Django: Unchained, the Most Historically Accurate Movie out of Hollywood in a Long Time?
Now that the initial uproar settled down to a quiet buzz, the critical mind can sit back and absorb whatever insightful lessons Django: Unchained presented to us, if any.
Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent (almost satirically so), racially charged, shoot ’em up attempt at a Spaghetti Western drew the ire of many critics, not to mention that of his arch-nemesis Spike Lee; however, none of them posed the ever-present, beneficial question.
What messages does the film send?
One could state the obvious and dwell upon the director’s overplayed obsession with revenge. Some could boast about its presentation of possibly the first Black protagonist to combat the human injustice of the pre-Civil War South in a manner analogous to its antagonisms with a super-heroesque “panache.” Yet the true message, however unintentional on part of Tarantino as it may be, is almost invisible to anyone not looking.
It is probably the MOST historically accurate (although extreme) portrayal of slave agency in the Antebellum to ever rise out of Hollywood!
Now, I do not mean “historically accurate” in the nit-picky sense of the term meaning characters with non-period wardrobe, the use of 20th Century phrases completely alien to 1858 when the movie takes place, or slaves referring to white field supervisors as “overseers” when the common term was “boss” (overseer was what whites called them). Nor do I refer to the appearance of lever-action rifles two years before the mechanism’s invention in 1860, or their availability to a mass market dating around 1864 (in other words, Big Daddy could not have had a .44 caliber 1860 model Henry repeating rifle in 1858). Meticulous inconsistencies like these are best left to scholars and period re-enactors, not Hollywood producers.
To find instructive elements in any motion picture requires a nuanced perspective, and a concentration on context. Did the movie give us a fair and reasoned glimpse into the days of slavery in a manner consistent with historical knowledge, and of sufficient quality for an academic setting?
For the most part, the answer is NO, but as I said above, one must look. The film’s educational value becomes especially evident when one considers two things, the role of the head house slave Steven, played by an amazing Samuel L. Jackson, and the wealth of scholarly work on the topic of slavery since the 1960’s.
As Monsieur Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, stated citing the science of phrenology, “The skull of the African here, the area associated with submissiveness is larger than any human, or any other subhuman species on planet Earth.” This alone surmises the total accepted scholarly assumptions relating to African-Americans since the first white Europeans arrived in Africa to the 1950’s, and peaking in a 1920’s context of the Great Migration. During this time frame, theories of racial division ranged from the religious to the scientific, but all justified the superiority of whites and the passive submissiveness of Blacks. Early 20th Century historians argued that Africans accepted their fate in bondage and ignored, or disregarded personal agency.
For those readers not of an historical persuasion, the concept of agency is quite simple; it is a person’s ability or power to manipulate circumstances, contexts, or their environment to one’s own advantage according to interest or need. Agency exists in every situation whether it be foot-dragging at work to razz the boss, or an ability to talk your way out of anything. Given what we know of the hidden messages in slave music or the success of the Underground Railroad, things well-known and accepted by 1950, it is no surprise that historical studies regarding slaves and slavery since the 1960’s focuses on personal agency. In this context, Django: Unchained excels.
For example, contrary to Calvin Candie or the early 20th Century scholars’ claims of low African intelligence or predisposition towards submissiveness, from the first time we see Sam Jackson, Steven is anything but. When he originally encounters Django, a freed Black slave played by Jamie Foxx, “cheeky” Steven seems threatened by him and responds with verbal hostility. And why not, because Django embodies power, especially a power of influence over other African slaves given his free status. If Steven is threatened by Django, this implies that Steven has some kind of power to jeopardize.
Indeed he does, for in the next scene he demonstrates that power, even over white plantation workers when he orders them to remove Django’s wife from her place of torment. However, this only shows a power within the greater system of slavery, or the Candieland plantation hierarchy specifically. It does not demonstrate an ability to manipulate circumstances to his own advantage. It does not demonstrate agency.
For the moment, it is necessary to leave the topic of power dynamics, but we will return shortly. In the interim, let us switch to the charge of low intelligence, submissiveness, and civility. Those of you who watched the film know how and why Django and Dr. King Schultz (portrayed by Christoph Waltz) came to Candieland, and for those who have not, I hate spoiling movies totally. Suffice it to say, they were not completely honest with their intentions, much to the chagrin and ignorance of Monsieur Candie.
At first glance, one would think that the early 20th Century scholars were correct; Steven appears to be docile, good-natured, the complete embodiment of the Sambo Myth. However, as the dinner scene progresses, one notices Steven’s suspicions evidenced by eye contact and body language between Django and Broomhilda (Django’s wife played by Kerry Washington), of which Candie is completely oblivious. Furthermore, Steven devises an impromptu method of testing his hypothesis by subtly antagonizing Django at Broomhilda’s expense, while simultaneously using an unwitting Candie like a puppet in his devious scheme. Nobody, not the college educated doctor or lawyer, not the business savvy planter or his sister, nor was the extremely clever Django aware of the plot unfolding before their eyes. There is little doubt towards the superior level of Steven’s intelligence, tenacity, and expertise in the art of manipulation, his agency.
Here is the crossroads of intelligence and power, when Steven lures Calvin away from the dinner table, laying the plot bare to Candie’s complete astonishment. It never occurred to him that he was being played for a fool, to which Sam Jackson responds, “Thank you Steven, you’re welcome Calvin.” Yet such is merely the tip of the iceberg in relation to the greater context. Now the question becomes, who actually calls the shots in Candieland? Who is in control, the puppet, or the one pulling the strings?
Later, this is no better demonstrated than in the scene where Steven informs a defeated Django of his approaching fate. Steven tells him of how, for the past few hours the “folks up at the Big House been tryin'” to discern the best method of punishing Django. While the white planters wanted to beat him to death, or at least disfigure our protagonist, we find it is Steven who subtly manipulates the course of events towards the outcome he most desires. Ask yourself again, who really makes the decisions at Candieland?
As aforementioned, if Django’s presence indeed threatened Steven’s authority, power, and agency, not only does this mean he had such power to lose, but also that Steven would have to exert that power at a level sufficient enough to oust the upstart’s influence. We saw the extent of Steven’s agency, his power to change circumstances according to his own interests, and his ability to do so in a manner undetected by those in charge.
From an historical perspective, Tarantino’s image of slave agency is extraordinarily accurate, however extreme it may be, or despite the extent of poetic license. The historical record shows that Sam Jackson’s character should have been female given gendered norms even among African slaves of the day, and her role within the plantation system. Woman equaled household economy, and it was a slave woman who raised the planter’s children. She could get away with a lot more because it was not in the master’s best interest to cross the woman at whose breast his babies fed.
Furthermore, few slaves possessed this sort of power and mostly in extreme cases. Steven’s level of agency was far greater than any average field slave, but this in no way implies a lack of agency in the field. Every slave had the power to alter their circumstance at least in some form, it is only a matter of degree, which African-American Studies since the 1960’s abundantly shows.
The power dynamic in the slave existence was not as one-sided as one would think. Even within this oppressive institution, as human-beings are apt to do, slaves found ways to shape their situation in a manner more conducive to their needs or interests. They did not passively accept their fate, they actively pursued their future with whatever available resource, and Django: Unchained illustrates this beautifully.