Django Revisited

In Amaryah Armstrong’s recent post at Women in Theology she points to a talk by Frank Wilderson that compares the approaches to slavery in Django Unchained and Manderlay. Wilderson argues that “My goal [was] to raise the level of abstraction from discussion of interpersonal guilt and innocence–that is, from a question of morality–to a discussion of institutional violence, structural violence, and the collective responses to that violence by people in revolt. … Manderlay condemns the US and Western Modernity by arguing that a totalitarian despotic regime and democratic socialism are one and the same to and for the slave. Django Unchained seems to believe that America and Western Modernity are imbued with certain evils which can be reformed and indeed transformed, if the right people have the right change of heart.”

I can understand how Django Unchained could be interpreted that way, but I wonder if Wilderson is not sufficiently accounting for the particular genre that the movie is working with? As Adam pointed out in his original post, it is a revenge fantasy, (in line with Inglorious Basterds and the Kill Bill films) and as such, is working within, while also subverting, the revenge fantasy genre conventions. Along with Adam, I took the character of Schultz to be a (rough) embodiment of the white liberal. His ambivalence at allowing Django to seek out his goal (saving his wife) on Django’s own terms is evident on their journey to Candyland when Django kills the slave. As they are set to leave Candyland, Schultz’s attempt to maintain his own personal integrity ends up trumping his commitment to solidarity with Django, setting off the catastrophic circumstances that leads to his own death and Django’s capture.

The character of Schultz is thus a way of working through the implications of white liberal commitment to universal equality. He temporarily gives up his position of power and allows Django to work towards his liberation on his own terms. Ultimately, however, his commitment to his own reputation wins out. How often do we see white dudes who are more concerned with their own reputation and culpability than they are with liberation? Django Unchained shows how the attempts at solidarity will necessarily run aground if the vestiges of concern for the privileged person’s reputation (I swear I’m not like those other white dudes!) takes over: the entire struggle is compromised.

However, there is perhaps a limitation to the film that Amaryah pointed out on Twitter: Is Django’s goal ultimately one of embodying white masculinity? Perhaps this points to the limitations of the revenge fantasy genre. In this (a)moral universe, the only way that Django could achieve the goal of saving his wife is precisely by enacting white masculinity better than any of the white males. This is another way of reading the death of Schultz: there can be only one white male hero.

Ultimately, I don’t think it can be denied that Django enacts white masculinity, but perhaps this points to further questions: Should Tarantino not make movies that are working out the revenge fantasy of oppressed persons (which will likely take the form of enacting the oppressor’s subjectivity)? Does a movie need to show how an oppressed person “should” respond? I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions in advance.

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13 Responses to “Django Revisited”

  1. Austin Says:

    What is ‘white masculinity’ in this context and how does it differ from a non-white masculinity?

  2. Stephen Keating Says:

    Good question — as Amaryah points to in her blog post that I linked to, it’s hard to untangle the construction of whiteness and masculinity, and simple intersectionality is insufficient to explain the way that this impresses itself upon blackness. However, I was pointing to the way that Django takes on Schultz’s characteristics and contributes to the further oppression of the slaves at Candyland.

  3. Nyasha Chiundiza Says:

    What would black subjectivity look like. Why is the expression of the Romantic immediately identified with white heroism. Is Tarantino perhaps making a universal claim. Remember the name Django has Brazilian and West African roots. Perhaps African epics have something to say regarding what tarantino is up to.

  4. Stephen Keating Says:

    Nyasha – I must confess my ignorance about African epics and would be interested to hear how you think that might inform this discussion. As to black subjectivity, I don’t intend to be supposing an authentic black subjectivity. I was responding to the critique by Wilderson that I thought perhaps did not account for the genre conventions that Tarantino was drawing upon. Another way of deepening the analysis here would be to show how the film weaves together the (mostly white male) Western genre with Blaxploitation.

  5. Stephen Keating Says:

    To clarify a little more here: I think that Tarantino is setting up the audience to have certain expectations that are then subverted. Schultz, as the “white liberal” who then compromises Django’s mission, is intended to disrupt the audience’s expectation that the white guy with good intentions will always contribute to the solution.

  6. Amaryah Armstrong (@amaryahshaye) Says:

    That quote I tweeted from Wilderson’s talk is pretty contextualized within his own afro-pessimist conception of a black ontology in modernity. A couple of quotes from his talk to help situate it better:

    “Manderlay is a film which can help us clarify relations of power; Django Unchained is the typical kind of film designed to mystify relations of power. [T]his ties in with the third concept in the title of my talk: social death, which was introduced by Orlando Patterson.

