Django’s black actors repeatedly had to interrupt interviewers and reframe the questions being asked of them in order to explain their own political stakes in making the movie, and to tell tales of how they made significant contributions to how the film was made.
The scene in which Broomhilda is whipped. Jamie Foxx chose the tone-setting music played on the set before the scene was shot, and noted that, as the cast and crew worked that day, “everybody had tears in their eyes, you felt the ancestors, you felt the significance of why we’re doing this film and showing it this way.”
Stephen plays the part of a glad-handing (albeit smart-mouthed) sycophant in front of Candie’s guests. Backstage, however, we see that he is the true brains behind Candie’s plantation empire.
A publicity photo for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, demonstrating the “heroes wear white, villains wear black” code of classic Hollywood westerns. Left to right, villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), heroes Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart).
Django’s real villain is not Stephen or Candie. It’s institutional racism, symbolized by Candyland, the “big house” of the most notorious plantation in the South.
The popular ITV series, Downton Abbey, is one of the most recent in a very long history of cinematic and televisual stories that represent the “big house” as a noble institution that deserves respect and veneration.
At the end of the film, after saving his wife and securing safe passage away from Candyland, Django doesn’t leave the “big house” standing. His revenge narrative is not complete until he strikes a fatal (albeit largely symbolic) blow to the heart of the institution of slavery.
Stephen’s dying monologue serves to remind the film’s audience that Django’s victory is only a symbolic one, and that institutionalized racism and slavery will not end with Stephen’s death. “You can’t destroy Candyland! We been here—they’s always gonna be a Candyland! Can’t no nigger gunfighter kill all the white folks in the world! They gonna find yo’ black ass!”
Stuart Hall, one of the leading figures in cultural studies, argues strongly against an essentialist understanding of media representations. “Films,” he writes, “are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily ‘right-on’ by virtue of the fact that they deal with the black experience.”
Spike Lee’s Bamboozled provoked significant controversy over its own depictions of contemporary blackface minstrelsy—which should have served to remind Lee that smart, politically progressive films about racism will necessarily take their audience places where they will be uncomfortable.
The institutional racism of Hollywood helps to explain why Tarantino can readily secure funding to make a film like Django, while Lee was forced to crowdfund his 2013 film, Oldboy, using Kickstarter.
Time and time again, Django’s black actors have to interrupt their interviewers and/or reframe the questions being asked of them in order to be seen as anything more than Tarantino’s hired help. Significantly, when those actors get to talk about what they find important about Django, they consistently demonstrate a deep concern for the representational burden the film carries, and offer nuanced thoughts on the film’s anti-racist politics. For instance, Foxx has to forcibly insert himself into the Nightline conversation mentioned earlier in order to establish that he, too, had significant choices to make with respect to respect to the making of Django. Eventually, he manages to tell a story about filming the scene in which Broomhilda is whipped:
Here, Foxx doesn’t just push back against critiques of the film’s “disrespectful” representation of slavery (specifically Spike Lee’s claim that the film is an insult to his ancestors): he makes a powerful argument about the historical and political significance of the project to the black cast (stars and extras alike) who worked on it.
Similarly, during the Moviemaniacs roundtable, Washington explicitly points out that the film is about “the institution of slavery” (emphasis added), and claims that she chose to make this film precisely because it offers an exceptionally positive vision of black empowerment:
In that same roundtable, Jackson has to remind the interviewer that he (Jackson) isn't just a voiceless body (“You don’t want to know how I felt about all this? . . . I have intelligent things to say about this shit.”). When the interviewer presses on, trying to get Jackson to discuss the “psychology” of Stephen and the “small power” he has in the story, Jackson responds, “Small power? I’m the power behind the throne. What are you talking about? I’m like the spook Cheney of Candyland. I’m all up in that.” (Moviemaniacs, 2013).
Jackson's point about Stephen’s backstage power also describes the roles that he, Foxx, and Washington played in shaping the film. They are the power behind Tarantino's throne. They not only have intelligent things to say about Django: they had intelligent things to contribute to making it the articulate condemnation of structural racism that it is.
