Django Unchained: “If they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.”

January 7th, 2013 by | Tags: , ,

django unchained - say what

Partway through Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J Candie, ruler of the Candyland, talks about exceptional niggers. His idea is that one in every ten thousand negroes is exceptional, a near-equal to the white man. The other nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine are unexceptional, but possessed of an enormous capability for loyalty and servitude. Thus, it follows that the natural state of the black race is beneath the white man’s boot, as the white man is possessed of mental capabilities that the black man simply cannot possess… but everyone one in ten thousand niggers is good enough to go toe-to-toe.

My first thought while Candie was explaining his theory was of WEB Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth.” The talented tenth would come into existence for the purpose of “developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” I’m of two minds about it. I like Du Bois’s emphasis on education, but I’m wary of anything that sets up one class as being meant to guide another class. I’d vastly prefer something egalitarian and logistically difficult, like making sure that everyone stands on equal ground.

Candie and Du Bois both accept that the black man is not on par with the white man. In Du Bois’s case, it was because the black American had been consistently terrorized and held back from being treated as equal. Du Bois wanted the best of us to help out the rest of us. In Candie’s case, it was because the black man was, by default, inferior, and any exceptional nigger was just that: an exception. The rest of ’em weren’t worth much of nothing, past what you paid for ’em.

I’m fascinated by how the oppressed interacts with the oppressor. Appeasement and collaboration, right? Why would you side with someone who hates you? Why would you adopt their mannerisms and culture? Usually, the answer to that question is “to stay alive by blending in.” Sometimes, though, you can adopt their methods in order to fight back against them. For example, Malcolm X found wisdom while in prison. Huey Newton learned how to read after escaping high school. Even your boy Tupac Shakur was well-read, and that allowed him to be politically active. Knowledge is power, baby.

Here’s Talib Kweli, off David Banner’s “Ridin”:

When they call you nigger,
They scared of you, they fearin’ you
So, actually, if crackers gon’ be fearing niggers
Then that’s what the fuck I have to be

Kweli’s idea here is to weaponize the idea of a nigger. They’re already afraid of you, so why not take that next step and demand your respect? Buy into their nonsense and use it against them.

django unchained - stephen

Stephen, played by an engaged and lively Samuel L Jackson, weaponized it in the other direction. Rather than using their prejudices to fight back against them, Stephen uses those prejudices to make a power grab of his own. He’s the prototypical house nigger, the type of guy Malcolm warned you about. He’s conniving and scummy, and his position as the head nigger in charge means that he gets to boss around everyone else. When it comes to dealing with whites, he’ll shuck, jive, step, fetch, and yes massa no massa of course massa his way into being a valued member of the family. But not a real member, of course — just a fixture, someone reliable. He’s still property, but he just gets to live a little nicer than everybody else.

Stephen gets a lot of leeway thanks to his sellout status. He gets to smart off to his master — up to a point, at least, don’t forget “Keep it funny, Stephen” — and he gets to tell other slaves what to do. He plays up his shuckin and jiving when in polite company to show just how fantastic his master is, but when they’re alone, Candie gives Stephen even more leeway. Candie understands that having an inside man, a different thinker, on his side is much more valuable than ruling by fear alone. Stephen is happy to be who he is, because being the other thing is out of the question.

I like Django’s route a lot better. When the time comes for people to die in Django Unchained, they die bloody. Jamie Foxx’s Django explicitly takes on the role of that exceptional nigger. At one point, Candie wonders why blacks don’t just rise up and take over. Django is the answer to his sarcastic and absurd question. Django uses Candie’s philosophy against him. He puts an end to their reign. It’s one plantation in one territory, not a revolution… but he gives them what they deserve and sends them on their way.

M. Calvin J Candie seems himself as a homemade intellectual, a deep-thinking type of guy with a firm grasp on the future. He’s a liar. He’s a lie, like the south is a lie, and like America is a lie.

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13 comments to “Django Unchained: “If they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.””

