It is an interesting time to be at the movies if you care about the past. We’ve just passed January 1, the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and while that milestone has received fairly minimal coverage, movie houses are doing good business with two films on the Civil War era: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Since I wrote about Lincoln, and since everyone seems to have an opinion on Django, how can I resist? (There may be spoilers.)
There are plenty of things I didn’t like about Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino seems to believe that the only thing better than blood is more blood. He perhaps is not sufficiently aware of his own privilege when he uses racial epithets so liberally. He also can’t seem to find room in his lengthy screenplay to give his leading female character more than three lines of dialogue. In a revenge fantasy that re-imagines historical outcomes, why doesn’t Django’s wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) get to pop off a few racists? She certainly has scores to settle. And the entire project of a white director telling an ostensibly “black” story is going to be problematic for a lot of people. Spike Lee says he won’t see it. Perhaps that is because Spike Lee would probably not get to make it. And if he did, white audiences would be more inclined to reject it as racial propaganda.
But American slavery was never entirely about blackness. It was also about the way a society, north and south, was built on black bondage, about how whites could unite around supposed racial difference, about how it represented white upward economic mobility, about how it meant transgressive sexual privilege for white males. You wonder why the South would secede rather than live under the first administration hostile to the expansion of slavery?
What has been less discussed is Tarantino’s depiction of the psychology of slaveholding. In a few bold strokes, he underscores the ideological and practical realities of nineteenth-century slaveholding. In a set piece at a point of extreme tension in the film, plantation mogul Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio, oozing moral corruption like a cracked quill pen) asserts that he “knows” his black people, has lived with them his entire life. Walter Johnson’s acclaimed study Soul by Soul: Inside the Antebellum Slave Market details the ways slave buyers prided themselves on their ability to “read” enslaved faces, to examine enslaved bodies, to judge their worth as if by divine right, and how slaves for sale played roles that they hoped would get them sold into the best possible situation. The joke in this scene is that, just as in the real slaveowning past, Candie has clearly not read Django correctly—only because Samuel L. Jackson’s House Tom has alerted him to Schultz and Django’s con is he making the speech at all. Candie’s cranial lecture using “Old Ben”’s skull, his rhetoric reminiscent of actual mid-century defenders of slavery such as Samuel Cartwright and Josiah Nott, read today as pseudoscience, but these are the stories slaveholders told themselves (and told others in defense of their institution). Slaves do not rise up and kill their masters, Candie asserts, because they are inclined to submission. It is left to the viewer to decide whether Candie believes his own rhetoric or is whistling past the graveyard, the ghost of slave rebel Nat Turner lurking. Has this ever been depicted in film before? Di Caprio’s emphatic “Sold!” as he brings the hammer/gavel down not on Hildy’s cranium but on the dinner table/auction block melds ideology and commerce in one chilling instant.
Tarantino continues his renegade argument with classic Hollywood. The second half of Gone with the Wind opens with a stylized depiction of Sherman’s burning of Atlanta (actually, the Confederates burned a share of it when they retreated, but tell that to Margaret Mitchell). A very large text appears, a single word designed as shorthand for every Southern nightmare of death and destruction: “Sherman!” In Django, Tarantino begins the second part of his film with one of the most one-sided text crawls conceivable: “MISSISSIPPI,” writ as large as the screen, and designed as shorthand for a benighted American hell. Now, “one of my best friends is from Mississippi,” and Welty and Wright and Faulkner and Robert Johnson and Cassandra Wilson came from there, but along with its genteel cousin South Carolina, Mississippi was historically one of the most consistently intransigent, undemocratic, and racist corners of our fair land. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood edited its films in such as way that entire segments with black characters could be cut out for distribution to places like Mississippi. For decades (centuries, really), American politics has been practiced such that conservative Mississippians and their southern brethren would not be offended and the racial order not upset or the country made too progressive, with fewer guns, more health care, protected civil rights, and so on. That text scroll is a landmark in telling it like it is.
