As I’m pretty sure many have heard, filmmaker Spike Lee (among many other black celebrities) have denounced the film Django Unchained (2013) as making a mockery of the still sensitive subject of slavery. While I can see how many could jump to that conclusion, it’s important to remember that the director hasn’t even SEEN the film. More importantly, astute viewers would realize that the film actually makes a very nuanced commentary on what was the backbone of American slavery: the common slaveholder’s mindset, as exemplified through Calvin Candie.
Before I go further, let me give you some background on how an institution like slavery persisted for so long in the first place. Venkatesh Rao, an accomplished writer, proposed a theory of organization that applies not only to businesses, but also cultural institutions. If you can, read his entire series here, it’s brilliant. His proposed structure is made up of three layers: losers, clueless, and sociopaths.
The sociopaths are the top of any organization, they recognize how to manipulate those below them and they also are unburdened with the common sentiments that keep underlings at their stations (camaraderie, pride, etc). The layer beneath them are clueless: who are the polar opposite of their superiors. These people think that instutions are concrete, transcendent structures. Far from being stoic, these people are mostly driven by sentiment, their combined delusions turn worthless concepts like “ethics” and “political correctness” into a reality. Remember the lost boys from Hook (1991) who imagined food into existence? These guys are those kids in the workplace. Losers are just the guys at the bottom, who through unfortunate circumstances or sloth have ended up as the butt monkeys of capitalism. They are not necessarily losers in the social sense: they might get laid on the weekend and be in a decent garage band. It’s just they are not “winners” in the capitalist sense (i.e. they eat ramen every day). How does this relate Calvin Candie? Don’t worry, I’m getting there
Using Rao’s concept of organizational structure, we can get an idea of slavery worked. It’s important to realize that America was not the first country to enslave a group of people. For example, England had an extensive trade in flesh, particularly of the Scottish. Americans also had “indentured servants” of United Kingdom descent and even managed to enslave a few Native Americans as well. The fact is, for a certain group of sociopaths, slavery was nothing more than a logical economic choice: the minimal investment of seizing a group of people (who were often WILLINGLY given up by other Africans who had already enslaved them) who had little defense, for the massive gain of a lifetime of mostly unpaid labor. The fact is, slavery just had a chilling logic too it. Too chilling, in fact. Sure, everyone would love to have a personal servant who did everything for them, (just think of how many 90’s sitcoms had precocious youngsters blackmailing their peers to do their chores in a French maid outfit) but most people aren’t THAT malicious. Therefore, the only way this institution could exist was if the common slaveholder,clueless to the ramifications of his actions, didn’t think of himself as a monstrous tyrant, but instead merely part of a cosmic order. And yes, I’m getting there
Calvin Candie’s introduction communicates much of his schema to the audience immediately. The first thing we hear about him is that he’s obsessed with French culture, with the *minor* caveat of him not understanding the language. What kind of man claims to be a connoisseur of French culture without speaking the language? A pretentious white man, that’s who. Calvin Candie’s francophilia is nothing more than a fetish, something which he feels gives him an aire of sophistication but doesn’t compel him to actually learn about the culture, which is highlighted when he’s shown to not know a prominent French author is (gasp) black.
We find out later on in the scene that his fetishism extends to blacks as well, as he revels in the spectacle of his “mandingo” fighting match. Whereas everyone else in his leisure room is disgusted by the sight, Candie is not only enjoying it, but is literally sitting right next to the men as they battle. The ostentatiousness of everything in the room, including Candie himself, jars with how primal the fight is. The men are shirtless and writhing while battling; a purposefully ugly display of violence in a film that otherwise makes light of such matters. Candie is wealthy. Stupidly fucking wealthy. There’s not one part of him that identifies with these poor creatures. His world is wholly different, which is why “mandingo” fighting holds such appeal. ‘Mandingo’ is a common epithet for black men, referencing their sexual prowess. The term denotes a powerful, exotic savage, unhindered by the restrictions of society that dilettantes like Candie are shackled by (the poor creature!).
