No, the movie Django Unchained is not about slavery. It’s about the way we remember slavery, especially cinematically.
(Needless to say, SPOILERS ABOUND!)
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film obviously riffs off of the Spaghetti Western. But Django Unchained also plays with and thereby subverts another American cinematic staple, the Neo-confederate Romance. In particular, I argue, this film flips the movies Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind on their heads, exposing them for the lie they really are. When we “read” Django this way, elements that appear to reinforce troubling white supremacist tropes seem instead to destroy them.
Birth and Wind each inhabit a prominent place in the U.S.-American cinematic imagination. Released in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s silent, neo-confederate film epic, Birth of A Nation, stood as the highest grossing moving picture of all time until the similarly neo-confederate film saga, Gone With the Wind, surpassed it in 1939. Gone would occupy this top slot until 1960 and in 1998 was named by the American Film Institute as the fourth greatest American movie ever made.
(If you are familiar with these movies, please feel free to skip ahead)
Birth of A Nation: A Summary
Birth spins a tale of Ku Klux Klan mythology, portraying the Klan not as terrorist thugs but as noble knights, defending civilization from encroaching black barbarism. Birth opens in the antebellum South where black slaves contentedly pick cotton and wealthy slave-owning whites appear decent, chaste, and virtuous.
Birth celebrates the friendship of two white families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. Congressmen Austin Stoneman, a thinly-veiled stand-in for real-life Congressmen and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, heads this Northern family. (If you’ve seen Lincoln, he is the character played by Tommy Lee Jones.) The Southern family, the Camerons, live on a lavish plantation stocked with dozens of slaves.
Each family’s children frolic together as friends in the blissful years before Civil War and manage to remain friends after it. Their unbreakable bond symbolizes the unshakeable solidarity of the white race over and against its enemies.
Birth also lifts up and lauds two of the Camerons black slaves, the sassy “mammy” house slave and the docile male slave (both played by obviously white male actors donning very unconvincing black face.) Sassy mammy defends the Camerons with fierce fervor and repudiates all post-war talk of racial equality. Both slaves stay with the Camerons long after Emancipation.
In Birth, white race traitors, like Congressmen Stoneman, and mixed-race mulattos like his political ally, Silas Lynch, and his sexually aggressive housekeeper, serve as the most odious villains. With Lynch, Stoneman endeavors “to crush the white south under the heel of the black south.” The film blames Stoneman’s disloyalty on his mulatta housekeeper, who with her sexual powers has cast some sort of spell on him.
Civil War devastates the South, fulfilling Lynch and Stoneman’s dreams of black rule. Black union soldiers wreak havoc on the South. Just as Stoneman’s sex-crazed mulatta housekeeper cannot help lasciviously throwing herself at white men like Stoneman, these unjustly empowered black and biracial men cannot help hunting white women.
In the movie’s most tragic scene, the youngest Cameron daughter, Flora, innocently sets out one day to fetch her family some water. In the background lurks Gus, a black Union soldier (also played by an obviously white actor), who eyes her with seething sexual passion.
Distracted by a scurrying squirrel, the young Cameron girl wanders farther into foreboding isolation of the dark forest. Gus approaches his unsuspecting prey, asking her to marry him. She drops the water bucket and flees, shrieking in horror. He continues, stooped in simian pursuit. She eventually finds her way up a steep cliff. Shouting down to him, she threatens “Stop or I’ll jump.” When he continues coming closer, she jumps, plummeting to a violent death.
Flora’s death inspires her brother, Ben, and other decent Southern white men to rally to action. They don hoods and mount horses, storming into town to save the day. They drive back a rioting hoard of blacks rampaging against the town’s “helpless” whites. Along the way, the Klan devises “lynching” to punish and deter rapacious race-mixers like Silas “Lynch.” Their first victim is Gus whose body they dump on Lynch’s doorstep.
Meanwhile Silas Lynch has trapped Stoneman’s daughter, Elsie, in a room, intending to marry her against her will. She screams, but Lynch’s henchmen have the door blocked. When Stoneman learns of Lynch’s plot, he immediately abandons his race-traitor ways and is converted to the cause of white purity.
At the last second, the Klansmen arrive, saving Elsie from Lynch’s grisly grip. Ben then marries Elsie: the white race expresses even greater union after the war than before it. Once Northern and Southern whites played merely as friends, now they live as spouses.
Gone With the Wind: Major Themes
The plot of Gone is much more familiar to us. So I’ll just say a bit about the neo-confederate themes it shares with Birth. First, Gone encourages its audience to identify with its slave-owning protagonists and to feel bad for them when emancipation strips them of the life of wealth and luxury they enjoyed before the war.
Second, Scarlett O’Hara’s father, Gerald, is portrayed as a kindly, gentle, and chaste old man. Third, the O’Hara family also possesses a pair of loyal house slaves, the sassy mammy and a docile, child-like male slave. Again, as in Birth, the aggressive, asexual, almost masculine bravado of the female house slave contrasts loudly with the demure, robustly heterosexual, decadent femininity of the daughters of Southern slave owners. And both male slaves shuffle about, stooped over and fearful, emasculated if not effeminiate.