    Patterson concludes by saying that, [s]lavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (13). The notion of permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons is a notion that the liberal humanist dream of Django Unchained cannot accommodate; but it is at the heart of Manderlay’s meditations. Django Unchained mystifies relations of power. Manderflay helps us clarify them.”

    “The ethical dilemmas of the film are shouldered by Dr. Shultz not by Django: industry, knowledge production, a sense of intellectual purpose, and above all, the power to narrate remains where it is in most Hollywood films, in the hands of White masculinity. Django himself is just an exotic tool of White industry, knowledge, intellectual purpose and narration. In Django Unchained there is no sense of collective struggle as there is in Manderlay. In fact, the film goes to great lengths to demonstrate Django and Broomhilda’s exceptionalism, the absence of even a hint of solidarity between them and the Black people who are suffering around them. This exceptionalism is precisely what qualifies Django and Broomhilda to become tools of White psychic and social transformation.”

    “[Violence enables] Tarantino to harness Black men in such a way that they becomes props of such gargantuan proportions we think of them as real men who hold and wield the phallus as they kill every White man in sight; rather than thinking of them as they really are: exaggerated instruments which facilitate White reflection on the moral status of Whiteness. This is a film about an intra-racial conflict between “good” Whiteness (Shultz) and “bad” Whiteness (Candie); a film in which Black people are simply used to help White people work out their shit. Furthermore, Black on Black violence and animosity is given the same emotional weight (the same value in the libidinal economy) as the structural violence of slavery. In its narrative content, in its narrative strategies, and in its formal cinematic strategies, Django Unchained disavows the structural antagonisms between Blacks and the world (of Humans). Something very different is afoot in Manderlay.”

    TL/DR: Wilderson argues that Manderlay as a film reveals the place the black occupies as non-being–it doesn’t attempt to occlude the reality of black ontology in modernity. Django mystifies the relations of power the non-being of blackness has vs the being of whiteness through its use of Django in order to create the illusion of Django’s agency or heroicism–a use of the black as a speaking implement for articulating the relations and conflict of whites to each other and white existential struggles.

    Thus, I think Wilderson would grant you that this is a revenge fantasy, but say it is a white revenge fantasy that uses the black to articulate itself. In that sense, it doesn’t do much to help clarify relations of power that enable Django to be utilized in such a way.

    That said, I think this conversation is happening at two levels for me. On its face as a revenge fantasy postmodern western spaghetti shooter buddy flick that has a black main character. At this level, I don’t really disagree with the things you’ve said. But then the film also operates on the level of positing a truth of how beings are able to relate to one another and civil society and uses Django as a prosthetic to create the illusion that he has the same relationality to the world.

    So, I don’t disagree, in some sense, that as far as representing Django as if he has agency and as if he is a hero, etc., it does an exceptional job. But that exceptionalism is precisely the ruse that conditions black representation. It makes for a far more convincing articulation of the idea that blacks can have the same relation to civil society as white folks if white folks would just be transformed in the right way or if we kill the right white people.

    I also don’t think Django Unchained (especially Django’s shooting of Stephen) can be extracted from QT’s creation of it, which Adam nods to, but I think is the under interrogated part of this whole conversation. That QT is able to assert he has enabled a national conversation on race through his film, that he is representing slavery in a way that disrupts its typically sentimental portrayal, that he is telling a truth, when in reality he repeats the use of blacks to work out his own shit about being white but lies about it by making Django the lead as if this is a film for everybody as if–this film gives black folks anything other than another representation of their being utilized to maintain civil society.

  7. Amaryah Armstrong (@amaryahshaye) Says:

    @Nyasha Wilderson would argue there is no such thing as black subjectivity in modernity. That how blackness works is to turn all black performances into reinscriptions of the conditions of black subjugation.

  8. Stephen Keating Says:

    Amaryah — thanks for providing the extra context and for your thoughts. Do you think that it’s likely that a person in Django’s position at the beginning of the film might have a fantasy that plays out along the lines of the rest of the movie? One could also think of the obvious fantasy that is the premise of Inglorious Basterds, or Kill Bill. I don’t think that Tarantino is trying to put forth an example of how an oppressed person should react. Are we then we are left with the questions that I posed at the end of the post?