Andrew Jackson had a similar sentiment towards the Native Americans, who he often dubbed “noble savages” for their wily tactics despite, you know, kicking them out of the homelands and stuff. This is why Candie’s so enamored with Django,he has the refined brutality of a rapier, as opposed to the cudgel-like nature of someone like D’artagnan. Candie is impressed by the brute power he associates with blacks, which gives him a short reprieve from his more refined existence. Of course, we later see that Calvin is still capable of violence himself.
While Candie clearly loves his mandingo fighting, he also seems to have some softer sentiments towards his negro underlings. His relationship with Stephen is clearly familial; he treats him with the bemusement one would have towards a doddering, drunk uncle. And as stated, he practically becomes erect over Django. We must once again remember that a large section of slave owners didn’t so much hate slaves, as much as they just merely think them inferior. This is akin to how a parent feels about a child, or how a master feels about a dog. A child is a person, but, as Louis CK put it “they’re the only human being you’re allowed to hit”. Ditto for dogs, who you can legally castrate “for their own good”. Simply put, one can have an affectionate relationship with someone and still treat them in a diminishing manner, which includes slave owners as well.
Thomas Jefferson, famed opponent of slavery, owned a lavish estate called the “Monticello” which treated its slaves to the finest clothes and work incentives. Despite this, in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, he said “blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distant by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind”. While Jefferson clearly wished his slaves no harm, he also thought of their positions as being a matter of fact, something which should never be challenged, which is why he fervently opposed the helping of runaway slaves.
Candie is not nearly as benevolent as Jefferson, but he clearly has a place in his heart for the slave/slave holder relationship, hence why D’artagnan’s attempted escape was such an insult. So imagine how pissed he was when Django did the same damn thing? When he realizes he’s been portrayed, he retrieves the skull of a loyal slave of his, a morbid yet oddly heartwarming gesture. Of course, he immediately subverts this by sawing open the poor guy’s skull just to explain that the bumps inside his skull signifies the negro’s inability to create. While this sounds ludicrous, what Candie is talking about is based on something once thought of as an actual science: Phrenology.
Yes, believe it or not,some people really thought that if you measure the head, you can determine how a person thinks. Now while this did inspire lots of modern neuroscience, it was originally used to “scientifically” justify the superiority of the white race. One literary example is the “head-measurer” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (1899) who measures the protagonist’s head in order to determine if interacting with the residents of the Congo could affect a white man’s skull. History has always been fraught with examples of pseudoscience such as this which attempt to make personal desires a reality (alchemy, demonology, etc). Yet, such idiotic concepts are necessary to support an institution as tenuous as slavery; even Candie himself points out that slaves have the sheer numbers to overthrow their masters. A clueless such as Candie has to believe in such fanciful ideas; if he’s wrong about a negro’s place in the world, he can’t enjoy his mandingo fights, his Uncle Tom sidekick, or his Django man-crush. Candie is defined by his indulgences, (his sister, his francophilia) so not only will he support them with bullshit science, he’ll underwrite said science with violence. If Django and Schultz are unable to concede to his head theories, he’ll crack open Brunhilde’s head to show how wrong they are.
There’s a beautiful seamlessness to this threat: Candie’s cracking-open of a negro’s head is scientific research; a necessary way to show that he is the superior. Just as the parent sometimes needs to beat a child or the master needs to hit a dog in order to “teach”. While Candie does legitimately believe he is merely acting out a sociological imperative, he has the necessary defense mechanisms to support such an idea. In this case, the mechanism is “might makes right”.
In closing, while some (i.e. Spike Lee) may think that Django Unchained diminishes the horrors or slavery, i believe that he’s only partly right (and still for the wrong reasons). Rather than making a flatly evil antagonist, Dicaprio and Tarantino, create a beautifully pathetic person, a man who’s only goal is to live a life of intellectual hedonism. And by doing so, he becomes a commentary on an often over-simplified period in history.The institution of slavery had more nuance that many would be willing to admit, and the ideologies that supported it continue to be common today.
For more posts on Afro Americans in media:
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (For reflections on the master/slave relationship)
Roots by Alex Haley (For a great look at how slave owners and overseers viewed the institution of slavery)
Heart of Darkness (Which is a commentary on [perceived] white superiority)