Debate over Django Unchained has been intense for weeks before it’s release, especially given Spike Lee’s tweet about his refusal to see the film due to it’s disrespect to his ancestors. Tavis Smiley said similarly. For multiple reasons, the film is incredibly controversial and reviews for, against, and somewhere in between resound across the internet and in print. For good reason. This movie does something rarely accomplished in American theater by depicting a formerly enslaved Black man not only seeking revenge but also depicting the horrors of slavery more graphically than any film in recent memory, something many Americans (as well as Europeans) seem to either forget or deny outright in contemporary considerations of racial inequality.
Since addressed thoroughly elsewhere, I will not dwell on the real and valid critiques regarding the movie’s gratuitous violence or use of the “n-word” which can be found here, here, hereand here among others, “mandingo fighting” the fact that Freeman is a sidekick for most of the movie and that the film misses quite a bit about slavery. Instead, I will address what I perceive to be the film’s primary missed opportunity, as well as offer some insights into some of the film’s complexities vis a vis gender, sexuality, and contemporary racial inequality.
The principal flaw of Django Unchained is that it fails to take seriously whiteness and the economic system of Black enslavement and exploitation undergirding the historic and contemporary ideologies of white supremacy. Ignoring the complexities and the banality of evil that embodied most whites during this era finds every white person with the exception of the European Dr. King Schultz, master enslaver and poor man alike, in Django Unchained is a charicature – unrelatable, simplistic, and stupid. Either they are overly flamboyant racists or poor and dirty. For example, the vicious master enslaver Calvin Candie cannot identify the ruse deployed by Shultz and Freeman under his nose and is unaware that Alexander Dumas was a Black man while poor whites wait anxiously to unleash their dogs to tear apart an enslaved fighter who attempts to run away. These are not “regular people,” the well- or even modestly-educated men, women, and children who supported the institution of enslavement, allowed it to become a deeply entrenched system of exploitation that fomented the industrial revolution and the Eurocentric global capitalist economy that remains in place today. Nowhere to be found are the benign supporters of enslavement – merchants, teachers, constables, businessmen, presidents, or hard working yet poor white men and women – who profited and generated untold wealth from the exploitation, kidnap, rape, and murder of generations of Africans.
Individual whites are therefore the root of the racist system and the violence embedded within. Slavery and whiteness are not systemic, institutionalized, or profit generating on individual, national, and international levels. Instead, they are foolishness, gratuitous violence, and being unaware of what’s going on under your own nose. It is this displacement of the evil of enslavement on individual “bad” people, rather than a system, that allows people and nations to continue to ignore the deep effects that this system had on millions of people’s, Africans’ and whites’, lives, national histories, and contemporary structures of inequality. By blaming “bad slave owners,” rather than a system of economic violence, we ignore the true damage enslavement accomplished and whose legacy remains with us today, on a local, national and international level.
By ignoring the systemic nature of historic racial exploitation in the form of enslavement, and instead focusing on “bad” whites’ as individuals, I fear that this film will provide whites the license to perpetuate individualist explanations for racism and racial inequality using rhetoric along the lines of, “See, look how far we’ve come. Racism isn’t that bad anymore.” This rhetoric is not unlike that deployed by those seeking to slow down integration in the 1950s, reverse it in the 1980s, or dismiss it altogether today through colorblind discourse that ignores structural and historical logic for systemic racial inequality, and the ways in which whites continue to profit from their privileged position within this system. That whites continue to laugh at Black pain, reveals how far we have yet to go to achieve racial equality.
Unlike the one-dimensional white characters, Tarantino renders the Black characters with significantly more depth, but not necessarily for radical purposes. In perhaps the most disturbing scene, it is Django Freeman who sentences the captured enslaved man to death by dogs after Schultz offers to compensate Candie for his loss of property. For a moment, Freeman implicates himself in this racist system, not unlike that of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen. Blackened so that he is visually the darkest character in the movie, he “yessirs” and parrots in public while dictating the plantation’s organization backstage. Though juxtaposed as Freeman’s nemesis, Stephen is not exactly this and together they could be considered the slavery-era equivalent of the DuBois-Washington debate over emancipation versus accommodation. One sought to challenge the system directly, the other sought to perpetuate it and allow for marginal spaces of Black success within it without ever competing directly against, or being equal to, whites. In the film, Stephen acted to ensure the perpetuity of enslavement (unable even on his deathbed to envision a world without it), while Freeman operated to subvert it.
