The Plantation as Crime Scene: Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”

Between this and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, it's been a banner year for antebellum shades.

Between this and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, it’s been a banner year for antebellum shades.

“It’s a flesh for cash business—just like slavery.” So the German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz describes his profession to the ex-slave title character near the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s an apt introduction to the film’s broader portrait of American slavery — a rendering that emphasizes the tortured flesh, the sordid cash, and the gruesome business of bondage at every turn. In this regard, Django Unchained fits comfortably within the familiar canon of Tarantino crime films, which have nearly always probed the intersection between the brutally physical and the cynically transactional.

The old gang’s all here: the vicious mob boss, the wisecracking assassin, the tight-lipped, vengeance-minded hero. So why should anyone, let alone early American historians, bother to consider the historical perspective of a film that in many ways is just Reservoir Dogs with snazzier waistcoats and more primitive sunglasses?

Django & DiCapIn part, the answer is because Tarantino’s crime-thriller version of the slave South is surprisingly effective. A gangster universe defined by casual violence, rising and plunging fortunes, and uncertain but brutally enforced hierarchy translates pretty well, after all, to antebellum Mississippi. Moreover, as Adam Serwer argues, Django Unchained is an unflinching, unequivocating exposition of slavery’s horror, in a film industry that remains all too rife with flinches and equivocations (or worse). The film’s depictions of violence against whites may take the spaghetti Western to new heights of silliness, with soup-cauldrons of marinara sauce  exploding out of every gunshot wound. But the violence against blacks, and especially enslaved blacks, is both real and raw.  Tarantino’s most flamboyant cinematic tricks all hit their marks here — the camera’s insistent attention the paraphernalia of slave torture, from the whip to the branding iron; the grainy, ’70s-pulp camera filter used to depict flashbacks of slave abuse, which hauntingly suggests the lurid, nightmarish quality that such torment  must have retained, even in memory.

800px-Djangotrailerscreen8

In this gangland Old South, there is no room for paternalism, or even the fig leaf of paternalist posturing. (Here Tarantino occasionally takes such extreme ground as to make Walter Johnson look like Eugene Genovese). Slavery is all cash, all trade, all business, all the time — bills of sale are brandished, signatures are insisted upon, and slave prices and property values are discharged as frequently as pistol shots. There are of course problems with this perspective (I’ll get to those later), but however limited or crudely drawn, it remains a real attempt at interpretation  — and one that is, after all, broadly consistent with the direction of much recent scholarship on the antebellum South,  slavery, and capitalism.

The most radical line in Django Unchained comes when the large planter Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, orders his dogs to be set loose on a disobedient slave. As the hounds tear the man limb from limb, Dr. Schultz winces visibly, but Jamie Foxx’s Django maintains an impassive stare. When the grinning Candie asks Django why he, unlike his German colleague, does not flinch, Django replies: “I guess I’m just more used to Americans than he is.” If in Tarantino’s depiction the plantation is above all a crime scene, then the United States itself can be no more than a vast and vicious underworld. This blurring of the boundaries between the American criminal and the American man of business, is, of course, the great theme of thoughtful  gangster films from The Godfather to GoodFellas. But by granting slavery its rightfully central position inside this national panorama of greed, crime, and violence, Django makes a real contribution of its own.

American Gangster

American Gangster.

Yet as powerful as some of Django’s scenes may be, its crimeland view of slavery also leads the film into trouble.  While the best gangster entertainments of the past decade, especially TV shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, delved deeply into the nitty-gritty details of criminal enterprise, Tarantino has never been interested in procedure. In Django, he is enthralled by the idea of slavery as a “business,” but has no notion of slavery as economics. “You’ve got to understand, I’m runnin’ a business here,” avows Calvin Candie, just before making the highly unbusinesslike decision to murder a slave for his own amusement. (Stringer Bell this dude is not.) Indeed Candie obviously prefers inflicting pain to producing profit, and in this he joins a long line of Tarantino sociopaths from Mr. Blonde to Hans Landa.