  1. You brought up Candie’s “why don’t they all just kill us?” speech, but left off the scene where Tarantino really twists the knife; it’s, more than anything else, the scene that’s stuck with me and keeps on haunting me, and I think it’s because I know Tarantino was saying something, but I don’t know what. So I wanna hear your thoughts.

    After Django gets free from the Australians, the last we see of the three other slaves he was being transported with, they’re still in the cage. They know they’re going to the mines, where they’ll be worked brutally and then killed. All the overseers are dead. And there they are, in a cage literally with the door open, and they’re just… sitting there, waiting for someone to tell them what to do. And Django doesn’t give them any orders; he gets the dynamite and rides off. So that’s the last we see of them. Staying in a prison they could leave just as soon as they got up and walked through the door.

    “Why don’t they just kill us all?” It’s bothering the hell out of me.

  2. Nice article! Living in Memphis makes the lie pretty obvious, but lot’s of folk here still don’t even appreciate it.

  3. I loved Django’s arc in this movie, and it ties in to what Andy says:
    In the beginning, Django is just like all the other slaves; tied up and more or less helpless. The system in place did a good job of keeping the slaves down, not just physically, but mentally too. Django, like you mentioned in the last article, is then put into a student role with Schulz. One scene that sticks out to me is when Schulz tells Django, “It’s okay,” after Django flips and kills the three they originally planned to kill before given the order to do so. The “It’s okay,” is a little paternal, but Django is just out of a system he’s been in all his life where he’s used to people beating him for acting out of line. By the end of the movie, Schulz and Django are able to butt heads and Django is able to defend his own actions without needing Schulz’s “It’s okay” to alleviate his fears of acting on his own. This comes AFTER his education with Schulz and AFTER he practices with a gun.

    So, because of this, I don’t believe that Django is one of the “exceptional ones.” The only thing exceptional thing about him was his amazing talents with a gun. The only thing that made him “better” than the slaves he was freed from was that he was given a chance to be better and the same tools as the white people; an education to fight wits and a gun for when wit isn’t enough.

  4. @Andy: Technically speaking that wasn’t the last we saw of them, given that the stinger after the credits shows them as one wonder aloud “who WAS that nigger?”, but seeing as how they’re still exactly where we last saw them your observation still holds.

  5. @Joe H: You are correct, especially your last paragraph. Though Django was exceptional in one way — he was a natural with a gun.

    @Andy: Your read on that scene is way-off. They were packed up after a life of misery and facing a certain and slow death. And then along comes this bounty hunter, who was pretending to be a slaver, who just killed not only their master, but a couple dozen overseers, too. And then, on top of that, he talks his way out of captivity, kills the people who work for the LeQuint Dickey company, explodes one of them, walks out of the dust like a god of death, steals a horse, demands dynamite, and rides off into the distance.

    They aren’t trapped in a cage, waiting for orders. They’re stunned, as anyone would be. They just saw something that is basically miraculous, and then it happened again. They’re allowed to sit and appreciate. There was an after-credits bit that picked up immediately after Foxx left that suggests the same, actually. One of them says “Who was that nigger?” as they all look on in shock.

    @Kaare: I’ve got a special knife for the south tomorrow. Stay tuned.

  6. I doubt Tarantino intended this, but one thing that I liked about Candie’s speech is that it kinda throws that question as a challenge to the audience – Candie’s asking it rhetorically, but then he proceeds to give an “answer” that’s crazily wrong. It kinda dares people (esp. middlebrow white people) to try and answer the question without sounding like Candie – the stuff with Stephen makes it definitely a relevant question thematically, and I feel like people would take that as licence to talk in a victim-blamey kind of way? Any time a white person calls someone (even a character) an uncle tom, it’s definitely got the potential to be very gross.
    All the while, of course, Tarantino’s been throwing horrible violence in our faces, and during that scene the protagonist is being held at gunpoint – he’s not letting us forget the essential fact of the matter.

