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Django Unchained: “Coded language, man-made laws.”

January 6th, 2013 by | Tags: , ,

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Here’s something to keep in mind while watching Django Unchained. An apocryphal origin for the word “motherfucker” is that it referred to slaves or slave-owners that did you know what with you know who. It was a term of extreme derision, the story goes, aimed at shaming slaves or expressing hatred for the overseer. Knowing Tarantino and his sometimes staggering grasp of communication, he’s more than aware of the history of “motherfucker.” That definition stuck in my head while watching Django Unchained the second time, and made me pay closer attention to what Tarantino was doing with language in his script.

People say “nigger” about fifty-eleven times in Django Unchained. It’s set in 1858 stretching into 1859, so you kinda have to expect it. What I like about the movie is how Tarantino doesn’t just stop there. He plays with language, with slurs, in a way that isn’t just a surface level treatment.

I don’t know how I missed it, but the usage of “Jimmy” in Django Unchained made something super obvious click for me. Crow as a slur for blacks, “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and those crows in Dumbo — they all come from the same place. Racial slurs go way deeper than nigger and darkie. Sometimes they take subtler forms, but when they click, things you’ve heard in the past tend to snap into alignment, and you see how this language has infested our culture.

Jimmy’s just one of the slurs in Django Unchained. Crow, black, nigger, pony, and so on… it’s fascinating. It’s easy to forget that racism isn’t as simple as somebody hating someone else over the color of their skin. It’s bigger than that. It’s a system. Language is just the first line of attack.

You can see the system at work in every single frame of Django Unchained that features a black person and a white person. Django, and the other slaves, are completely subordinate to the white people. Schultz and Django’s relationship is not just an aberration, but illegal. Django, while playacting a freed black slaver, is technically of higher social status than Walton Goggins’s Billy Crash, a simple redneck enforcer. That means he gets to smart off at Crash, to treat him like trash. But Billy Crash’s leer says everything you need to know about their power dynamic. Django can use all the words he wants, but free or not, he’s still just a nigger. If Billy Crash really wanted him, he could have him, and it’d only take a modicum of smoothing over.

The way the noose is casually hanging in Daughtrey, Texas when Django rides into town, everyone’s astonishment at seeing a black man on a horse, and the way people don’t talk to Django so much as around him all speak this truth. Django is barely out of slavery, technically freed, but he’s only one mistake away from being thrown back in chains. He isn’t a person yet, not by any white man’s measure.

Two exceptions: Sheriff Gus up in the cold snowy-snow of the north, and Dr King Schultz. Sheriff Gus has a bit part, maybe a minute of screen time, but he speaks to Django as if he were simply a man who was good at his job. He treats Django with a familiarity that no other character matches. They’re friends, or maybe something between friends and acquaintances. Sheriff Gus offers Django a slice of his own birthday cake. No leftovers, no gruel, nothing stale or spoiled. Fresh cake, meant to celebrate Gus’s birth, given as a gift to a black man. There’s a level of friendliness there that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film.

Dr King Schultz and Django have a relationship that’s more mentor and student than slave and owner, though Django is undeniably Schultz’s slave. Schultz is exceedingly European in demeanor and doesn’t like the idea of slavery, so he makes it a point to treat Django as, if not a peer, at least an apprentice.

Early on, Schultz refers to Django as “my boy.” It comes shortly after an innkeeper looks at Django in surprise and says something to the effect of “What do you think you’re doing, boy?” The difference between the two, though thin on paper, is interesting. “Boy,” as a term applied to negroes, was used to emphasize their less-than-human status. They couldn’t be men, because if they were men, they might be seen as being on par with white men. So they were treated as children in conversation.

Schultz’s “my boy” is different. It’s paternal, but not quite paternalistic. Schultz isn’t taking anything from Django with “my boy,” though it is explicitly more possessive than “boy.” It’s less of a slur because Schultz is using “my boy” to refer to Django as a junior partner, rather than property. It’s something a teacher would do, or a grandfather.

It’s a sign of Schultz’s faith in Django, if anything, and that trust is best shown toward the middle of the movie, when Schultz does a reckless thing, looks at Django, and says, “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.” That Schultz was willing to do something like that and throw his life away, leaving Django alone and in danger, is amazing. It’s the ultimate show of trust, in a certain way of thinking.

Language is complicated. You have to take into account who you’re talking to, what they expect, what you expect, and then construct your idea in a way that is clear in its intent and purpose. Django talking to Billy Crash is different from Django talking to a slave, which is different from Schultz talking to a slave, which is different from Schultz talking to Calvin Candie.

Language is just part of the equation, though. It’s easily the most outward-facing component of oppression, and much more obvious than the laws, lies, distorted religion, and fake science that people used to justify treating other people like property. But it’s not everything.

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23 comments to “Django Unchained: “Coded language, man-made laws.””

  1. It’s interesting how Django’s Use of language leaps during the film.

    Terry Gross interviews Tarantino post-Django and it reveals more about the chracter’s and the filmmaker’s origins than I’d have expected.

    http://www.npr.org/2013/01/02/168200139/quentin-tarantino-unchained-and-unruly

    There’s another link that may be of-interest but I’ve not checked it for myself, yet.


  2. Jesus. This is gonna be too long to check out before sharing. It looks worth a click:

    http://www.theroot.com/multimedia/tarantino-talks-gates-podcast-special


  3. It’s on iTunes, too, but I don’t know how to link to it.


  4. Still haven’t seen this yet, but want to. Even moreso just for how this language gets used (the “‘boy’ and ‘my boy’” bit sounds fascinating).


