Editor’s note: This is the first of six installments of the characters of the Quentin Tarantino movie “Django Unchained. Hopefully the subsequent five will arrive more quickly than the first one. JLL
The titular character’s name was initially just “Django.” One word.
As the movie progressed and Django was considered a freeman and introduced to Big Daddy in a subsequent scene following his march toward freedom, he played the role of Dr. King Schultz’s valet, just a fancy word for servant. And Dr. Schultz introduced him as Django Freeman. A free man indeed.
Django’s freedom, and status as a freed man was one of the driving forces through the whole movie and was indeed a primary catalyst for the plot of the movie. This “unchained” concept played on some carnal instinct that beasts of the wild, animals, are the things that are meant to be chained. As if to say we all have the id that Freud wrote about that lurks beneath the surface scratching and clawing to get free. While, I don’t think Tarantino was imaging something that raw and visceral, he certainly encouraged the image of not just an angry black man with a cause, but a freed and angry black man with a cause.
I guess because so much emphasis in the advertisement was placed on the look of the chains of slavery, and moreso the scene in which Django was physically unchained from the fetters that bound him to the other slaves sold in a lot from the Greenville auction block, it should be of some note that Django was never not once mentally enslaved. Django was mentally unchained from the beginning of the movie. Even in the flashbacks of him being whipped and tortured from old man Carrucan, he was never mentally enslaved. In fact, his mind was so free that he so desired for his body to be free as well; even upon capture, he was branded with an “R” on his cheek so that he was known as a runaway slave.
I thought it interesting that in the opening scene the subtitle “1858” flashes before the screen and “Two Years Before the Civil War” was placed as an addendum. Now I’m not sure if the mention of the two years prior to the Civil War was because the American public wouldn’t have automatically known that and connected the historical dots, or was it some basic quirky if not sarcastic slap in the face at the viewers. Nonetheless, it provided enough historical context to let me know that these were the years following the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 allowed for white bounty hunters (and no doubt a few black ones) to capture blacks and return them back to the South and no doubt free blacks of the northern states were sold into slavery perhaps never having been enslaved. This was also one year after the Dred Scott decision which now gave legal unction to the notion of slavery behind the congressional divide and a tacit, yet compliant executive branch. That is to say, in 1858, slavery was an ingrained institution of the South, and whatever horrors imaginable were probably at their worst in the short years between 1858 and the end of the Civil War.
Yet, Django was unchained.
With his body freed, he immediately set off with his wife in mind. Yes, his wife. There was never any wiggle room in the writing that ever alluded to the fact that he was just a man after a woman he liked, or even just some woman he fell in love with, but that this was his wife. I doubt anyone gave two thoughts about the realities of what it meant for slaves to be “married.” I use the quotations because marriage is very much a legal term and a legal agreement and has been for some times now. Even the state of marriage in ancient cultures included business transactions where money, goods or services were exchanged among patriarchs and the women were viewed as property more than an equal partner in a joint venture. For Django and Broomhilda to actually be married would have required a legal document, which didn’t exist nor would ever exist since they were both slaves. However, in the suspension of fact and historical accuracy in the name of poetic license, their marriage exists so that now we have the makings of a Western movie that takes place in the South with slavery as the main backdrop; this of course means that a romance must exist.
What sometimes happens in movies, or rather Hollywood is that a black character is cast and it’s a racially mutable role whereas there aren’t any major cultural signifiers that would dictate a certain ethnic race should play that role. To use a weird comparison, take a movie like “Hitch.” Anyone of any ethnic background could have played that role from Matt Damon to Boris Kodjoe. In this case, there was a lead character in a major Hollywood picture that was designed for someone with black skin.
I think what led to the complexities of Django’s character, despite him being unchained mentally and physically was his interactions with the rest of the characters. Now, one of my major issues I’ve had with some of the characters in Tarantino’s movies is that the characters can be terribly one-dimensional and Django was again a one-dimensional character to me. The backstory of him being a runaway slave, being sold on an auction block, even his professed loved for his wife all fell in the range of predictable; it played into a typical Hollywood romance story of the guy getting the woman.
For me it would have been nice to see some more complexities presented rather than a reductionist character that was ripe for a backstory. Truth be told, it would have been nice to have heard a story about his parents, or where did he originally come from or even was he born free and sold into slavery or had been raised in a house or raised on a plantation or whatever the case maybe. Moreover, I’d definitely like to know where he learned how to read! Hoke Coleman in “Driving Miss Daisy” couldn’t put together as many words as Django could in 1858 and again, Dr. Schultz’s character didn’t even ask where did he learn to read or who taught him or anything of the nature. Seen through that lens, Django somewhat takes on that “magical Negro” qualities we haven’t seen in a movie since “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
Tarantino never set out to make a historically accurate movie and the vast pendulum swings of drama to great comedy created a very stark contrast, but the comedic ploys set a tone of not just a romanticized image of the antebellum South, but almost a fetishized image. One of my colleagues commented that this was a movie that showed Tarantino’s fetishization with black bodies and black sexuality. While I didn’t quite go that far with it, my colleague makes some astute observations. My immediate pushback was that the movie should be seen as entertainment, almost with your intellectual mind turned off until perhaps the second viewing, however my colleague aptly reasoned that if Jamie Foxx in an interview says that this movie will be this generation’s “Roots,” then indeed we’ve have crossed that imaginary line for appropriate and critical engagement.