Perhaps most striking to this viewer, was how both Stephen and Freeman, in different contexts, spoke to whites throughout most, though not all, of the film – as equals, something rarely seen in films or in reality, due to most white’s continued perceptions of Blacks as either culturally or intellectually inferior. Though largely unconscious, whites’ discomfort with true Black equality (or respect for Blacks in positions of power) can be seen most recently in Arizona Governor Brewer’s public finger wagging at President Barack Obama and the Secret Service’s lack of action as a Florida pizza owner picked up the President in a bear hug. Depicting Black men as equals to whites and in powerful positions vis a vis whites resulting in total destruction of white property (including white women), has long represented the deepest fear of both original and liberal white supremacists.
Beyond the unfortunate missed opportunity to critique whiteness and its links to slavery and the complexity of the film’s Black characters, Tarantino offers a number of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) lessons on race and whiteness.
Though clearly sublimated to race, a number of scenes reveal the complex interplay of gender and race. Candie’s sister, Lara Lee, is revealed to be a part of a vicious white gang that uses and rejoices in excessive violence towards captured and enslaved men and women. Not unlike female military officers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Lara Lee appropriates the violence of the dominant society to subvert the gender hierarchy, retrench the racial one, and claim a form of equality unavailable to women at this time. On the other hand, Broomhilda von Shaft (a homage to 1970’s Blaxploitation hero John Shaft) appears as a rebel, continuously attempting to escape the enslavement’s bonds by running away, as well as a princess (named after a German fairy tale princess), a rarity for American films.
Django Unchained acknowledged sexual exploitation of women, in the casual proffering of Broomehilda von Shaft to Schultz (i.e. white rape of Black women for pleasure and economic profit) but largely demurred from physical exploitation of the Black female body. There is no Black female full or partial frontal nudity even when the character was naked or stripped at the waist. Instead, the Black male body experienced extreme violence and physical and sexual exploitation in and for the film. Hung by his feet, Freeman wears nothing but a metal mask as viewers see both the Black penis and white control over the most private of sexual and bodily functions. Candie’s white male associate who had his sexuality questioned the previous day by Freeman (by asking, “do you want to hold my hand”), holds Freeman’s testicles in his hands ready to castrate with a white-hot knife. Earlier in the film, a precursor to the Klan’s lynch mob found whites laying claim to Freeman’s genitals as a prize, signaling the necessity of Black male castration, physically and socially, to ensure white virility and superiority and the underlying sexuality implicit in white dominance. Therefore, the film, though perhaps trying to critique it, embeds itself within the long history of white entertainment and sexual pleasure derived at the expense of Black bodies and humanity.
Although the film does not come close to providing a complete assessment of slavery, it does more to address enslavement’s horrors than any other recent mainstream film with the exception of Roots. Lost to history for most whites, particularly given American public school’s unwillingness to address either the dastardly details of slavery or it’s foundational importance to America’s founding and growing international dominance due to enslaved (and semi-enslaved post legal emancipation) labor or the racial science justifying it. As a result, this is horribly long and dark chapter of American history has become totally divorced from the modern “postracial” contemporary. Although the film ignores the centrality of enslavement to America’s prominence, it does attack the racist science undergirding it as Candie lecture’s dinner guests about phrenology, a long-since-disproved idea that character could be deigned by the shape and bumps on one’s skull, using the skull of his family’s most “esteemed” enslaved man, who even in death remains at the service of whites in preserving the racial hierarchy.
Destroying the conceptions of Black enslavement as a benign civilizing tool perpetuated by school texts, when addressed at all, Django Unchained visually subjects viewers to the tools of torture out of a child’s nightmare – face masks, hot boxes, whipping, branding, castration, dogs trained to eagerly tear apart Black flesh and the white overseers who take joy and pleasure in using all of these. Gratuitous violence, though unnecessary to the integrity of the film, was integral in upholding this oppressive and exploitative system, as Tarantino himself points out. That it was used not entirely by whites, but against whites, is what makes Django Unchained unique.
The close of the film sees the hero and his rescued princess riding off not into a sunset but into the dark with only the light of the burning plantation they dynamited behind. But this is one house, not the system, that Freeman destroyed. And even though Schultz and Freeman free a number of enslaved men and women throughout the film, the system of slavery remains intact and untouched. The film’s elimination and critique of individual racists while offering freedom to some enslaved individuals perpetuates the myth of racism as an individual problem and the possibility for individual uplift while ignoring the systemic nature of enslavement, racism, and the ideology of white supremacy, the latter two of which remain intact to this very day.
Melissa Weiner is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. Her research examines historical and contemporary racial ideologies and inequality in education in the United States and The Netherlands.