Without a doubt, the most controversial character in Django is Stephen: the cunningly cruel “head house nigger” of Candyland. Why, some critics have wondered, did Tarantino make the nastiest villain in the film an over-the-top Uncle Tom? Where is the racial justice in a narrative that asks audiences to see Stephen, rather than Calvin Candie, as Django’s ultimate nemesis? Why does a film that invites audiences to cheer for a black man who gets paid for killing white men (and who openly enjoys that aspect of his job) end with us rooting for that black man to kill another black man? (Cobb, 2013; Gabriel, 2013; Reece, 2013; Reed, 2012; White, 2012)
Implicit in such questions is a problematic desire for a simplistic morality play, in which heroes and villains obey a predictable set of color-coded rules. In classic Hollywood westerns, the heroes wore white and the villains wore black. For some of Django’s more skeptical viewers, this code apparently should have been flipped and then applied to skin tone, so that all the heroes were black and all the villains were white. Stephen clearly violates this typology, and he does so without a single sympathetic on-screen moment that might allow viewers to understand him as an erstwhile hero who has simply lost his way.
Of course, the absolute purity of Stephen’s villainy makes him an easy character for audiences to hate—and, in many ways, this is precisely what makes so many critics uncomfortable with him. The idea that audiences—especially white audiences—might openly yearn for the violent death of a fictional black man is, after all, awfully close to the very real disdain that so many white Americans have for real black people. We can’t entirely blame some critics for finding Stephen to be distasteful. Yet we can’t quite share this reading of his character. Partially, this is because a weak, ineffectual Stephen would have been just as problematic in terms of representational politics. It’s hard to imagine any of the critics who disliked Stephen as a villainous race traitor being any happier with him as a shuffling, ignorant pawn for Candie to push around. Partially, this is because we see a great deal of political value in a film that places two exceptionally strong black characters at the center of the action—even if they happen to be on opposite sides of the narrative struggle—especially since it’s still rare for a mainstream Hollywood film to give audiences even one such character. And partially, this is because, in the context of the film’s action, it’s almost impossible to actively root for Stephen’s righteous comeuppance without simultaneously rooting for Django to deliver the coup de grâce. If Django’s white viewers are going to cheer for the death of a black villain, they also have to cheer for the triumph of a black hero.
Mostly, though, we have a difficult time condemning Stephen as a character because, short of making the entire movie about him (and probably not even then), there is no feasible way to portray the “head house nigger” of one of the largest and most notorious plantations in the South as a sympathetic or politically progressive character. The problem with Stephen, after all, isn’t in how Tarantino scripted the character: it’s that he exists at all. Critics who want something else from Stephen seem to believe that there’s some politically acceptable way to depict a black slave whose primary role in life is to keep his wealthy white owner’s household running smoothly: a role which, in turn, requires him to actively participate in maintaining the brutal hierarchy of racial oppression that lies at the core of the plantation system.
Django’s real villain is not Stephen or Candie. It’s not even a person at all. It’s racism. And not racism as a scattered problem produced by isolated, individual bigots, but racism as a pervasive, unrelenting structural phenomenon—and this is a large part of what makes Django such an unusual and important film. There is nothing romantic about Django’s depiction of life in the antebellum South. From top to bottom, this is a world built out of brutal oppression and cruel racial hierarchy. If there’s a physical embodiment of racism in the world of Django, it’s Candyland: the notorious “big house” that every slave knows about (and fears being sold to), and that—significantly—Django blows to smithereens at the end of the film.
There is, of course, a very long history of "big houses"—from English manors to Dixieland plantations—in mainstream film and television: glorious mansions, populated by chivalrous gentlemen and virtuous ladies who, in turn, are waited on hand and foot by a sizable retinue of happy, loyal, docile servants/slaves. What makes Candyland so different from a century of fictional big houses before it, though, isn’t the treachery of Stephen. If anything, Stephen’s role is no different than that of any semi-privileged house slave in classic Hollywood depictions of antebellum plantations. To the degree that such characters were ever presented to viewers as more than just silent props, they showed fawning, unswerving devotion to their masters and mistresses: they were always already race traitors. [open endnotes in new window] The difference here is that Django doesn’t take the house’s side. Stephen can only be a villainous character in the context of a film that gives us “the big house” as the fundamental structural evil that needs to be destroyed.
Within the world of the film, there was no need for Django to do anything about the “big house” at all. Except for Stephen, he had killed everyone who stood between him and freedom for himself and Broomhilda—and Stephen was no longer a threat. Django could have killed Stephen—or even just walked away from him—without touching the house at all. Django doesn’t blow up Candyland because he needs to do so: he blows it up because we need him to do so. By this point in the story, Django has spent nearly three hours painting a picture of a society permeated, top to bottom, by a deep and abiding racism. If Django is going to triumph against that villain, he can’t just kill off Candie and Stephen and then ride off into the night with Hildy: he needs to kill “the big house” too. Stephen’s final speech underscores this point emphatically:
Stephen knows—and the inclusion of this speech in the film is an attempt to make sure that we know—that Django’s destruction of Candyland is supposed to symbolize something bigger than just the end of a quest for personal revenge. But Stephen also knows that Django’s victory is only a symbolic one: that you can’t kill systemic racism with nothing but bullets and dynamite. It will survive this setback. And it will come after Django with a furious vengeance.
