Re-imagining Slavery in Django Unchained

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx

The exponential critical discourse on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained poses an equally difficult task for anyone who wishes to write comprehensively about the film since it is ongoing, myriad like and most significantly caught up in a tide of reactionary criticism that threatens to obfuscate debates predicated on race and violence. Whatever I am about to say about this film has to be contextualised within a discourse that is both contemporary and immediate. Sometimes, looking back at a film with some critical distance is usually one of the least problematic and most objective ways of trying to determine the cultural worth of a film. Django Unchained is currently being discussed as part of a wider filmic interest in slavery but both this and Spielberg’s Lincoln are films written and directed by white middle class film artists, thus posing important questions to do with representation. Although Tarantino has previously made films with black characters, mainly played by Samuel L Jackson, Spielberg’s experience with slavery in terms of his film career has been more direct and visible; The Colour Purple and Amistad testifies to his interests in dealing with the guilt of America’s past crimes. What follows are observations which are not necessarily debating an existing discourse but instead trying to delineate critical junctures which could prove to be valuable in separating fact from fiction.

1. Film or Mash-Up?

Jackie Brown – QT’s last film?


Since Jackie Brown in 1997, the films Tarantino has directed have all been tributes to exploitation cinema and while it may be snobbish to deny Django Unchained the label of a film it seems impossible to do so when the very foundations of Django Unchained are constructed on an intertextual mode of address that shows totality. Intertextuality has been present in the films of Tarantino since his debut with Reservoir Dogs but the difference between his early films including Dogs, Fiction and Brown is that the action is framed against a recognisable and contemporary real world America. Such implicit allusions to reality have gradually disappeared in his most recent films. Kill Bill, Deathproof, Inglorious Basterds and now Django Unchained take place in a ‘re-imagined’ America and Europe of the past. Whereas Dogs, Fiction and Brown uses an urban noir landscape of Los Angeles that recalls the lexicon of American crime cinema, the actions of characters are grounded in a reality associated with traditional assumptions about fictional narrative cinema. Taratino’s last four films including Django Unchained are extended homages to favourite genres and styles of filmmaking that have shaped his perceptions as both a fan and director. If anything Django Unchained is the ultimate fan mash-up made solely to indulge the nostalgic fantasies of its director at the expense of a cine-illiterate audience. If a video mash-up cannibazlises other films, music and pop culture to create a discontinuous narrative then a film like Django Unchained goes one step further, transforming past ideologies by decontextualising them so they become mere interpellative markers of a postmodern aesthetic. Tarantino speedily moves from one cinematic allusion to the next, testing the limits of cultural capital and propagating originality is nothing but another romantic myth. As a fan, Tarantino opens Django Unchained with Corbucci and ends with Leone while the middle is filled out with Ford. Here are some examples of the way Django Unchained plunders and raids film history to create the ultimate western mash-up:


Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci)


The original opening titles to Corbucci’s Italian western.


Note the reproduction of the exact same font style.


The Searchers (1956, Ford)


Ford’s film deals with racial politics.
The narrative of Django Unchained seems more indebted to Ford’s

The Searchers than to obvious Italian Westerns especially in the

epic search Schultz & Django make to find Hildy.


In The Heat of The Night (1967, Jewison)


Mr. Tibbs drive up to see Endicott, a wealthy plantation owner…


…is mirrored in the sequence which sees Django in his newly transformed

persona of the Bounty Hunter rides past the field slaves of a plantation

owned by Big Daddy.

Once Upon a Time In The West (1968, Leone)

This is a flashback device revealed later to be Frank (Henry Fonda).
Tarantino pays homage by using it as POV shot for Stephen’s character.

The Big Silence (1968, Corbucci)

Arguably Corbucci’s greatest western and the wintry backdrop finds its way…

…into the journey of Django who trains to be an ace gun slinger.

Taxi Driver (1977, Scorsese)

Bickle’s sliding gun contraption which he makes for the final bloodbath…

…is used by Schultz in the slaying of Candie.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966, Leone)

Tuco’s final contempt for Blondie is muted by Morricone’s blistering score…

…and Stephen’s outrage is interrupted by Django’s dynamiting of the mansion.

The western triptych of Leone, Corbucci and Ford is very much a personal admiration of three distinctive auteurs who helped to define the genre and the overarching narrative trajectory of his own film. It would be wrong to simply extrapolate and isolate western allusions since representations of slavery in the film are also predicated on blaxploitation cinema. Whereas the western intertextual discourse may be easier to decipher the obscurity of the references to blaxploitation cinema points to the privileging of populist, hegemonic genres over those such as blaxploitation defined more closely on grounds of ethnic identity and racial politics. The dearth of research and studies completed on blaxploitation compared to the western makes Django Unchained even more problematic to read since the intertextuality becomes locked in a wider debate concerning Eurocentric mainstream film academia. Such critical disparity between the western and blaxploitation is underlined by the mainstream critical reception to the film which has failed to fully acknowledge and discuss the more racialised intertextual referencing made by QT in his film. Such a view certainly supports the argument that black American cinema is rarely discussed in the mainstream and that when it does appear on the cultural radar no one quite knows how to write or respond about it adequately.