Slavery, for Tarantino, is just sadism writ large; and sadism, as ever, remains his chief subject. (Remember, his original exploration of slavery came in the basement of Zed’s Pawn Shop.) Thus we learn nothing about Candie’s plantation activities other than his interest in “Mandingo fighting,” which pits slaves against each other in a savage combat to the death, and borrows more from ’70s blaxploitation cinema than anything we know about actual slave fighting contests. “Mandingo fighting” is a baroque parody of slavery, rather than an attempt to depict slavery itself, and in this it suits Tarantino’s purposes perfectly. His film is almost entirely uninterested in the actual experience of enslavement. Aside from a brief shot of a splattered marinara in a cotton field, Django barely shows slaves doing any actual field work. When Django and Dr. Schultz arrive at one Tennessee plantation, slave women are strolling the grounds as aimlessly as croquet players without mallets. Bondage, like war or street crime, seems to involve an uneven admixture of tedium and terror. Neither drudgery nor exploitation has much to do with it. These black bodies are being abused for pleasure and for leisure, not for their labor.

800px-Djangotrailerscreen15

If you look closely, you can spot a few of the strolling croquet types in the background.

If Tarantino is largely innocent of economics, he is even less interested in politics.  All of slavery’s violence, Django implies, is personal and private, the product of debauched souls looking to expel their own surplus cruelty.  At one point, Calvin Candie brandishes the skull of a dead slave, and begins a “phrenological” discourse on the inferiority of black brains to white — but by the end of the lecture, it is clear that his racism is grounded in individual malice rather than social ideology. Slaveholders are corrupt, they are barbaric, they are incestuous, but as gangsters, they don’t seem to believe in anything, except perhaps their own power.

The slaves, too, lack politics — for how can you have politics if you can barely speak? Django himself included, the film’s slaves remain bizarrely uncommunicative with each other throughout the entire film, despite finding themselves in a wide variety of situations that would seem to call urgently for communication. Nor do they act — mostly, their job is to look on in a kind of stunned, vaguely grateful paralysis while Django and Dr. Schultz get up to their latest caper. (Slave women, including Django’s wife Hildy, are especially paralytic; it’s telling that Hildy’s most striking action in the entire film is a sudden faint.) If there is no paternalism here, neither is there slave solidarity or community, despite all we know about the connection between community and rebellion.

But maybe that’s appropriate, because as Jacobin’s Remeike Forbes points out, there is no slave rebellion in Django Unchained. There’s no black mobilization at all: the only organized actions of any kind are managed by whites, largely for the purpose of getting themselves swiftly cut down by Django and Dr. Schultz. What kind of gangster needs to mobilize? Ultimately, Django Unchained is no more a film about black liberation than Kill Bill was a film about women’s liberation —  identity politics might give the violence a certain kind of aesthetic definition, but that’s about it.  Django, like Beatrix Kiddo, or Calvin Candie, for that matter, remains entrapped in the gangster world of strictly personal hate and strictly personal desire. His “resistance” carries so little whiff of revolution, in fact, that even after murdering a dozen whites at Mississippi’s fourth largest plantation, the local authorities elect to punish him in the fashion that is most personally painful — without even considering any need to restore social order, or to intimidate other possible renegades. Nat Turner, at any rate, would never have been sold to an Australian mining company.

                                                          

An incomplete account of further historically-informed reading on Django Unchained (feel free to add your own in the comments):

Henry Louis Gates interviews Tarantino at The Root: Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.

At Not Even Past, Daina Ramey Berry argues that Django‘s “absurdities trivialize the real violence of the slave system.”

At the New Yorker‘s Culture Desk, Jelani Cobb criticizes Tarantino for depicting blacks “as ciphers passively awaiting freedom.”

In the Civil War Monitor, Megan Kate Nelson tries to make sense of Django as a slave Western.

At ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg compares Dr. Schultz, Thaddeus Stevens, and the politics of white solidarity in Lincoln and Django.

At People’s World, Chris Elliott praises Django for offering a literal visualization of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.”

Movieline posts its interview with Samuel L. Jackson, who calls his character Steven “the most reprehensible negro in cinema history.”

12 comments on “The Plantation as Crime Scene: Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”

  1. Thanks for one of the best essays I’ve read on the film (which I confess that I haven’t yet seen). What I have read (especially Tarantino’s interviews on The Root) already made me think that Tarantino was treating slavery, as you put it, mainly as “sadism writ large.” It almost sounds like Stanley Elkins Redux: a view of the plantation as a total institution that destroys slave personality (as in the case of Jackson’s character or, apparently, Django before he is rescued). Tarantino’s suggestion that he started thinking of the subject when trying to figure out a parallel to the Holocaust in American history also seems to echo the Elkins school. As someone who’s seen the film, I wonder if you could comment on that.

