Django Unchained and the Paradox of Oppression

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?

django unchainedAnd 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.









20 thoughts on “Django Unchained and the Paradox of Oppression

  1. Is it the zeitgeist of the mash up that surrounds the conversation here? A production phrase in assembling material for a narrative by artists and film makers used to be ‘throwing spaghetti at the tiles and see what sticks’ (excuse the western trope pun). Tarrantino revels in the idea of skewed multinarritives delivered as popcorn and like Woody allen seems to be driven by a personal idea of just getting a film on screen and leaving stylised visions of society as seen through cinema history as residue (see Oliver Stone for contrast.)
    History for Tarantino is a loose back drop and certainly not something that is not considered for debate by him, its just costume and sets.
    The contrast with an auteur such as Kubrick is vast. Kubrick spent years working on a cinematic version of Napoleon and another film based on the concentration camps. He ended up pulling both productions because other minor versions appeared in the meantime which would have taken away from his historical and cinematic consideration. Kubrick had an integrity that Tarantino seems to deem unnecessary for the cineplex. Larry David said of Seinfeld ‘it was created with the strict ethos of no hugging or learning’ and this equally applies to all of Tarantinos work. His stuff begs for cool in a commodified geek way and he produces nothing but material to fuel that.
    Any commentary surrounding this has a decreasing shelf life and his films only offer minor debate. Bocks reading focuses deeper on subjects here that perhaps Tarantino himself has only superficial interest in. Early Star Trek episodes had more cultural weight that Tarantinos mash ups. File Django beside Snakes on a plane and that Nazis on the moon film from last year.

  2. “Is it the zeitgeist of the mash up that surrounds the conversation here?”
    I reckon something surrounds the conversation here alright. I aint sure what it is though.

    What the giddy fuck does this mean ?
    “Tarrantino revels in the idea of skewed multinarritives delivered as popcorn and like Woody allen seems to be driven by a personal idea of just getting a film on screen and leaving stylised visions of society as seen through cinema history as residue (see Oliver Stone for contrast.)”

    Delivered as popcorn? Like buttery popcorn, salty and washed down with a little coke?

    “Leaving stylised visions of society as seen through cinema history as residue”?
    Residue like the popcorn kernels that never busted at the end of the bucket?
    Oh gotcha now. Yaawh. Indeed.

  3. “Kubrick had an integrity that Tarantino seems to deem unnecessary for the cineplex”
    I don’t think there’s a question of integrity in Tarrantino films and the comparision between the two in terms of integrity is irrelevant.
    Tarrantino blantantly recreates and uses elements from periods in histoy however he wants, so integrity to true events is not in question. It’s just entertainment.

    Here’s Leonardo on that –

  4. Haven’t seen the movie yet, but got a copy recently. Based on above will give it a watch soon.

    Love Leondardo Di Caprio too. Superb actor.
    I think his best one ever was ‘This boys Life’ with Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin. Based on a true story.

  5. Worked in England as an electrician in the late eighties early ninties. Learned fairly quick that when you got “the start” for one of the bigger English outfits, and discovered that you reported to an Irish foreman, you looked for another job asap. They tended to be be bollixes towards their fellow Irish. Maybe they saw us as a threat, or wanted to show us how they had come up in the world or something. Anyways, it was best to move on before you had the inevitable confrontation.

  6. It’s easy to overlook the theme of collaboration in the Atlantic slave trade, indeed all slave trading. Slaves were (officially) considered as cargo and were traded by the African kingdoms in the same way as palm oil, in exchange for textiles, tobacco and booze. African lords grew rich by selling their own people into servitude; the white man–indeed not just the white man because slavery from Africa was a major source of cheap labour for much of Arabia for a thousand years at least–(some would say nothing has changed) .
    Solidarity unfortunately is a rarity, even among people who share the pain of oppression.Oppressors know this and it probably explains why successful revolutions are a relative rarity. Most ordinary people will put their own interests and those of their families ahead of the common good–at it’s most basic it’s called survival and fear is the driver–at the other end of the same curve, it’s called greed. People don’t change.

  7. Sorry Bock, my question was actually for Paul Tarpey after reading his post that I think he wrote after looking at Salvador Dali paintings.

  8. I watched it through my fingers and winced often at the blood and horror, however like Bock alluded to, I too (and my daughter) were laughing out loud and the most inappropriate head exploding moments.

    I don’t like him – I like his movies though.

    Bock – good thought provoking review and you’re spot on about Stephen ( the cunt

    What if Samuel Jackson’s character had undergone ( for me anyway) the expected epiphany at the end by coming over to Django & Co.?

    In Denzel Washington’s new film Flight, such a transformation occurs credibly when, at the end, his self-adsorbed addicted pilot character refuses to sell out his dead lover and colleague. ( contrary to his depiction in to movie up to that point )

    Question: If Stephen is that smart, why then didn’t he see the writing on the wall –the writing about the not very far away ending of slavery ? And Paul, the mash up could easily have facilitated Stephen’s conversion, perhaps adding to the chaos.

  9. Phrenology has made something of a comeback. From MRI imaging in neuroscience it’s known that brain size does correlate with cognitive ability and groups vary on average. Note _on average_ that doesn’t imply much about individuals.

  10. Brilliant Movie,

    Paul, id say it is a fair bit above, snakes on a plane, despite the ridiculous nature of the shoot out scenes and the unlikely hood of such a friendship of Django and the Doctor the film had great dialogue and depicted human nature very well

  11. “To Hell or Barbados” is worth a read in relation to the Irish who were shipped off to the West Indies by Cromwell.
    I don’t know do British kids learn about the “ethnic cleansing” of Ireland by Cromwell in school, or do they only get taught the good bits….?

  12. @barry – I doubt it. Kind of like they don’t mention the Irish at the little bighorn in classrooms here ;)

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