That being said, Django hanging upside down naked and prosthetic penis flopping about was a bit jarring.
I haven’t heard much written commentary about this particular facet, perhaps because it was so startlingly uncomfortable scene to watch. It’s after Django’s character has fought it out to the bitter end, has surrendered and his found hanging upside down, naked with one of the white overseers, Billy Crash, about to unceremoniously castrate him. The scene visceral in image and in just basic subject nature does a full frontal of Foxx hanging upside down and his junk, to be crass about it, flopped down and Crash’s character walks up and grabs it and with a hot knife from coal prepares to cut off his testicles. The dialogue includes Crash going into bloody detail about the bleeding out process perhaps is proper cauterization does not take place implying one’s possible death. Stephen walks in and halts the castration process, and not a moment too soon, and then proceeds to tell Django what his fate will be once he leaves Candieland [Editor's note: Or is it Candyland?]. The cinematographic shot has Django’s legs in a V pattern and Stephen’s face placed dead in the middle presumably centimeters above Django’s testicles, Stephen’s face almost looking dead into the camera.
Am I alleging a certain level of homoeroticism? No, I’m not, but I am asserting a twisted, perverted and downright demented skewing of sexuality that is historically accurate. Many sociologists and psychologists have traced some of these stereotypes of sexuality projected on black bodies from the way black bodies were viewed by whites prior to the end of slavery in the Americas. Was it a type of penis envy for white men? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but it certainly does suggest a high level of perversion. Male genitals were kept as souvenirs at mass lynchings in the Jim Crow South, and the practice of castration was not some uncommon rarely if ever used practice among black male slaves. And to be honest, it has been the practice of the ruling class to castrate males in ancient world practices of slavery in general. This concept of eunuchs is something that has been around since recorded history. That was about the only time Django’s character was shown with absolutely no way out through his own means was in fact, chained and enslaved again. Saved by Stephen no doubt.
Before I get to the conclusion, I think it should be of some note, that despite the tons of whites that Django killed, the death of Calvin Candie was saved for Dr. Schultz, and similarly, the death of Stephen was so sweetly savored by Django. Even though Candie was the harbinger of everything that Django hated and certainly held enslavement over his wife, no, indeed Schultz, so graciously “couldn’t help” himself and shot Candie in a battle of the wills and honor. Without completely blowing the plot (if you haven’t seen it yet) Stephen’s step(h)-en-fetchit character being a foil specifically for Django becomes a new and surprising menace and in a quid pro quo move, Django has the privilege of seeing Stephen’s very timely demise, a death only worth of the actor Samuel L. Jackson.
Django embodies this contemporary hope for many black men today. I think that’s why despite the flaws the movie presented, the historical inaccuracies and the sordid commentary from online writers (like myself) to Spike Lee, I was personally able to cheer at the end of the movie. He got his woman, all was restored and he rode off into the night as Django, unchained. Rarely do we see a black male fully redeemed in movies. Usually there some redemption that’s aided by whites in some sort of way; or “The Color Purple” effect where the black women are redeemed at the expense of the black men in the film. While Django may have been unchained by the help of Dr. Schultz, Django secured his own freedom, and more importantly his own redemption and the redemption of his wife.
Let the record show that his wife, Broomhilda was always his wife. Seriously, for some black women, the livestock may have been treated better which is what prompted Zora Neale Hurston to note that black women were the mules of the earth, which is exactly how they were treated by whites and even by some black men. Django’s character not only holds his wife up on a pedestal by constantly daydreaming about her, but even Schultz elevates Django’s character to the equivalent of the most famous well known German folktale–perhaps giving Django a touch of cinematic magical Negro status as well.
In this movie, the black man saves the black woman in a blaze of glory, and liberates a few other black women in the process. One of the most comedic scenes was the “Tell Miss Laura Goodbye” scene at the end where the random ancillary white female character of the movie was literally blown away by Django’s gun, but it resulted in two of the other women slaves literally running off the plantation. Now what they did afterwards we’ll never know, but it was the epitome of exactly what Nat Turner did minus getting caught and hung for it.
Django’s character was complex, yet flat at the same time, a living and breathing contradiction, full of historical inaccuracies which make it difficult to read backwards through the lens of history to grab perhaps a true sense of the character. He functioned in his role and from there he was who he was, a walking enigma who was a one man revolt, who, unlike Moses asking Pharaoh “to let my people go,” told Pharaoh, I’m leaving, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL