(Beware: Spoilers below) I was hesitant to see Django Unchained, having read an earlier script floating around the Internet, until actress Kerry Washington said this about her role as long-suffering slave and love interest, Broomhilda:
Look I can see how it’s not particularly feminist to play the princess in the tower, waiting to be saved. But as a Black woman–we’ve never been afforded that luxury… In some ways, this telling is a statement of empowerment.
I’m still weighing this statement against my own longings for a freed-Black-woman empowerment story for cinema: When will I savor the delicious taste of a Harriet Tubman action epic or an intense thriller showing Mary Ellen Pleasant arming John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry?
I think of the empowerment movies that do not yet exist when I weigh the merits of a Black damsel-in-distress rescued from slavery by her knight-in-shining armor, especially considering that my feelings were most visceral at the moment in Django Unchained when Broomhilda—sobbing at the prospect of a rapist at the door of her cabin—is relieved to hear her beloved call out “It’s me, baby!”
It’s this scene that saved the last act of the movie from bloody shoot-em-up tripe. That, plus the dynamiting of the “Candie Land” plantation. Having visited as a tourist the Evergreen Plantation outside New Orleans, the set location for the fictitious plantation, and witnessing firsthand the South’s revered and hyperbolic nostalgia for that shameful period in history, I applaud Quentin Tarantino for cinematically burning down the house.
Alas, this movie is mere fantasy, and Samuel L. Jackson’s loathsome Stephens reminds us of the terrible truth that “Candie Land” will always be there, waiting to enslave us. But to really enjoy Django Unchained, not only did I have to suspend my disbelief but also my historical consciousness. Nonetheless, I do want to confront that visceral desire, as Washington suggested, of Black women imagining ourselves worthy enough, valuable enough to be saved from the “hellfires” of slavery (an allusion to the Brunhilde myth of German lore, according to Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz).
Historically, there is proof that we’ve inspired this desire—not just from men like Dangerfield Newby, the instigator behind the Harper’s Ferry raid who simply wanted to rescue his wife from slavery when her master refused to sell at the agreed-upon price, but also from parents seeking their sold-off children and from sisters and daughters like the legendary Harriet Tubman, who rescued as many slaves as she did in her quest to free her own kin.
It is these historical truths that a film like Django Unchained invokes and which makes the film work on an emotional level. However, I’m not quite sold on the Black-damsel-in-distress-role as “empowerment.” In order for Broomhilda to be a radical heroine, for me at least, I needed her character to be more than a concept. As a concept—down to her anachronistically processed hair—Broomhilda is simply an objet d’art, beautifully shot in certain scenes while subject to various abuses, such as the iconic whipping, the scarred back, the branded face, the hot box from which her naked body emerges. Granted, our hero Django (Jamie Foxx) calls her “Little Troublemaker,” thus inviting viewers to reinterpret her scars as evidence of the “trouble” she routinely caused and her inherent resistance to slavery’s harsh conditions.
But, the “hellfire” of slavery is best represented by what was not shown (and presumably left on the cutting room floor)—the institutional practice of slave rape, which is the unspoken but very real motivation for Django to rescue her in the first place. The over-the-top violence and glamorous fetishization of Black bodies conveniently stand in for all the things we as a nation still can’t watch nor acknowledge.
In stark contrast with the rugged individualism of masculinity (represented by Django and his bounty hunter mentor Dr. Schultz) and wide open spaces of Tarantino’s stylish “spaghetti Western” is the confined and feminine space of the Southern plantations. On the Bennett plantation, Big Daddy (Don Johnson) is surrounded almost exclusively by enslaved Black women, and before we enter the hellish “Candie Land,” we first meet the fiendish villain, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) at a brothel-like Cleopatra Club, in which white slaveowners party lavishly with their enslaved Black mistresses. That such enslaved women as Coco (Daniele Watts, dressed up like a French maid) and Sheba (Nichole Galicia, stunningly rendered in the finest garments and shown sipping champagne) are glamorized to the point that movie fans have taken to social media to debate who’s “hotter” really drives home how “slave rape” can’t be treated with any real cinematic honesty–and therefore, we can’t begin to discuss a slave woman’s resistance or complicity.
This collection of Black female extras merely highlights the project of liberated Black masculinity and what it means for Django to escape his for-certain emasculation in such a space (literally visualized in a near castration scene) and to rescue Broomhilda from the degradation we cannot visualize in a film that does not shy away from depicting bits, muzzles, hot boxes and dog attacks.
Considering that I had a hard time distinguishing between the stylized blackamour figurines decorating “Candie Land” (subversively replacing the grotesque mammy and sambo figurines on Evergreen in a subtle reminder of American culture’s attempts to symbolically erase desirable yet threatening Black sexuality) and the army of Black slaves who keep the house running, it is just as well that I can enjoy Django Unchained as mythical satire.
But in an era when even passive white princesses of old, such as Snow White and the Huntsman, and Disney princesses such as Merida in Pixar’s Brave are doing it for themselves, I’d hate to see Black women regress to a feminized and fetishized cliche and call it “empowerment.”