  7. Stephen’s a fascinating character. He’s spent his life manipulating the Candies into doing what he wants them to do by making them think his suggestions are their own ideas, because he thinks that this is the only way that he could have any power in the world. he hates the Candies because he’s smarter than the lot of them put together, but because of the color of his skin he can only avoid death in th fields by overwork or by the rope or dogs is by acting the kindly old uncle and never saying what he really thinks. He has to sell himself out every day just to get whatever small scraps of freedom he can scrounge, because he doesn’t believe that there is any other way that can be done.

    Then Django comes along, and he’s doing everything that Stephen hasn’t been able to do – he looks the white folks in the eye, tells them what he thinks about them, and acts like an equal to them – and everything he is and does proves that what Stephen thought was the only way to get any freedom ain’t no such thing. Stephen can’t forgive that. This is why he’s so eager to get Django shipped off to the most prolonged and painful death possible: He’s freer than Stephen, and that is a sin that Stephen can never forgive.

  8. One of the more puzzling events in the movie–one that I haven’t seen any reviewer address–is the scene where Stephen saves Django.

    Just after Django has been captured, he’s all strung up and Walton Goggins is dreaming about castration, Stephen comes in and saves Django. Or at least he saves him from a quick death, a botched castration, from the passions of the mob.


    Does Stephen really think working in the mine is worse than death? Does he really think Django won’t get free and come back? Can we trust Stephen’s words here, or is something else going on? Does he secretly want Django to get free?

  9. Great take on the film David. As to Mr. Mojo (Rising) I think it’s believable that Stephen means what he says, that the punished slaves they send to LeQuint Dickey “have it worse than [death].” Django could be tortured and killed, but Stephen’s point is making Django a slave again is the worst punishment. It could be read as a personal revenge on Stephen. Django had more freedom than Stephen, so now Stephen is taking those freedoms away.

    Tarantino makes the point in this interview that his characters don’t always work out of air-tight logic, but of their own deep whims, and Stephen’s choice re: LeQuint Dickey is an example of that: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/20/quentin-tarantino-django-unchained_n_2340987.html

  10. @david brothers: Admittedly I had no idea there was a stinger until you guys mentioned it, and shock is a valid explanation, but I’ll dispute way off. The bit directly after Django kills the overseers just has too nasty a point on it. That door got opened, Django walked out of it, and now he’s killed everyone keeping them in bondage. And he’s come back. And they don’t do a goddamn thing until he gives them an order. Maybe I’m wrong and it only plays this way in my head, but I seem to recall a pretty long bit where the slaves and Django just stare at each other, nobody moving. I couldn’t stop thinking about Candie’s speech the entire time that was playing out. What’s keeping them in the cage, when the chains and the door and the guards are gone?

    @Mojo: Dude, Stephen gives an extended speech that is all about “castration and lynching is a quick death and you deserve worse”. He’s pretty goddamn clear that he wants Django to suffer as long as possible, and that dude was all hate. I don’t doubt him for a second.

  11. @Andy: I’ll give you an example of culture shock, from my life: In 2007, during my time stationed in Europe, I escorted a new arrival to McDonald’s. The young man looked behind the counter, saw that beer was on tap, then stood in line for almost 5 minutes staring at the dispenser and repeating to himself, “It’s true. It’s really, really true.” When we finally ordered our food and he realised that my large Bitburger was cheaper than his medium soda, he blanked out again.

    In comparison, the slaves in that scene had probably never even seen any place besides the land of their former owner(s). They would have felt even more out of place than those teenagers who (still) run away to New York City. You see them leaving Penn Station with their eyes all aglow and with dreams and goals almost leaking from every pore, and these kids have had the privilege of growing up watching TV and seeing movies about New York. And unlike the slaves, they wouldn’t be wandering off into a world in which everyone wanted to kill them (or work them to death, which is technically the same thing.)

  12. I’m so glad YOU are writing these. I’ve never read your writing before but your perspective is exceptional 😉

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