Samuel L. Jackson & Stephen in Django Unchained (part 2)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)

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).

Boardroom Politics

Boardroom Politics

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.

Stephen and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Stephen and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

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?

Arna Bontemps, author

Arna Bontemps, author

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).

Black Thunder

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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‘Django Unchained’ – A Review (in parts)

Django (Jamie Foxx) rides with confidence

Django (Jamie Foxx) rides with confidence

I could whip Quentin Tarrantino’s %#! up and down Main Street for making a multi-faceted piece of work that a 700-800 word review cannot contain. Readers, this film review is long … well … so is the film for that matter. To accommodate the cornucopia of ‘stuff and things’ this eclectic director packs into all 165 minutes on celluloid, ‘Django Unchained’ has to be written in parts. Here is Part One. Be forewarned: you will need some tea and an afternoon to read through it. Bear with me.

‘Django Unchained’ is a rich filmic kaleidoscope paying homage to film and literary genres, art forms, political currents, and moments in the history of the United States. To begin, the director reflects on the Spaghetti Western of the 1960s (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and Django, 1966; Find a Place to Die, 1968); and the Blaxploitation western (Buck and the Preacher, 1972 and Take a Hard Ride, 1976) and plantation drama of the 1970s (The Legend of Nigger Charley, 1972 and Drum, 1976). Second, Django’s blue velvet suit (with knee pants), and fancy buckled shoes, imagined by costume designer, Sharon Davis, bring to mind The Blue Boy, painted in 1770 by English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough, and Richard Birch’s illustrations of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s costume in the children’s book of the same name (1885-1886). Third, ‘Mandingo Fighting’ decidedly refers to not only the film Mandingo (1975); the brutal sports event is a strong allusion to “Battle Royal”, a chapter in Invisible Man written in 1952 by African American novelist Ralph Ellison. Finally, but not complete, the ex-slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries; the abolitionist movement; the North Star (Frederick Douglass’s newspaper of the same name and the icon of the Underground Railroad); even Opera (Richard Wagner’s Gotterdamerung of 1876) cohere to build a charming love story infused with German folklore (Siegfried and Brunhilde) within the framework of slavery in the United States.

‘Django Unchained’ nestles easily within the genre of romance, and this element forms the rare pearl within the film. The context that frames the love story warrants a brief commentary before I continue. As Nathanial Hawthorne examines Puritan culture in The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Arna Bontemps assesses the slave revolt in Black Thunder (1936), Tarantino reaches into the past to consider present-day socio-cultural moeurs.

Scene from Sankofa by Haile Gerima (1993)

Scene from Sankofa by Haile Gerima (1993)

Despite the nimiety of posts and articles swirling about Tarantino; Spike Lee’s rant; and questions over whether or not white people can tell our stories; when all is said, read, and done … slavery happened. Period. Yet, the historical distance compromises our national memory as attempts are made to chain this ragged but alert specter to the past. We have heard, if not entertained, every excuse and plea to disremember its legacy: I didn’t do it; I was not there! Why can’t we just forget? What is the big deal? Every so often, however, that specter will agitate for a production of a story to activate yet another discussion in its honor. We can depend on our popular culture to oblige its request. John Korty’s televised production The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and Marvin J. Chomsky’s dramatization of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) compelled my generation to remember as we feasted on the fruits of integration; and for those who were allowed to see them in the movie theater, the plantation dramas of the 1970s as well. As a young woman in search of a purpose in the 1990s, Haile Gerima’s poignant Sankofa (1993) encouraged me to continue learning my own history.

The popularity of ‘Django Unchained’ attended by a whirlpool of discourses, then, not only is important; it is necessary. The election of President Barack Hussein Obama ushered into the White House three generations of African Americans: the First Lady’s mother, Mrs. Marian Lois Shields Robinson; the President and the First Lady; and Natasha “Sasha” and Malia Ann. Some people are tempted to declare that race no longer matters and, now, well we can … exhale. Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ antagonizes this temptation. Thanks to his reputation, the present-day generation has taken notice. ‘Django Unchained’ transports this generation into its own sankofa, Akan meaning “to go back and get it”. They are “to get” that the plantation regime released capillaries infected with a psychology that took a firm hold on the American psyche, culture, and society for some 300 plus years. Kerry Washington even concedes in an interview with The Daily Beast,

It’s so unthinkable that my ancestors endured all the torture and pain. I saw things in the script and thought this never happened. But then I talked to Quentin and he showed us the history books that illustrated the masks and other items used to inflict torture and violence on the slaves. It really blew my mind and made me appreciate even more what my ancestors made it through.