  5. I remember the “my by” thing. It stood out to me for many reasons – one if which was a workplace conflict I had when someone repeatedly used “boy” the wrong way*.

    I settled one to the same comfortable interpretation, that it was more affectionate and fatherly, despite the White chafacter’s admittedly dual nature,

    * – that way being one that she knew was offensive to me


  6. David, this reminds me, I think you would really enjoy the manga “Me and the Devil Blues.” It deals with Jim Crow era south and is highly intense and cinematic. It’s just two volumes from Del-Rey.


  7. @West: You can read it here, too. That’s how I made it through. I feel like Gates comes off a little lackluster, but Tarantino has great answers to aight questions.

    @Danish: I’ve got the first volume of that! I still need to read it.

    @West: I liked that they made it a point to show that Schultz was teaching Django how to read, too. It made the “Do I sound like a slave to you?” really striking toward the end of the flick.


  8. In order to avoid spoiling it for anybody who hasn’t seen the movie yet I won’t go into detail about what Schultz is apologising to Django for, but it wasn’t an act of trust, David.

    Schultz does what he does because he can’t see past his own pride until after the deed is done, and then he realises too late that he fucked up bigtime and that a huge part of the cost of his pride is coming out of Django’s skin, and he’s ashamed.


  9. @Prodigal: You can be trusting, prideful, and ashamed all at once. If I throw a punch in a bar when I’m hanging out with friends, that’s an implicit act of trust. I know that they are going to not just have my back, but be able to handle their own, too. It’s everything you said, but it’s trust, too. If he didn’t know Django could handle his own, I doubt he would have felt as comfortable with doing what he did. He was pushed to the edge, and after he crossed that edge, his first thought was of Django and his expression was a sheepish smile.

    Put differently: “Sorry. It’s all yours.”


  10. @david brothers: That is an excellent point.


  11. [...] Over at 4th Letter, David Brothers is writing daily posts about Django Unchained all week long. Django is a complicated movie about maybe the most complicated subject in America, and it’s good to see Brothers, who can be an incredibly incisive blogger, digging deep into it. (If you’re looking for a takedown, you’ll have to go somewhere else; Brothers is plainly a fan of the movie.) [...]


  12. One essay I recently read suggested why the people doing the harming – in an institutional way – tend to have so many slurs for the people who are harmed. Logically it should be the other way around. Slaves had a lot more reason to hate their owners than the owners had to hate them.

    It said that language like this was, in many ways, part of the job. It served an economic, social, and legal/ethical function. Slurs show there’s a social and legal order that can’t be breached and names like “boy” reinforce the supposed ethics of the order – that some people aren’t made to be legally free. The idea is that white people displayed extravagant contempt for black people not just because of hatred, but because they knew that doing so worked to their economic, social, and legal benefit. It was like keeping a house clean and in good repair. It’s not just about inclination. It helps support the entire framework and keep it from breaking down.


  13. On the language tip, one of my favorite (although misunderstood) laugh-lines in the movie was when the Spanish mandingo trader guy asks Django to spell his name, then when Django says “the d is silent” he says “I know.” Which at the time I thought was another veiled insult, and maybe it was. But until Tarantino’s Fresh Air interview I didn’t even know there’d been an original Django movie/series of movies, and didn’t get at all that it was a reference. Hell, at the beginning of the movie, while the song was playing (DJANGO!! Djan-goooo) I honestly thought for a second “how did they record this so perfectly to sound old??” I’m not very smart.


  14. @Dustin Harbin: I LOVE this. I have those moments all the time, like earlier today when I realized that spin class was just fancy bicycling and not uh… not spinning… like I thought it was :negativeman:

    @Esther Inglis-Arkell: Yes! Bingo! That is killer.


  15. [...] willing fool to being his ruthless eyes and ears on the rest of the house; and, as David Brothers notes, the shot of a noose hanging as the newly freed Django accompanies Schultz into one town spells out [...]


  16. I think it interesting that this author talks about language but does not understand its impact. I cannot believe that people still use slave as a noun. As if it is something that my ancestors were. Slavery is something that was done to my ancestors. Therefore, authors who believe themselves enlightening the rest of us should use an adjective when reference the atrocity that Europeans did to my ancestors. My ancestors were enslaved, they were not slaves. It is not about political correctness, it is about truth and respect.


  17. @B:

    You want people to stop using the noun “slave”?


  18. [...] Django Unchained: “Coded Language, Man-made Laws.” (4thletter) [...]


  19. And your parents’ parents’ parents’ parents are a part of your ancestry. They were people, not ancestors.

    Except that word exists for reasons that have little to do with anything other than giving us a common word to refer to a group of people.

    We all have ancestors and some of them were slaves. It may hurt to think of them that way, just as it may hurt to think of a loved one as a murder victim, but that doesn’t change the fact of the thing or the usefulness of language.

    Your point is well taken but subjective enough, even political enough to lose its substance.


  20. [...] Django Unchained: “Coded Language, Man-Made Laws”, David Brothers (4th Letter). [...]


  21. [...] 3. Django Unchained: “Coded language, man-made laws” [...]


  22. [...] “Coded Language, Man-Made Laws” 2. “If they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.” 3. “There [...]


  23. “Jimmys” is also a term for chocolate sprinkles in, uh, certain parts of the country.