    If this is a sort of Elkins-esque view, this is troubling for a couple of reasons, one of which is that—as you point out—it elides the economics of slavery, something that Edward Baptist has also warned against. But I also wonder if most of the American public continues to think of slavery much in this way—as a system primarily of personal domination and sadistic violence. Even if, as you point out, most of our films dodge brutal depictions of it, I wonder if that’s still the idea most people have, inherited perhaps from the residues of Elkins that remain in our schoolbooks and popular culture. If so this could be one reason why people have trouble seeing contemporary examples of labor exploitation like human trafficking as “slavery”—if they don’t see people being torn apart by hounds (though no doubt such brutal violence is part of human trafficking, too), they don’t think “slavery.” An immigrant tied by debt to a cantina or domestic service in a New York City home isn’t going to be “visible” as a problem to people who think of slavery as Tarantino does.

    • Matt Karp says:

      Thanks for this, Caleb! I also got an Elkins tingle while reading Tarantino’s interview on the Root, which unfortunately I read just after finishing my piece. In any case it definitely shows up in the film. As Django continues to remind the audience, the “D” is silent — but so are the slaves, who march through the film very much like the zombified victims that Elkins wrote about. In one scene, near the end of the film, after Django has escaped from his second captivity, killing several whites in the process, the camera zooms in on one slave bystander to the carnage, who breaks into a slight smile as Django rides away. This as much personality any non-Django, non-Jackson slave character is able to muster for the entirety of the film.

      I also think you’re onto something when you say it’s not just Tarantino who imagines slavery as sadism writ large. We may well have gotten to the point where the average white American no longer looks at bondage with any sympathy, or even any ambivalence, which is (as Serwer argues) an important kind of progress. But Django has a virtue of really crystallizing the “sadistic theory of slavery” — that, along with a few purposeful but confused gestures at the idea that “it was all just a business” (in my experience, this is a perspective that Tarantino shares with most entry-level undergraduates). In that respect, it might well be a useful teaching tool, if it can help start a conversation about what’s absent in the film — the economics and politics of both slavery and rebellion.

  2. Nic Wood says:

    Matt, nice commentary. While I really liked Cristoph Waltz’s character (Dr. King Schultz), I thought one of the main things “Django” lacked was a character comparable to his portrayal of Hans Landa in “Inglorious Basterds.” To me, Landa represents not the sadism of the Nazis but the “banality of evil” – he wasn’t intentionally evil, he was just committed to doing his work with pride and betting on the winning side. Slavery, like Nazism, depended on the acquiescence and support of regular people. These people might do horrible things and be corrupted by the system, but they were not driven by sadism. “Django” tends to lose sight of this, just like “The Help” (which I also generally liked) made it seem like everyone who was racist was also a bad person in every other way too, obscuring the fact that otherwise “nice people” participated in oppression.

  3. Matt Karp says:

    Nic, I agree with everything you say here except the bit about generally liking The Help, which was a slice of poop pie (literally at times) from beginning to end. Tarantino does have a few good scenes where nonslaveholding whites react anxiously towards Django’s status-puncturing black independence. But since they’re mostly shown to be sick sadists, eventually, the commentary on slavery and white self-image is submerged.

    Not to mention those subhuman hillbilly cliches who manage Candie’s dogs. What was up with those guys?

  4. Matt Karp says:

    Among the historical commentaries on “Django,” I should add Ta-Nehisi Coates’s post today about the inadequacy (and inaccuracy) of a movie that approaches slavery from the perspective of personal revenge: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/toward-a-more-badass-history/266997/

    While I’m at it, here’s Ishamel Reed’s smackdown of the film in the Wall Street Journal: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/12/28/black-audiences-white-stars-and-django-unchained/

    And Dexter Gabriel’s review of slavery in Hollywood, at Colorlines:
    http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/01/slavery_in_film.html

    And Patrick Rael’s nuanced comparison of the politics of slavery and abolition in both Lincoln and Django, posted on The Edge of the American West: http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/2013/01/05/tarantino-vs-spielberg-two-films-about-slavery/

