An Analysis of Slave Hierarchies in Django Unchained
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained is a film that provides valuable insight into slave hierarchies in the American South during the mid-nineteenth century. As reiterated in a speech given by Malcolm X in 1963, the main differentiation between African slaves was often considered to be that of the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro’. There are two readings relating to these terms: whilst the first has a literal meaning of whether a slave labours in the house or field, the second refers more to the mentality of the slave. Whereas the ‘house Negro’ minority maintains a close bond with their master, the ‘field Negro’ is often defiant and loathes their master. There is a close relationship between the mentalities of slaves and their statuses on the plantation. An obedient ‘house Negro’ who has gained the trust of the master will often have higher living standards, less arduous labour and certain freedoms. Although amongst the slave community these individuals are seen as race traitors, they were not resented as much as black slave drivers. Whilst Tarantino often adheres to these models, the film also incorporates a variety of unconventional slave types that do not fit into these categories and that are historically inaccurate.
The representation of field slaves in the film are mainly depicted through Django and his wife Broomhilda von Schaft, whom have both been branded with an ‘r’ on their faces to indicate their attempts to run away from their plantations. Though both display rebelliousness towards their masters, they have differing roles within their community due partly to their gender. Since Django is a strong young male slave, his main purpose is to work in the field. The numerous lashes on his back suggest that he has either been disobedient or inefficient in his work and can be an indicator that he dislikes his masters at the very least. This kind of harsh treatment towards slaves was unremarkable, with slaveholders also frequently beating, caning, imprisoning and shooting their own slaves. Field slaves would often be subject to the worst forms of physical punishment for deviant behaviour and hence maintained a significantly more distanced relationship to the master. On the other hand, Broomhilda, though maintaining a ‘field Negro’ mentality, has a role in the master’s house – like most women. After being taken out of the hotbox for attempting to run away, she is offered as company to Dr. Schultz by Candie – where a sexual element is implied. The offering of female slaves as sexual entertainment and the blatant disregard for their livelihood and dignity is inspired by true attitudes of slaveowners in the Antebellum period. Berlin claims that “slaveholding men everywhere … assumed that sexual access to slave women was simply another one of their prerogatives.”
House slaves and their position in the slave hierarchy is demonstrated primarily through Stephen, the butler, and certain women on the Bennet and Candie plantations. Stephen has the closest relationship with Calvin Candie, the master of the estate, and is often found by his side, agreeing with his every word, laughing at his every joke and echoing all of his opinions. As a result, he is at the top of the slave hierarchy and oversees the labour and punishment of the other slaves. He demonstrates more loyalty to his master than his own kind, validating his ‘house Negro’ mentality. When Candie asks for Broomhilda to be taken out of the hotbox early, Stephen yells, “She’s being punished!” and “Take her out, why?” portraying both his surprisingly comfortable demeanour around Candie and ruthlessness towards disobedient slaves. Even upon Candie’s death at the end of the film, Stephen runs to his body and cries frantically. These actions demonstrate the close bond they upheld and highlight that although a slave, Stephen admired his master and was contented with remaining subordinate to him. The character of Stephen is a realistic representation of a minority of house slaves and according to Kolchin, as Antebellum Southern slavery became more paternalistic and the master-slave relationship developed, this behaviour was more common. Masters began to take personal interest in the lives of their slaves and often saw them as more than labourers.House slaves were shielded from the “rigors of backbreaking labour” and had “intense relationships” with their masters, signifying a higher and more unusual social status in a hierarchy where they still remained slaves.