This is not Tarantino’s only dig at classic Hollywood. In an intriguing interview with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Tarantino mentions his interest in and revulsion toward the making of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation from 1915, the biggest film before Gone with the Wind. Griffith blatantly steers the audience into identification with the Ku Klux Klan. One way of reading Tarantino’s scene of pre-war night riders (led by Don Johnson as the feckless Big Daddy) squabbling and whining over the quality of the sacks on their heads is that it trivializes domestic terrorism. Maybe so, but it is a hilarious sequence precisely because rather than identifying with this practice, we are asked to see how ludicrous it really is. You can condemn, or you can skewer. The message is just as clear accompanied by a laugh.
In fact, the most concerning critique I’ve heard about Django Unchained is that slavery is too serious, and too much an unresolved issue in American society, to be addressed in anything other than somber and earnest terms. I don’t think any of the images of torture, flogging, branding, and other inhumane acts the film depicts make us feel any better about the practice of slavery. They sicken us and, in the mode of discourse Tarantino inhabits and celebrates—pulp fiction, in this case the spaghetti western variety—revenge is the inevitable outlet for our rage. That Tarantino crafts a film that seeks to satisfy that desire is perhaps not entirely to his (our his audience’s) credit, and certainly the film is not in what used to be called good taste. But it seems that Django Unchained exists, in part, to correct the “good taste” that made big-budget Hollywood productions, from The Birth of a Nation (surely a revenge narrative too) to Gone with the Wind to the anti-Indian westerns not merely palatable but overwhelmingly popular, with dire social and political consequences for minorities in this country. And the tradition of southern gentility and “manners” was built on a system of oppression that is not only morally difficult for us to comprehend but is doubly problematic because it sustained the modern world’s first democracy. You can’t watch Django Unchained and come away with a different impression. And the spaghetti western genre itself, informed by Italian left’s concerns with what Antonio Gramsci called the subaltern, portrayed distrust of capitalists (think Mr. Morton the railroad baron in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) warmongers (Leone’s cynical depiction of the Civil War in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and others who seemed in need of a good comeuppance courtesy of a (however laconic) people’s avenger. Jamie Foxx’s Django Freeman is a radically individual avenger (“one in ten thousand”), but he represents not only that genre trope but the authors of slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, the ones who beat the odds, got away, and lived to fight the system by telling their tales. And even Douglass did not ignore the gun. He was one of the “Secret Six” abolitionists who helped fund John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 (the year of Django’s closing action) and helped push for and recruit black troops to fight the Confederacy during the war. A son fought at Fort Wagner with the Massachusetts 54th.
And this leads me to the potential value of the film. Solemnities have their place, and the gravity of slavery is certainly not to be trifled with. I recently read Barry Unsworth’s novel Sacred Hunger, and his sensitive depiction of the brutal Atlantic slave trade is a reminder, as if any were needed, that this is an issue that speaks to our very humanity—what it is and what it can be. Tarantino’s film draws clear, some might say cartoonish, lines between good and evil. No American white person is nobly depicted. Mississippi is a hell. Slaveholders deserve what they get in the end. The real history didn’t work that way, not by a long shot (see: Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation). But in making such a clear distinction between the good side and the bad, Tarantino leaves no room for ambiguity. For a country still apparently struggling with the idea of a black president, I can think of worse things than white viewers cheering for Jamie Foxx’s Django Freeman.
In their study Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, James Oliver Horton and Louise E. Horton edit a collection that explores the ways slavery has been remembered or forgotten on the American historical landscape. As they write in their introduction, “The history of slavery continues to have meaning . . . it burdens all of American history and is incorporated into public interpretations of the past,” that is, in museums, historic sites, and anywhere else history is done “in public.” Django Unchained is no documentary, but in its imagining of an alternative to the imperatives of whiteness, it does reinforce the idea that, as Douglass himself said in 1883, the two sides who fought were not on the same moral footing. “Whatever else I may forget, “ Douglass said in a Decoration Day speech in Rochester, New York, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery, between those who fought to save the Republic and those who sought to destroy it.” Speaking at a moment when the white South had “redeemed” itself and imposed Jim Crow and terrorism as hallmarks of “home rule,” Douglass’s words are worth remembering when considering Tarantino’s film. In Tarantino’s view, his Django is on the right side of history, despite all the hopes that are likely to be dashed when our hero and his mate ride away in style from Candieland.