  5. Hi Matt. This is Billy Townsend, the guy you talked back and forth with about DU over at TNC’s place. Thanks for the heads up on your essay. You make a number of really sound points. The best, I think, is the absence of politics or belief for anyone. I was struck both times I saw the movie by the the fact that no one, at any time, even mentions secession, or Black Republicans, or Kansas/Missouri, or even the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were in 1858, if I remember correctly. That talk would have filled the air at those fancy dining and brandy sipping sessions. The idea that the planter world feels completely secure from external forces in 1858 and 1859, which the content of the movie appears to take for granted, is the single greatest inaccurate/dishonest aspect, I would say. It’s either a hole, or a missed opportunity to explore. (I think if you ask QT, he would say that’s because Candyland is like Kurtz’s stronghold in Heart of Darkness, isolated from such concerns. But I do think that’s closer to cheating than any other aspect of the movie.)

    And I think the absence 19th century politics strengthens my take that “Django isn’t even about slavery, per se, I’d argue, it’s about the Clansman/Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and the mythology of the Civil War and aftermath” over at TNC’s.

    Interesting to find that you’re a professional 19th century historian. I’m an amateur early 20th century historian, I guess. I wrote a book this year called “Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida.” It’s roughly an account of 1915-1930, focused on WWI, the early Great Migration, Prohibition and the rise and ultimate defeat of the revival Klan as a governing force in Florida. The interplay of the noble mythology of the civil war and reconstruction with the savagery of prohibition violence, the Red Summer, and the freelance moral regulation of mobs is a hugely important theme of my book. BoaN is an important part of my book. The confederate sentries standing guard on every town square in north Florida — all erected in the 20th century and many after WWI — are very important to my book. I also mingle fiction, nonfiction, and essay. So, you can can see why DU was so satisfying and fascinating to watch through my lens. And I can see now how it would be less satisfying for you, given your historical lens.

    Here’s a link to the book if you’re interested.

    http://bloodandoranges.com/2012/09/whats-right-and-wrong-with-this-picture/

    And here’s a link to “Blood and Oranges,” the fledgling Florida history blog that Dan Weinfeld and I have started — and struggle to maintain with our day jobs. Dan wrote a book this year called “The Jackson County War”. It’s about Florida’s worst Reconstruction violence and how the locals gradually overthrew the Freedmen’s Bureau and Republican rule. It’s the best book about Recon. on the ground I’ve ever read.

    Anyway, good stuff. Hope to cross historical swords with you again.

  6. Oh one last thing. I also take your point about no room for paternalism. With that in mind, here’s a fabulously complex taxonomy of white southern opinion about blacks from WEB DuBois in “Souls of Black Folks”. Note what he says about sons of masters.

    “Today even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant southerner hates the negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others—usually the sons of the masters— wish to help him rise. National opinion has enabled this last class to maintain the negro common schools, and to protect the negro partially in property, life, and limb. Through the pressure of the money-makers, the negro is in danger of being reduced to semi-slavery, especially in the country districts; the workingmen and those educated who fear the negro, have united to disenfranchise him, and some have urged his deportation; while the passions of the ignorant are easily aroused to lynch and abuse any black man. To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh discriminately against “the South” is unjust; but to use the same breath in
    praising governor aycock, exposing Senator Morgan, arguing with Mr. Thomas nelson Page, and denouncing Senator Ben Tillman is not only sane, but the imperative duty of thinking black men.”

  7. Matt Karp says:

    Thanks for checking this out, Billy. I enjoyed our exchange at TNC’s blog, and I’m glad you followed me over here.

    I agree the lack of political discussion is striking — I think in my piece I was mostly thinking about the lack of a collective slave politics, but you’re right that 1858 was an anxious time for many slaveholders. On the other hand, given what we know about how grandiosely confident so many of them were about the future of slavery — it was the centerpiece of the world economy, they really believed — maybe Candie’s complacent sense of security isn’t so off the mark. It’s his inability to talk about about slavery without verging into sadism, I think, that gave me more trouble. (The talk about black and white skulls was initially fascinating, but it disappointed me when it broke down into a raving barrage of insults against Django and Dr. Schultz, rather than building into what would been even scarier — an icy and “logical” rather than feverish and enraged confidence about black inferiority, and a belief in coerced black labor as the never-ending engine of global progress. The scarier version which the movie declines to pursue is of course much closer to the actual historical truth).

