of making 6 criminals some of the most likeable characters ever on film.
QT extends his quiet harangue of this kind of masculinity in Django. As Django and Dr. Schultz enter Candyland, there are tons of Hellenistic props. There’s a brilliant shot at the dinner table when Calvin Candie, sitting at the head of the table, leans down a bit, revealing a bust of two Greek/Roman men fighting. With that moment and others, Django Unchained nailed the teleology of white supremacy, as “superior” men like Candie continue the long tradition of dominating inferior beings – in this case blacks. It’s the reason why the Berlin Olympics had such high stakes.
The brutal Mandingo fighting scene – its historical accuracy aside – is extension of the same theme as QT paints the image of the “best” kind of masculinity for inferior beings – that which is used for entertainment but that which is restrained. (It’s also important that blacks are fighting “their own”) It’s the difference between Commodus the Emperor and the slaves of the gladiatorial games. By this point in the movie, however, Django is not the neophyte from the opening.
In the background, the mandingo fight continues. In the foreground, at a bar, a European man with a thick accent approaches Django and asks if he knows how to spell his own name. To put it crassly, it’s a dick measuring contest and the now literate and well-dressed Django emerges victorious.
Enter House Slave of all House Slaves, Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson. If you thought fictional Uncle Rukus or in the flesh Herman Cain were bad, Stephen takes the cake. Stephen, though, is permutation of the common Uncle Tom archetype because he puts himself not only above his fellow black brethren but also white folks. Jackson thinks he runs the whole show. And in many ways, especially as he starts to catch wind of Django and Dr. Schultz’s ruse before anyone else, he does.
Some in the theater seemed to grow uneasy (and some left) during some of Stephen’s more over the top lines : “That isn’t funny.” I think that’s in part because most white people don’t really recognize this character, especially its permutation. However, he exists and is a product of the physical and psychological abuses of slavery. Among blacks, I think we were laughing both because it was genuinely funny and genuinely sad. It’s that same ever-present juggling act, those contradictions in our community, that bothered me about Jackson’s portrayal in the end. Even on the verge of being killed, Jackson never gets a chance to explain why he is the way he is. Jackson never lifts the veil and gives us the other side.
Malcolm X provides one of the more popular distinctions between the so-called “House Negro” and “The Field Negro”. To put it simply, the black slave in the field is cognizant and proud of his race and the slave in the big house (plantation mansion) would do anything or say anything to enjoy at least some privileges. The house negro is a sell out. This dichotomy exists in the black community even today, rookie QB RGIII’s blackness recently being questioned because he’s Republican and has a white fiancée. From what I know about QT, I’m going to make an assumption that he subscribes to this school of thought, too.
I, however, don’t. At least not fully. I recognize both types exist. But not everyone can be righteous all the time and not everyone is submissive and pliant all the time. The sad reality is, even the strongest in character, succumb and compromise at times. Even the likes of Malcolm X. Various coping mechanisms were used during slavery and are used today. I once thanked a cop after he finally decided to let me and my college friends proceed to a Greyhound Bus depot and commence our spring break. I did it in part, reflexively. I was saying “thanks” not to the cop but because I was grateful to have survived the encounter, four black men being pulled over in the dead of night, after the cop car stopped at a green light, let us pass, and followed us for nearly a mile before flashing his lights. But perhaps I also said it so that he would just go away and I’d never have to see him again. (Incidentally, the friend who drove us passed the night in the depot before driving back to campus when the sun rose.) I’ve always resented the Malcolm X school of thought that would label people in one category or other from birth. It minimalizes the struggles of the past and the realities of the present.
Anyway, Django gets his vengeance on Candie and his minions, and one of the last men standing is house negro Stephen. Django aims his sights at Stephen and shoots him, just as he did everyone else. As I said, I was hoping that Stephen would at least have hinted at his past, why he became this way, or even begged at this point for his life. Instead, he defends his master to his death (as he did from the womb), which felt false to me.
Along the same lines, some have argued that the movie suffers from exceptionalism. That is, Django’s journey is solely concerned with saving his wife Broomhilda, everyone else in his race be dammed. There’s a brutal scene at Candyland where a runaway slave is fed to the dogs. Django – because he doesn’t want to blow his cover – sanctions this, though there’s a close up of him clearly being affected.
In QT’s Blaxploitation paradigm, this is the way things must work, I suppose. There’s the righteous field negro (Shaft) on the one hand and The Man (house negro included) on the other. Shaft himself was also exceptional, but even with his more lonewolf cowboy qualities, he always felt connected to the community. That’s what I think makes Blaxploitation interesting and sets those heroes apart from iconic quintessentially white cowboy heroes – but that’s for another essay.
For Django, there’s not that same sense of collectivism. By virtue of the plot, he’s literally emancipated from his people from almost minute one. He has no black allies through the duration of the film. Most of his communications with blacks are neutral and at times even adversarial. If I’m being a real devil’s advocate, I’d say that kind of description fits more with a house negro than a field negro. On the other hand, it is hinted at that others of his race are inspired by him. Django achieves his transcendence alone but maybe others – seeing him – will too. I felt this strongly in a well-done scene when Django is imprisoned along with some slaves en route to a mine, and Django escapes and kills the drivers. Django rides off, not even pausing to break the chains away from the slaves. But the slaves smile, hopeful, as they watch him. This feels like the inversion of that earlier scene where Dr. Schultz does the same, only with a whole lot of patronizing verbiage. Django’s image was enough. I loved that.
There are a handful of films that I neither liked nor hated but would declare a must see. Requiem for a Dream is one. This film is another. Django Unchained is a must see, full stop. At the very least, films like this are an experience. And experiences get people talking – or in my case – writing. That’s always good.