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.
- Django Unchained: “Negro from necro, meaning death: I overcame it so they named me after it.”
- Django Unchained: “Jump at de sun.”
- Django Unchained: “Am I wrong ’cause I wanna get it on ’til I die?”
- Django Unchained: “There could never really be justice on stolen land.”
- Django Unchained: “I can’t pay no doctor bills (but Whitey’s on the moon).”