    Thanks, too for the Dubois quote and the links to your and Dan’s books, which look fascinating. Maybe your next project will be a history of antebellum Florida? It seems to me that FL often gets left out of the standard history of the pre-Civil War South.

    • I think Florida get left out of standard American history generally until maybe after World War II. I think my book is really the only one about the post WWI era in Florida. Believe me, I’ve looked. And it’s odd, because you had drug wars and land booms and crashes and Klan fights and all this delicious drama that’s completely untapped for study and storytelling. The 20s are understudied in America overall and in Florida particularly. Antebellum Florida isn’t my area of expertise, and I doubt I can get the time (day job and all) to become an expert. Maybe you should do it. I’d be happy to offer advice. The Seminole wars are pretty fascinating. A major battle happened about an hour up the road from where I live. The Dade battlefield it’s called now. They have a pretty cool reenactment, done from the point-of-view of both sides. And I’m sure you know about the mingling of runaway slaves and Seminoles to fight in that war. The “Negro Fort” out in the Panhandle, etc.

  8. Ariel says:

    In all the commentary I’ve seen on Django, I’m amazed at how little of it shows any real appreciation of the pop culture sensibility. Sure, there’s plenty of erudition concerning Spaghetti Westerns, the Van Peebles father-and-son duo, the revenge theme, etc, But critics seem almost entirely uninterested in going beyond the text and the metatext (i.e., the cultural references) to think about how viewers likely experienced the film. Doing that would take something like Michael Demming’s approach in Mechanic Accents. Alternatively, it would take some personal experience with how people actualy consume and interpret pop culture.

    With few exceptions, the critics don’t seem to have had this. Here’s an example. Jelani Cobb’s piece in the New Yorker is probably as a good a statement of an intellectual’s critique of the film as I’ve read. He correctly notes that “the central conflict is not between an ex-slave and a slaver but between two archetypes.” Is this supposed to be some kind of deep insight? Doesn’t he know that archetypes are what pop culture is all about? In pop culture cliches are transcended not through analytic nuance but through stylistic inventiveness. Intellectuals’ habit of tearing away surface presentation to look for the underlying essense is consequently ill-suited to understanding what’s interesting about Django. Adam Sewer at Mother Jones does a much better job by highlighting the repeated line, “What’s that nigger doing on a horse?” That line captures so much so economically. It’s brilliant in the same way that the hard-boiled lingo of Dashiel Hamemt and Raymond Chandler was brilliant. (And just to burnish my own intellectual credentials while not claiming to be too much of the masses, let me cite John Dos Passos in support of my point, who concluded the preface to his USA trilogy with the line, “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”)

    So the archetype thing. The critics keep acting like a personal revenge story is somehow not enough. Sure, maybe some of us want more revolution. But oppression and the sense of being wronged is fundamentally personal. We can all understand that. So there’s a reason why archetypes are powerful–i.e., because they express fairly universal human experiences and emotions. Duh. Seriously.

    Cobb tells us, without the slightest bit of follow up, that “in the Harlem theatre where I saw the film, the largely black audience cheered each time an overseer met his end.” An Israeli friend of mine related a very similar reaction in the Tel Aviv theater where he watched Inglorious Bastereds. Don’t we want to know what the cheering’s all about?

    • Matt Karp says:

      Interesting points. I think my own review was more interested in exploring how QT’s funhouse mirror on the antebellum south both clarified and distorted the politics of slavery and resistance (i.e., it managed to put slavery at the center of American violence and criminality, which is clarifying, but it depicted the institution in exclusively personalized and non-political terms, which is distorting). In other words, I wrote, more or less, what I would try to emphasize to my students if I ever managed to convince myself to show the film in class.

      You’re right that none of that, of course, substitutes for a an actual analysis of the film itself, as a cultural document in 21st century America, experienced by 21st century American audiences. (If I were writing in that vein, I would definitely have had to talk more about Tupac and Rick Ross). Anyway, here’s one piece that discusses the movie in that context, I think: http://gawker.com/5971346/the-django-moment-or-when-should-white-people-laugh-in-django-unchained). It’s an equally if not more valuable project, although I’m not sure that as a 19th C historian I really have any special authority to weigh in. Would be interested to read more, though.

      • Ariel says:

        Those are fair points if you were to show this in class, which I strongly advise you never to do. Unless you wanted to pick a fight.

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