2. Black and White Heroism


Schultz frees Django from his shackles of bondage.


Entering the saloon as equals.


In regards to the blaxploitation era of the 1970s, Donald Bogle argues the stereotype of the buck became predominant, ‘The early years of the era might best be described as age of the buck, a period when a band of aggressive, pistol-packing, sexually-charged urban cowboys set off on a heady rampage, out to topple the system and to right past wrongs’ (Bogle, 2001: 232). Tarantino’s empowered black cowboy in the shape of the freed slave Django has its origins in such an era of the buck. However, I want to return later to the point about the political radicalism of such cinematic reconstructions and Bogle’s comments about toppling ‘the system’ needs arguing in relation to the film’s ending. In the film, black and white heroism is constructed outside of white hegemonic America since it is a white European who sets free Django. At first, the white man civilizing, cultivating and educating the illiterate oppressed black man smacks of a familiar racial rhetoric in which self determination is a near impossibility for black America but given King Schultz is a European German posits an outsider status that finds parallels in Django’s marginalised position. Both are united by their status as outsiders, articulating a visible solidarity that views white America as the real problem and social evil. Nevertheless, such European enlightenment is never complete as King Schultz’s profession as a bounty hunter complicates his status as an outsider since the unethical profit he makes from death is later questioned by Django. The relationship between Schultz and Django recalls the western genre tradition of the wise, noble gunfighter shaping the young rookie into a lethal killing machine. It is a relationship based on mutual respect and by eliminating the issue of race makes them equal. 


Schultz teaches Django about the ethics of bounty hunting…


…which results in Django’s first ‘cold blooded’ killing.


It is Schultz who teaches Django to kill. Such teaching is clarified in the sequence in which Django under the tutelage of Schultz kills a father in front of his son. While this is necessary in terms of transforming Django into a brutal, remorseless bounty hunter, it is a position that holds very little revolutionary political power. Django’s empowerment is through his guns but such violent retribution is personal and not universal. Towards the end of the film Django dupes the mercenaries who are taking him to a mine into setting him free. After Django kills the white mercenaries, he turns to the three black slaves in a cage and asks for the bag of dynamite. For a moment, I thought Django was going to ask them to join him but he doesn’t. He had done so, his lone vigilante status as the lover on a romantic quest would have transformed into something much more revolutionary. The longing for a posse of black men exacting revenge may have been a symbol of political radicalism that would have transgressed the limitations of the western genre but as Django rides away from the black slaves in the cage, Tarantino takes a moment to pause on the reaction of one of the slaves smiling and celebrating the empowering image of a black man with a shotgun riding on a horse determined to get revenge. This is one of the most ideologically prescient moments in the film since such a reaction from the anonymous slave hints at the way in which metonymic imagery can lead to wider revolt.


The three slaves also being transported to the mine are inadvertently set free…


…and they watch as a mythic black hero is created before their very eyes…

…inspiring one of the slaves to perhaps contemplate his own freedom.


3. Historical Engineering


Tarantino is certainly right to oppose accusations of racism by stating Django is a heroic and empowered black character who uses his newfound freedom to exact revenge on white Southern America. The slaying of the brittle brothers by Django recalls and ascertains a historical anger characteristic of the buck. Yet if Django does eventually become the main narrative interest and thereby a hero for the audience, his empowerment is compromised by the final moments in which Tarantino resorts to racial buffoonery. It’s almost as though the film cannot resist from having the black man descend back into farce by entertaining us with the dancing horse and Django’s clown like antics. One could easily interpret this final spectacle as nothing other than a victory parade and celebration but Django seems completely satisfied and closure occurs as though slavery has come to an end. Therefore, it is hard not to read this ending as mere fantasy that sadly obscures the reality of slavery which remains unchanged. In many ways, genre preoccupations of the cowboy riding into the sunset with his girl limits the possibility of a politically radical ending that would have been preferable for such a daring black male representation. 


Coonery and…




While Django does not quite transgress many of the dominant black representations, the film can also be accused of historically engineering America’s past by normalising Mandingo fighting as fact, when in reality, no historical record exists that such brutal black on black fighting took place. If Mandingo fighting is a fictitious invention inspired by Tarantino’s love of Mandingo films which offer such outlandish fantasies why has he gone on record to defend the use of the word nigger as historically accurate? To say the repeated use of the word nigger has a historical precedence and to then incorporate something fictitious as Mandingo brawling into the narrative makes a mockery out of Tarantino’s defensive position. In truth, the film is pure cathartic fantasy with tenuous authorial claims to reality. One of the fiercest reactions to the film has come about because of the controversial use of the word nigger which Tarantino uses over 100 times. Is it justified and is it necessary? Making a film about slavery inevitably means having to deal with a language that is largely racist and Tarantino is justified in doing so. Nonetheless, since the film makes such a prolific use of the term, it trivialises racist discourse and history by rendering the word devoid of its actual power and so it becomes merely incorporated into a normal way of speaking between many of the people in the South. I feel Tarantino should have been more strategic in his deployment of the word nigger, using it at key moments in the narrative. Instead it’s overuse renders it obsolete when in fact it should be a source of revulsion. The use of the word nigger is much more troubling for me in films such as Reservoir Dogs than Django Unchained since it smacks of a casual racism masked by Tarantino’s apparent hipness as an auteur of dialogue.