Django Unchained Versus the Neoconfederate Cinematic Imagination
The film Django Unchained doesn’t merely tell the story of a former slave avenging the enslavement of his wife; it itself operates as an act of scripted revenge against neoconfederate films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind.
Many of the characters in Unchained represent archetypes of neoconfederate film. Take B’Daddy, (Big Daddy) the plantation owner played impeccably by Don Johnson. Neoconfederate apologists like to portray plantation patriarchs as kindly old men in the style of Papa O’Hara and old man Cameron. When B’Daddy steps into frame wearing a flashy suit and sporting a cane, he mocks this convenient lie. Surrounded by dozens of young black women, he evokes the 1970s pimp. Rather than chaste and kindly, he swaggers sex-drunk. Tarantino further pokes fun at the Southern patriarch’s rapine affinity for black flesh when he places a young, visibly biracial, boy to B’Daddy’s side.
But Unchained makes sure the audience knows this sex is far from consensual. Just as in Birth, the threat of rape looms heavy. But while Birth expresses the hysterical delusions of white supremacist fever-brain, Unchained uncovers an ugly historical truth. Black men did not regularly rape white women during the brief decade of Reconstruction but white men did rape black women with unfettered frequency all throughout the long centuries of chattel slavery.
In this way, Tarantino uses a brutal reality, the rape of black women by the white men who owned them, to expose and make a mockery of a self-serving lie, white male virtue. To this same end, Tarantino deploys what I deem a distinct Django-esque methodology of violence. Unchained employs two types of violence, the cartoonish and the realistic. The cartoonish violence strikes us as both funny and impossible, and sometimes both (like when Lara Lee gets blown away). The realistic violence, on the other hand, expresses reality. (The neck shackles, the whips tearing scars into bare flesh, the slave auction.) Although it actually happened, we cannot believe it did. We literally want to look away (as when a weary re-captured slave is ripped to pieces by wild dogs).
For the most part, Tarantino uses this more realistic violence to dramatize the suffering endured by slaves. In so doing, he interrupts white supremacist scripts and uses the reality of white cruelty and slave suffering to disrupt the myth of white decency.
Tarantino uses the more cartoonish violence to destroy the archetypes of neoconfederate film. The death of Lara Lee, who represents the film archetype of the Southern belle, (think Scarlett O’Hara and Flora Cameron) epitomizes Tarantino’s reconfiguration of the cinematic imagination through cartoon violence. Unlike the aforementioned movies, Django Unchained reveals Lara Lee to be neither desired (the white men who surround her lust exclusively after black women) nor exonerated. By presenting the truth about slavery, Unchained makes it impossible for us to continuing believing in or siding with neoconfederate archetypes.
Unchained not only kills these archetypes with cartoonish violence, but it renders them buffoonish. Consider Tarantino’s depiction of the Klan. Though presumably set in the years before the Civil War, Tarantino portrays B’Daddy and his buddies as Klansmen, even though the KKK did not exist until after it. This chronological impossibility indicates that Tarantino is making a movie not about slavery but about our cinematic memory of it.
If you have seen the movie, you know how funny it is; if you haven’t, then no description could actually convey it. But I can speak to its affect on me. A few weeks after viewing Unchained, I sat down to watch an episode of the epic miniseries Roots whose opening montage features a shot of masked Klansmen, holding a noose. Though I had just spent several weeks reading about the Klan’s terrorism as a part of my dissertation, when I saw that clip, I laughed out loud. This is not how I reacted the first or second time I saw that noose. After Unchained, I did not think the Klan any less evil. Nor did I think their violence any less extensive. I now saw them instead as buffoons. The hooded Klansman not only had no clothes, he had been de-pantsed.
The Mandingo fighting scene provides the biggest clue that Tarantino seeks not to tell history but to make myth. Tarantino got this plot piece the 1970s movie named Mandingo: historians can find no evidence that Mandingo fighting ever transpired. Nonetheless, Mandingo fighting feels true. Though historical fiction, Mandingo fighting reveals the truth about slavery much more than the historical fictions made myth in Gone With the Wind or Birth of A Nation. Tarantino opposes not myths, but false ones. He also, I suspect, holds a deep fascination with the means by which human beings distinguish true fictions from false ones.
The Mandingo fighting scene also puts the contemporary American spectator on the defensive. When we first meet Dicaprio’s Candie, he is watching one of his prized slaves fight literally to the death against another man’s slave. The men gouge eyes, rip flesh, and sever bone from socket. It is a horrible scene to watch. The camera gives us, the audience, a front row seat to this spectacle of black flesh. We are horrified by Candie’s glee at the senseless destruction unfolding before him. But Tarantino forces us to see the fight as Candie does. Suddenly, we feel increasingly defensive. Is Mandingo fighting much different than boxing? What about football? Of course modern athletes can give consent, but is my delight in flesh-destroying sport the same as Candie’s? If so, how much? Just a little?