Women on the Bennet and Candie plantations are also portrayed with comfortable lifestyles in the master’s house. They are often well dressed, eat at the master’s table and are seen roaming the grounds enjoying leisure time with their friends. Sheeba, an attractive slave often wearing more ornate clothes than Candie’s own sister, sits and drinks with Candie during his recreational activities. She is evidently there for aesthetic reasons and has an incredibly relaxed lifestyle compared to fellow slaves’ characters. The importance of unspoilt beauty among female house slaves is further reinforced in the scene where Django pleads to his master not to give Broomhilda lashes as she would no longer be suited to house service. Although various studies have shown that this is romanticised slavery, it was commonplace for light-skinned female slaves to be sold “specifically for wealthy white Southern men,” like Candie. They were dressed as “fashionably showy ladies” and often adorned expensive jewellery and baubles on auction blocks. Even though in terms of labour Sheeba is a ‘house Negro’, her distressed expression during the gory death of a Mandingo fighter with the use of a hammer demonstrates a reduced ‘house Negro’ mentality. Despite her elevated status, she seems to be more aware of the victimisation of her peers by Candie.
For their infiltration of Candie’s plantation, Dr. Schultz, Django’s accomplice, suggests that Django pose as a black slaver. Upon hearing this, Django exclaims, “but that is lower than the head house nigger!” This reiterates the importance of the slave hierarchy within the slave population. Whilst Django and Dr. Schultz are making their way to Candieland, the other field slaves glare scornfully at Django, more so than their white masters. The fact that white people still consider him inferior, yelling racial slurs at him, and that the other slaves detest him as much as their masters shows that a black slaver is alienated from both racial groups. A slaveowner, Jane Johnson, described her slave driver as, “De meanest man, white or black, I ever see.” Additionally, there was one instance whereby a slave driver was “horribly cut to pieces” by another slave as a result of pure resentment. The hatred slaves felt for black slavers is echoed precisely for Django, when he was posing as a black slaver, which exhibits the realism portrayed in the film.
Although Django Unchained portrays a generally accurate view of slave types and their roles, there are some inclusions of highly unrealistic content. The relationship between Django and Dr. Schultz is far-fetched and laden with gimmicks. This undermines the credibility of the possibility that whites expressed “genuine admiration” or “affection” towards blacks as it is the only white-black relationship where there is a sense of mutual respect and genuine friendship – unlike the superficial relationship Stephen and Candie have. The film often plays on racial tensions and the brutality of masters and as a result, the presentation of master-slave relationships has been oversimplified. Furthermore, according to various historians, Mandingo fighters (slaves with the sole purpose of fighting in a death match for entertainment) were likely never used in the American South. Blight expresses this by highlighting that sending healthy slaves off to die for sport is logically flawed considering their primary use is for economic advancement through physical labour, whilst Medford reiterates that there is little evidence of such activity. The fact that a slaveholder in Virginia hired workers to maintain his swamps because the labour was dangerously unhealthy for his slaves portrays the unlikelihood of slaves being used for deadly sports – he stated, “a Negro’s life is too valuable to be risked at it. If a Negro dies, it’s a considerable loss, you know.”
In conclusion, it is evident that Django Unchained communicates a fairly accurate representation of slave hierarchies during the nineteenth century. The depiction of field slaves, house slaves and black slavers as well as the relationship they maintain with one another is mostly convincing. Though there are exaggerations with props and certain slave liberties, this is evidently in order to rouse interest amongst the viewers. This is the case particularly in the usage of Mandingo fighters as a plot device rather than a historically accurate characterisation. Tarantino captures the mentality and treatment of field slaves particularly well, invoking sympathy from the audience by using realistic examples of slave hardships. The amount of the storyline that is allocated to the exploration of Stephen and Candie’s bond successfully demonstrates the level of loyalty the ‘house Negro’ minority had for their masters. However, it could be seen as a pejorative demonisation of the master-slave relationship, as there are few presentations of white masters that are not cruel, tyrannical individuals in the film.
Written by Aila Bicer
1. Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
2. Brion, Davis. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
3. Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1976.
4. Katz-Hyman, Martha B. World of a Slave: Encyclopaedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. California: Greenwood, 2011.
5. Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1995.
6. Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998.
1. Django Unchained. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. 2012. Beverly Hills, CA: The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures, 2013. DVD
1. Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. “Malcolm describes the different between the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro.” Accessed 4 October, 2015. http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/mxp/speeches/mxa17.html
2. Huffington Post. “‘Django Unchained’ Mandingo Fighting: Real or Not?” Accessed 4 October, 2015.