Mandingo fighting involves fighting to the death…


…however history says no such fighting existed…


…yet films have been made specifically about the myth of Mandingo fighting.


4. Candyland: The House Slave, Phrenology & White Villainy


The final part of the film takes place in a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo De Caprio) and develops three significant points of interest. The first and most frightening is that of Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) as an ageing house slave who has been conditioned to accept his inferiority and act solely in the interests of his white master. In terms of racial representations, Stephen is Tarantino’s most radical construction and recalls the troubling stereotype of the Mammy who usually acted as a surrogate mother to the children of the white family that she was serving. The most frightening aspect of Stephen’s character is not that he plots against his ‘brothers and sisters’ (Django & Hildy) but his unconditional loyalty to his white master openly shows the practise of a white hegemonic power structure in subjugating an entire race of people. Stephen’s inability and refusal to recognise his own black identity means he misconstrues someone like Django as the enemy but more importantly as a threat to his own empowered position within the Candie family. Stephen’s desire to humiliate and ultimately disempower Django comes from a deep sense of inferiority and self hate since he only privileges white power as a way of keeping intact the status quo. Django’s decision to exact revenge for the death of Schultz and the humiliation of Hildy may seem straightforward enough in terms of logical narrative linearity but the choice to leave Stephen ‘the last man standing’ is ideologically significant as his symbolic status as the conditioned house slave represents the greatest obstacle in Django’s metaphorical path to emancipation. In many ways, the dynamiting of the mansion and also of Stephen is a hyperbolic spectacle. Such reflexive hyperbolic destructiveness is ubiquitous in fantasising about an end to slavery by eradicating slaves like Stephen. In other words, the road to tolerance and liberalism can only come about from the absolute reconstruction of self identity as is the case with Django’s transformation from slave to hero.


Stephen is the loyal house slave who…


…exists solely for his white master.


Unlike the complicated representation of Stephen, white villainy in the form of Calvin Candie is delineated along more unequivocal traditional lines. Candie is the most cartoonish of the characters. This is problematic since by removing any sense of realness from the most potent figure, namely the plantation slave owner, from the racist landscape and having him ‘perform’ the role of the perfect villain works to disavow guilt. Villainy is outlined explicitly when Candie demonstrates his power by making an example of a Mandingo fighter caught trying to escape the plantation. Attack dogs ripping apart the black slave is a disturbing image that becomes ingrained on the psyche of Schultz and is later justified by Candie with his phrenological musings on black submissiveness. Unlike the other white racist constructs which are ruthless, brutal and ugly, Candie’s eloquent banter and relationship with Stephen does not make him altogether unsympathetic. In fact, Candie is charismatic, a professional and a good host but what makes him totally unappealing as a human being is an ancestral arrogance that Schultz is unable to fathom. This leads to Schultz shooting Candie and finally declaring his European political liberalism as the genuine article.


A Mandingo fighter is ripped apart by attack dogs on Candie’s order.


Candie is represented as a petulant young ruler.


Concluding thoughts

Aside from Schultz, Tarantino ridicules and critiques nearly all of the other white characters and it is a film predicated on the symbolic racial centrality of Django as a largely mythical figure, which is important in terms of the western genre, since Django’s singularity reiterates the romanticism of the cowboy as loner. It would be wrong to attempt to associate any kind of critique of this film with the terms historical accuracy since this is staged as a pure fantasy of violence. Tarantino cites Mandingo (1975) as a key influence on the film and interestingly Jonathan Rosenbaum (who in turns cites Robin Wood’s reclaiming of the film Mandingo) refers to Fleischer’s film as, ‘one of the most neglected and underrated Hollywood films of its era‘ yet he is none to enthusiastic about Django Unchained, ‘at best it’s Another True Life Adventure for ten-year old boys‘. I’m not so sure about Tarantino arguing that his film has triggered a wider and honest debate about slavery in the mainstream media since it is a debate narrowly contested on the use of the word nigger. Perhaps in the end it’s simply not enough to give audiences a black hero especially one who is without any real overarching ideological sentiments that would pose a real threat to the white establishment in which the era the film is set. Tarantino’s re-imagining of slavery is his best film since Kill Bill Vol. 1 but that’s not much of a complement considering how average his career has been over the last decade. However, this is also one of his most complicated works as the representations of race in particular are site of struggle and contest that echo wider hegemonic attitudes.

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