This hermenutic also allows us to more accurately interpret the two most misunderstood elements of the movie, house slave Stephen’s role as the ultimate villain, and Candie’s skull speech.
Critics like Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker cringe at Tarantino’s decision to make Stephen chief villain. As Cobb argues:
“In creating Stephen, Tarantino necessarily trafficked in the stereotypes he was ostensibly responding to. Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen’s overblown insouciance and anachronistic mf-bombs to great comedic effect. There are moments, however, when ironies cancel each other out, and we’re left with a stark truth—at its most basic, this is an instance in which a white director holds an obsequious black slave up for ridicule. The use of this character as a comic foil seems essentially disrespectful to the history of slavery. Oppression, almost by definition, is a set of circumstances that bring out the worst in most people. A response to slavery—even a cowardly, dishonorable one like what we witness with Stephen—highlights the depravity of the institution. We’ve come a long way racially, but not so far that laughing at that character shouldn’t be deeply disturbing.”
When we read Django Unchained as a refutation of the neoconfederate apologetics propagated by films like Gone and Birth, we realize that Stephen supplies the ultimate villain because the docile house slave who loved white supremacy more than her own freedom looms as the biggest lie we as a nation tells ourselves about our chattel slavery past.
Stephen inverts the myth of the loyal slave in two ways: first, his entire persona is a clever ruse aimed at manipulating his purported master. Stephen, not Candie, possesses the intelligence to operate as master. Thus, the dramatic revelation of Stephen sitting in Candie’s chair, swirling the whiskey in his glass like he owns the place departs from cinematic precedent in stunning fashion. Stephen plays Candie like a puppet. He’s the boss man. Neoconfederate mythology says: blacks needed white guidance and protection. In Unchained, Stephen protects and guides Candie.
Second, in both Gone and Birth, neither family’s house slaves leave them after emancipation. Outside of the cinema, neoconfederate apologists remember slavery similarly, insisting for example that black slaves voluntarily enlisted in the Confederate army. Songs perfomred in minstrel shows repeated this belief, singing of “the darkies [as] gay” and happy. These happy slaves in many ways serve as the greatest heroes of the white supremacist memory. In addition to selflessly serving the white race, they prove slavery’s benevolence. Put another way, without the good and happy slave, chattel slavery can proclaim itself neither good nor happy.
And this is why Stephen must be the ultimate villain: because the archetype of the dumb and docile but loyal and therefore virtuous black slave represents white supremacy’s biggest lie. And because this archetype provides white supremacy’s most effective moral defense, he must also serve as Unchained’s most hated villain. He, like Candie, B’Daddy, and Lora Lee must be turned into buffoons and killed by cartoonish violence so that they no longer walk about the landscapes of our collective racial imagination.
Finally, many critics accuse Tarantino of reinforcing the white supremacist myth that black slaves did not resist. They point especially to Candie’s climatic dining room speech. Holding the skull of a deceased slave, Candie contrasts black brains with those of whites. Science shows us, he pontificates, that the brain space devoted to independence is much bigger in white brains than in blacks. This explains why, he continues, despite the fact that some ten thousand black slaves have lived and died in Candyland, not one has tried to kill their white masters. Whites, he finishes, would never let themselves be enslaved in this fashion.
But such critics confuse what Candie believes for what the film does. Though Candie sincrely believes slave submission natural, the film has shown that it is anything but. From its opening moments, the film bombards the audience with scenes of violence wrought upon black flesh. Overseers whip black girls for petty offenses, runaway prize fighters are chewed to bits by dogs, a husband and wife are rent apart and sold to separate corners of the known universe, and a woman is placed in a small box for ten days of torture. The movie has gone out of its way to show us that Candie spouts not objective science but ideology. If black submission were natural, then such violence would be eminently unnecessary. Black people would stay in place simply by being asked to. That is, after all, the very definition of docility.
As with the Mandingo fighting scene, Candie’s self-assured speech forces the audience to question what allegedly scientifically objective truths they themselves rely upon to justify and naturalize contemporary structures of white supremacy.
Critics further cringe when, at the end of the film, an avenging Django returns to Candyland and says to Candie before killing him, “you’re right. I am that N**** in ten thousand.”
And Django proclaims himself one in ten thousand, I contend, not to denigrate the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninty nine black people who suffered under the constraining weight of Candieland’s shackles, but because he epitomizes our very human need for larger than life heroes. Django serves as myth not history, remember. Movies celebrate the heroic individual all the time. We lift up figures like Abraham Lincoln, Harvey Milk, and Jean Valjean not to demoralize the ordinary person but to valorize and affirm her. The exceptional character of Jamie Foxx’s Django functions in similarly paradoxical fashion.