Discussing My Beautiful Laundrette, and the debates that it sparked in Britain in the 1980s about the politics of racial representation, Stuart Hall writes:
Ironically, the major U.S. filmmaker whose work embodies this philosophy most fully is Spike Lee. Part of what makes Lee’s films powerful and refreshing is that they routinely portray blackness as a variable, multifaceted, heterogeneous phenomenon. Do the Right Thing, Bamboozled, School Daze, Jungle Fever (etc.) all contain an incredibly broad range of black characters. Some are sweet, some are mean; some are good, some are evil; some are smart, some are dumb; some are kind, some are cruel. We are invited to root for some of them to succeed and for others to get a truly righteous comeuppance. There is no singular blackness in Lee’s cinematic worlds: an extraordinarily rare thing in Hollywood’s depictions of black America.
Nonetheless, Lee has done a curious two-step around Django. On the one hand, he wants to avoid talking about it publicly. On the other hand, he’s made very public statements claiming that film is “disrespectful to [his] ancestors” (VibeTV, 2012). It’s likely that part of Lee’s disdain for Django is tied up with his long-running public feud with Tarantino over the latter’s heavy use of the word “nigger” in “his” films. We can respect Lee’s point that “nigger” signifies in much different ways when it’s used by white people than when it is by black people. White artists, after all, have a long, ugly history of “blackening” up in ways that read more as theft than as love (Lott, 1993).
At the same time, however, we respect Tarantino’s artistic right to create characters who say and do all sorts of “bad” things. And given the physical brutality that Tarantino’s characters routinely inflict on one another, it’s hardly surprising that they speak to each other using coarse, impolitic language. Moreover, a film that focuses on slavery in the antebellum South is almost obligated to use “nigger” on a regular basis. In this sense, Django is a lot like Huck Finn: if you are going to tell this story with anything that pretends to have a semblance of historical accuracy, then you have to use the word—and use it a lot.
More problematically, Lee has said that he has no intention of seeing Django. And it’s disheartening to see him so thoroughly condemn a film he hasn’t seen—not the least because Lee has been subject to plenty of that sort of blind, reactionary condemnation himself. Lee has also wandered into some exceptionally murky waters with respect to ugly representations of black people on the big screen. For example, Bamboozled, while a brilliant piece of work, produced its own fair share of audience discomfort with its depictions of contemporary blackface minstrelsy. Perhaps more than any other working director, Lee should be aware that smart, politically progressive films about racism will necessarily take their audiences places where they will be uncomfortable. Discomfort for discomfort’s sake, of course, is not desirable in and of itself—but Lee should at least see the film before he declares that its representational politics are unacceptable.
As filmmakers, Lee and Tarantino are actually very much alike: they’re both opinionated, cantankerous, provocative directors and screenwriters, each of whom has risked alienating the established powers in Hollywood by pursuing controversial projects that suit their respective artistic and/or political visions. One of the main places where their careers have differed, however, is that Lee has had to struggle far harder than Tarantino in order to get his films financed and completed (Exhibit A: Malcolm X (Lee, 1993); Exhibit B: Lee crowdfunding his most recent film (Lee, 2013)). That Tarantino could get “green-lighted” to make a film like Django—i.e., a violent revenge fantasy in which a black man rides roughshod over antebellum white America—must be a bitter pill for Lee to swallow.
In this light, though, the proper target for Lee’s righteous anger isn’t Django, or even Tarantino. It’s the larger set of institutional forces related to how Hollywood makes films about black culture, history, and politics. To this end, we would pose the following questions:
Ultimately, though, the amount of attention given to the ongoing Lee/Tarantino “feud” arguably does more to reproduce Hollywood’s racism than it does to address that problem. What truly matters here, after all, isn’t the public sniping between two “bad boy” film directors—even if that may provide gossip blogs with useful material—since that “story” merely reduces the issue to a clash of individual personalities, and it directs our attention away from the broader structural problems that help to fuel that feud in the first place.