Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) works in Quentin Tarrantino’s Django Unchained. Then again, he does not. What makes him run? Well, Stephen rests in a most controversial place in the annals of film / slave history, and we know him: Uncle Tom. Uncle Rastus. Ol’ Uncle Ben. Coon. Buffoon. Stepin’ Fetchit. House Negro. Any person of African descent perceived to be a sell-out to his race receives at least one of these labels. During a Meet the Press conference for MovieManiacsDE, Jackson calls Stephen “the most despicable Negro in cinematic history.”
In Django, Jackson plays ‘the House Negro’ with the rancor of a disturbed rattlesnake attended by the cunning of a fox! Indeed, he is the villain who ‘grins and lies’ for Master ‘Monsieur’ Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the presence of visitors; yet, behind the Paul Dunbarian mask, Stephen governs the Candieland plantation with unmitigated terror. Jackson rightly recognizes Stephen as “the power behind the throne; the Dick Cheney of Candieland!” (BlacktreeTv). Under his piacular eye, those enslaved, such as Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) and Cora (Dana Gourrier) live in a virtual domestic hell. The plantation regime itself compounds the situation.
Two cinematic figures coalesce to form “the power behind the throne”: the Tom and the House Negro. Film historian and critic Donald Bogle, author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, defines the Tom as the character who “ne’r turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, [and] submissive”. Malcolm X’s famous speech to the SNCC Workers in Selma, Alabama February 4, 1965, no doubt made firm the characteristics of the House Negro:
the House Negro always looked after his master. When the field Negro got too much out of line, he held them back in check. […] The House Negro could afford to do that because he lived […] up next to the master. […]. He ate the same food as massa [and] [h]e could talk just like his master; he had perfect diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. If the master got sick he’d say “what’s the matter boss? We sick?” He never wanted his master’s property threatened, and he was more defensive of it than the master was. That was the House Negro!
In the Big House, Stephen, accordingly, achieves both power and contempt living up next to his master. More striking, the House Negro wrangles respect for his position from the Candie family planters and from the brutal plantation overseers as well. How does he do it? On one hand, he is ‘charmed’ because a cotton ball never touched his hands; somehow he bypassed labor in the cotton fields and kept on walking for 76 years. On another, slave historian Kenneth Stamp would argue that Monsieur Candie succeeds in one of the missions of plantation owners: “persuade bondsmen to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of enterprise” (147) (my emphasis).
Stephen accepts the master’s charge; therefore, he works in terms of our common sense notions about him. There is more. Tarrantino goes further. The director showcases Stephen’s ‘boardroom politics’ in Candie’s drawing room. Man-to-man, casually sipping his liquor in leather seats in front of a roaring fire in the big-house, Stephen points out to Candie every facet of Django’s (Jamie Foxx) and Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) plan. Then, he leans comfortably in his seat, and unveils the real intention of the two ‘interlopers’’ visit to Candieland. “Them motherfuckers ain’t here to buy no mandingos,” he says, “They’s here for that [Broomhilda].” The ‘board meeting’ is notable for several reasons. First, it makes known Stephen’s keen discernment of people, their body language, and nuances in dialogue. Second, it solidifies Stephen’s main concern, and that is the preservation of his position on the Candie plantation. Finally, the meeting exposes “the power behind the throne”; in this case it is the African/American mind at work that protects the fiscal health of the plantation and, more notable, maintains the ‘prop’ of whiteness.
Yes, Calvin Candie has power, but his is a power founded on inheritance and the installation of white privilege. Stephen, the master observer, apprehends Monsieur Candie has a license to kill his chattel at will. Regardless of his position, Stephen is chattel. Thus, his investment in the “master’s enterprise” not only ensures the economic wealth of Candieland; his investment, no doubt, has saved his life. In this context, Stephen works.
What does not work is Tarrantino’s dramatization of Stephen as a pathological enslaved everyman Uncle Tom. That Stephen practices evil without compromise coerces the viewer to wish for his punishment and/or demise, and Tarrantino obliges. Why? I hazard one reason: Tarrantino presupposes an acceptance of Stephen without question because of Uncle Tom’s loathsome history. He does not anticipate an interrogation of the character nor that we would care about him. Well, I care, and there are some things I want to know: What is Stephen’s backstory? His ‘charm’ betrays an observant if not precocious enslaved child who learned the strategies necessary to manipulate the emotions and psyche of the plantation owners. What fertilized the ground for Stephen’s ‘charm’ to take to such an extent that he could ‘enjoy’ and practice his rule without retribution? Stephen is shrewd. Someone taught him to read the signs. Someone gave him instructions in semiotics and trained him to interpret those signs in order to make him indispensable to massa himself! On another note, did he breed any children/chattel? If so, how did his power play out when they met the auction block or were whipped or raped? If not, what were his feelings as he witnessed families being torn apart by the auction block? What made his ‘evil’ take root in the interior? Finally. And. Finally. Did he ever love?
In his ‘research’ of slavery, Tarrantino could have taken a cue from Arna Bontemps, the Harlem Renaissance author of Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: 1800 (1936). Set in Virginia in the 1800’s, Bontemps features Ben ‘Old Ben’ Woodfolk, an enslaved ‘House Negro’ on the Sheppard plantation for nearly 50 years. Old Ben is meticulous in his daily rituals for Marse Sheppard. Every morning he winds the clock and carefully arranges the old planter’s washstand. He fluffs and feathers the old planter’s bed that it looks like a sitting hen; he unties his nightcap. (155). Both Marse Sheppard and Old Ben “were […] well satisfied with their present status” as master and enslaved. (94). Bontemps, however, designs a contemplative enslaved man. Old Ben’s thoughts on freedom and the auction block not only add dimensions to the character; in addition, his narration points up the why and how Old Ben has curried a kind of loyalty to the Sheppards. On the idea of freedom, Old Ben feels,
[…] it was hard to love freedom. Of course, it was the self-respecting thing to do. Everything that was equal to a groundhog wanted to be free. But it was so expensive, this love; it was such a disagreeable compulsion, such a bondage. (93).
As the aged enslaved servant questions Gabriel Prosser’s slave revolt and the “eleven hundred folks going to cross the streams going into Richmond”, memory springs up to remind Old Ben of his own losses at the hands of Marse Sheppard:
Licking [Marse Sheppard’s] spit because he done fed you, hunh? Fine nigger you is. Good old Marse Sheppard hunh? Is he ever said anything about setting you free? He wasn’t too good to sell them two gal young-uns down the river soon’s they’s old enough to know the sight of a cotton-chopping hoe. How’d he treat yo’ old woman befo’ she died? And you love it hunh? (94).
These historical markers in Old Ben’s life that memory compels him to revisit shed some light on why he betrays Prosser’s slave revolt: The selling of his children and the mistreatment of his “old woman befo’ she died” have formed an interior callous; his age, too, inhibits any motivation to whole-heartedly embrace Prosser & Co.’s enterprise since “[h]e was past that reckless age” (135). Old Ben, therefore, turns to the only thing left to love: the ‘Good Boy’ status watchfully nurtured by him in the Big House on Marse Sheppard’s plantation.
Tarrantino refuses the device of narrative history for Stephen; one flashback or a piece of dialogue would have sufficed. His refusal is his prerogative but I still hold him accountable. The detection of the narrative absences in Django Unchained can forestall fixed beliefs about enslaved people or at least frustrate the inclination. A socio-cultural context as well as auto/biography is indispensable in the dramatization of that history. This call requires filmmakers to consult with those who have conducted research in the field in addition to checking out history books from the library. In other words, do your homework; if you fail to do so, American film/history suffers.
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