That Tarantino informs Washington of her ancestral history solicits critique, but let us reserve that for another review and move on to the love and the passion.

The consideration of the Django (Jamie Foxx) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) love story brings to relief an interview ABC’s Good Morning America host Robin Roberts conducted with the Obamas while on the presidential campaign trail in 2008. In that interview, Roberts turned to the GOP backlash over a remark Mrs. Obama made on being an American. Mrs. Obama leaned in to answer but Mr. Obama interjected on her behalf with the following statement:

If [the GOP] think that they’re going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign. […] I find unacceptable, the notion that you start attacking my wife or my family. […] lay off my wife. She loves this country. For them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her is, I think, just low class. I think that most of the American people would think that as well.

In essence, Mr. Obama drew the proverbial line in the sand and dared anyone to disparage Mrs. Obama in any way, form, or fashion. Any move to the contrary, and he was coming back to collect some dues.

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ruthless plantation owner

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ruthless plantation owner

Django (the ‘D’ is silent) is a slave-turned-bounty hunter in desperate search to find his wife, Broomhilda. She was sold down the river to the notorious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of Candieland plantation in Mississippi. He locates Broomhilda with the help of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Django stands ready to defend her at all costs but he has to court discipline before he (re)acts. Django’s poise corresponds not only with Mr. Obama’s warning to the GOP; also, his composure calls up moments in African American history when Black men supported families in an oppressive culture that generally denied the recognition of the institution for the enslaved. The film opens in 1858 somewhere in Texas–eight years after a more restrictive Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 took effect. James Buchanan is president of the United States. The year before, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that an enslaved Scott could not obtain his freedom because he was not a U. S. citizen. Until that final decision, Scott petitioned not only for his freedom, he sued for the freedom of his wife and children. In another but similar vein, research shows that African Americans searched for family members before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (U of North Carolina P, 2012) by Heather Andreas Williams is worth the read. Django’s pursuit of Broomhilda after obtaining freedom undeniably complements these histories and contemporary politics.

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brownn (1786)

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brownn (1786)

In Django’s quest, Tarantino crafts an African American Hero who slays the ‘dragon’, gets the girl, and lives to tell his own story with witnesses to spread his legend. Foxx plays Django with the confidence of a panther stalking its prey. Even though enslaved, he is not a slave in mind. He speaks with a purpose, walks with the familiar cowboy swagger, and commands a horse to ride and to dance. More significant, his unwavering focus on the rescue of Broomhilda dispels several stereotypes and myths. First, he is not the subservient “yes’m massa” enslaved who, if freed, would not know what to do with his freedom. Second, Django overturns the myth of the enslaved and his inability to manage emotions President Thomas Jefferson so brazenly posits in his ‘Notes on Slavery’ written in 1785. Jefferson believes,

[t]hey are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.

Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Eager desire? Want of forethought? Who cannot feel the sheer urgency of Django’s yearning to liberate the black woman from torture and to facilitate the restoration of her honor? Who cannot appreciate Django’s steady nerve in his methodical assessment of every situation? Django not only will die for Broomhilda; also, for his woman, he will live! More significant, who cannot apprehend Broomhilda from Django’s point of view? In his eyes, she is his true love rising up through the mist in the lake. Through the lens of the plantocracy, however, Broomhilda is but property to be raped and branded. Is it not striking to see Django plead to stand in for Broomhilda as the overseer strips her back in preparation for the lash from the whip? That Broomhilda harbors her own belief in Django–not in massa or anyone else—is even more meaningful.

‘Django Unchained’ is a well-made film. We must remember, however, Tarrantino has not done anything new, but viewing ‘Django Unchained’ is crucial for today’s generation. Others came before him and offered up their own powerful stories of captivity and oppression. Let me suggest again Sankofa, a fervid narrative of bondage by Haile Gerima, and add Quilombo (1986) by Carlos Diegues (both on DVD). Each deserves your interest and dollars just as much as Tarrantino. On the whole, these are stories we all have to summon the courage to witness.

(A special ‘Thank You’ to Sandra Denise Clifton and historian Herbert Jefferson for their valuable insights and stimulating discussions on this film; to Dr. Robert Haller for editor’s notes.)

Stephens (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephens (Samuel L. Jackson)

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Next Part Two: ‘Samuel L. Jackson & Stephens’

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