  9. Amaryah Armstrong (@amaryahshaye) Says:

    I guess one reason Django Unchained is weird to me is that it’s so individualistic. Which makes sense for a story about revenge a la’ Kill Bill, but not as much for a story about slavery. Which is why the film feels like slavery is only a background against which it stages his existential anguish (and I think QT kind of admits as much in his Gates interview). Anyways, I feel like actual slave revolts and rebellions suggest that murdering a bunch of white people is not outside the realm of black fantasy, but that would have to be in a striving to completely dismantle slavery and in solidarity with other black folks, not solely for ones wife. I have a hard time believing, Django and Broomhilda, having separated themselves so much from other black folks, would have any structures of support that would enable them to stay free very long after massively murdering white people. So It seems odd to me to conceive of freedom from slavery for one’s self and one’s wife that isn’t sneaky (i.e. escaping to the north to live, which wasn’t respite from the condition of being black, which is slavery, in an anti-black world) or structural destruction of the world that enables the black condition. This is why Nat Turner’s apocalyptic vision seems so different to me than QT’s apocalyptic of the civil war as apocalypse. The civil war is an event that grounds the mutation of conditions of slavery, but not its actual abolishment. So how apocalyptic is it in actuality? It’s the ruse of apocalypse or the fear of apocalypse for white folks.

  10. Nyasha Chiundiza Says:

    Isn’t theory then itself merely a process of explicating “white subjectivity and agency as it is reproduced and replicated on others?

    If Django is functioning at the level of black fantasy, why would it not function at individualistic level? Can a slave (Frederick Douglas for example) not express an individualistic desire for freedom? And why would he or she not prefer their freedom over another slave’s?

    Is the interiority that produced for instance, Spirituals, or Slave rebellions to be simply codified as a reenactment of white subjectivity?

  11. Amaryah Armstrong (@amaryahshaye) Says:

    Is Frederick Douglas’ desire for freedom separable from a desire for the abolishment of the world that enables slavery? Without that, he’s always under threat of recapture and death simply for existing. I guess I’m saying that, while at one level or to an extent black folks can certainly think freedom on an individual level, doesn’t one have to know that freedom on an individual level freedom can’t be real for a black unless destruction of the black condition as slaves occurs?

    I also think freedom, a term I frequently use (and have used here), is not without its baggage. It’s been deployed in ways that burden black bodies and representations with the conditions of enslavement (Politics of respectability literature often represented freedom as becoming a subject who submits to the national aspirations for wealth, industry, heterosexuality, etc.,). So then, the articulations of interiority in Spirituals and Slave rebellions seem to be more of an articulation of the black position in a white supremacist and anti-black world than an expression of an interiority that is not conditioned by it’s being the object of violence. That is, an articulation of the lament of that condition or an articulation of the need to destroy the world in some sense in order to have true freedom. Otherwise, if interiority is the prerequisite for freedom, couldn’t you argue folks like Stephen are actually free? He seems to enjoy the situation he’s in. I’m sure he has some interiority but that interiority is not able to escape its being conditioned by the violence of slavery, is it?

    I like how Saidiya Hartman conceives of her work in light of this(http://www.scribd.com/doc/80511706/Hartman-Wilderson-position-of-the-Unthought):

    “For me the book ["Scenes of Subjection"] is about the problem of crafting a narrative for the slave as subject, and in terms of positionality, asking, “Who does that narrative enable?” That’s where the whole issue of empathic identification is central for me. Because it just seems that every attempt to emplot the slave in a narrative ultimately resulted in his or her obliteration, regardless of whether it was a leftist narrative of political agency-the slave stepping into someone else’s shoes and then becoming a political agent-or whether it was about being able to unveil the slave’s humanity by actually finding oneself in that position. In many ways, what I was trying to do as a cultural historian was to narrate a certain impossibility, to illuminate those practices that speak to the limits of most available narratives to explain the position of the enslaved.

    On one hand, the slave is the foundation for the national order, and, on the other, the slave occupies the position of the unthought. So what does it mean to try to bring that position into view without making it a locus of positive value, or
    without trying to fill in the void? So much of our political vocabulary/imaginary/desires have been implicitly integrationist even when we imagine our claims are more radical. This goes to the second part of the book-that ultimately the metanarrative thrust is always towards an integration into the national project, and particularly when that project is in crisis, black people are called upon to affirm it.

    It’s about more than the desire for inclusion within the limited set of possibilities that the national project provides.
    What then does this language-the given language of freedom enable? And once you realize its limits and begin to see its inexorable investment in certain notions of the subject and subjection, then that language of freedom no longer becomes that which rescues the slave from his or her former condition,but the site of the re-elaboration of that condition, rather than its transformation.”

    Hope that’s helpful.

  12. theabyss Says:

    Schultz obviously embodies the jew who passes as white amongst the racially unconscious, but secretly uses black brawn (Django) to subvert white culture. The movie is an allegory of Hollywood and its relation to the US as a whole.


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