Leonardo Di Caprio’s character has a speech during Django Unchained in which he ponders why the black slaves in America didn’t simply kill their white masters.
Why indeed? Why is it that oppressed people seem to collude with their oppressors by becoming passive? What is the mechanism by which they produce a caste of comfortable collaborators, willing to ignore the savageries inflicted on the rest of their people, in exchange for a form of security?
I suppose the clue is in the phrase “their people”, which is a concept imposed from outside rather than from within. Why would a group of people fortunate enough to work in the plantation house feel empathy with those labouring in the fields, simply because they share a broadly similar skin colour?
Is it not in itself a sort of racism to assume that people would feel solidarity simply because they have some physical characteristics in common? Does that not conflate all Africans into one simplified stereotype? After all, nobody would ever presume that one European would feel any commonality with another simply because they originated in the same land mass. Would a Greek look at a Finn and think, This is one of our people?
If it’s so unlikely to happen in Europe, why would anyone expect it to happen among people from Africa, a continent so huge it could swallow all of Europe and America without noticing. The slave trade covered a vast amount of territory and a huge range of tribal traditions. Who’s looking at skin complexion when there’s such a range of cultural, religious and social differences between people?
And yet, this is another burden inflicted on the enslaved people who created such wealth for their masters in the southern states of America. Another guilt. Why didn’t they stand together? Simple: they had nothing in common apart from their slavery. They weren’t just a crowd of blacks, but a huge swathe of people from drastically different backgrounds, dragged from their homelands in a vast continent and violently yoked together against their will.
Why would a person lucky enough to gain employment in the home of the slavemaster have any fellow-feeling for the unfortunate slave being whipped in the fields? What was the common bond?
You can’t discuss Django Unchained without saying nigger. It’s as simple as that. Samuel Jackson has refused to discuss his role in the film with interviewers who won’t say nigger, so let’s dispense with that right now and focus on a moment in the movie when Django and Dr Schultz discuss the deception they must use in order to rescue Django’s wife from slavery. Django must pose as a black slave trader and he’s horrified. A black slaver is even lower than the head house nigger, and that’s pretty fucking low.
Guess who Jackson’s character is? That’s right. He’s the head house nigger on Candieland, Calvin Candie’s enormous plantation. Candie, played by Di Caprio with Satanic relish, is a fiendish, sadistic landowner and Stephen is his eyes and ears.
Stephen is the black Quisling. He’s the concentration camp Capo. He’s the Irish land agent.
He’s the most detested figure in folk history among oppressed people everywhere.
For me, the character that lingers is not Django, or Schultz. It’s not the repellent Candie or the ludicrous Big Daddy, despite Don Johnson’s wonderful cameo performance.
It’s Stephen, a man comfortable in his own skin and in his own power. A man who knows he can sass the Massa and get away with it because he whupped this boy’s ass when he was a-growin up. He doesn’t call him Monsieur Candie. He calls his owner Calvin. He sits in his library and he drinks his whiskey. He’s smarter than his owner and both of them know it, despite Candie’s ludicrous belief in phrenology and the inferiority of the African race.
Stephen is a man who has made it and he’s not going to relinquish his benefits for the sake of some runaway nigger, but in the process, he loses all moral authority
Django Unchained is another Tarantino movie, peppered with references to other films, packed with in-jokes and full of entertaining violence. It’s part Blazing Saddles and part spaghetti western. It’s Tarantino playing with history because that’s all he’s doing at the end of it all — telling a story, and stories don’t have to be true, even if they contain truth within them.
This one contains more than a little truth, though it’s a bit disconcerting that it should have emerged at the same time as Lincoln. Did somebody in Hollywood decide this would be the year of slavery?
It’s a crafted movie, and probably the closest Tarantino has come to mainstream cinema, even if, at times, he loses his touch for pacing. Some scenes drag on too long and he could probably have comfortably chopped 20 minutes off the full 2:45, but it’s not a big quibble. It’s a big movie, though time will tell if it stands out. Sometimes, I feel Tarantino might be stuck in the same riff he’s been playing for quite a while now.
Leaving the cinema last night, I turned to my son.
He shrugged. Inglourious Blacksterds.
Yeah. I know what he means, but Stephen is still there, glaring at me, and you don’t get that from many films.