Whenever learned articles employ such phrases as “racial politics” or “sexual politics” to describe fictional narrative, the metaphor is clear. No matter how escapist the narrative may seem, it’s assumed that a political opposition is always at work, possibly stemming from Frederic Jameson’s “political unconscious.”
Further, it is a not a “politics” like that of the real world, where politicians shift allegiances or make secret deals for purely personal advantage. It is an absolute politics, in which the representatives of oppression are always for oppression, and the representatives of liberation are always for liberation.
I speak, however, of “non-politics” as a counter-metaphor to escape this rigid oppositionalism. “Non-politics” takes in any and all purely personal elements that have been elided from oppositional accounts, elements that don’t fit the “either/or” dichotomy.
After viewing Quentin Tarantion’s DJANGO UNCHAINED with a friend, that friend made a remark that I feel sure many other white viewers made: observing that Tarantino’s movie portrays an American West almost bereft of “good white guys.” With the obvious exception of central character Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz), every other white character is either a villain or an ineffectual bystander.
At the time I replied that such strong racial opposition was wholly characteristic of one of the major influences on DJANGO specifically and on Tarantino generally: the “blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s. Not all of these films are without “good white guys,” but it’s far more typical to draw battle-lines in terms of race in such films as DOLEMITE, HUMAN TORNADO, SUPERFLY, BLACK SAMSON, FOXY BROWN, and COFFY, just to name the first six that come to mind. However, race doesn’t always tell, for one can find examples of black characters who “sell out to the Man.” A noteworthy example appears at the climax of COFFY, where the heroine’s boyfriend sells her out both politically and sexually (i.e., sleeping with a white woman).
Most of these films are escapist in tone, making no attempt to address abstract matters of morality or justice. In the minds of oppositional critics I presume they would fall upon the side of “liberation” since they depict, however crudely, the triumph of oppressed people—just as Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION would fall on the side of oppression in validating an oppressive regime. However, oppositional critics generally fail to see that when blaxploitation films do draw battle-lines exclusively in terms of race, they subscribe to the same logic as the Griffith film does, saying, in effect, “protect only those who share your own ethnic characteristics.”
At first glance, it might appear that Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED subscribes to this same logic. Bounty hunter King Schulz liberates the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from his masters so that Django can help him identify a trio of wanted men; former overseers on Django’s plantation. For this service Schulz promises to give Django his freedom, though Django goes beyond the letter of the agreement when he tastes the forbidden fruit of blasting down white oppressors, specifically those who have injured him and his wife Broomhilda. Following this successful adventure, Schulz and Django bond so strongly that Schulz agrees to help the ex-slave find his wife, who had been sold separately to an unknown buyer. The duo locate Broomhilda on the plantation of wealthy Calvin J. Candie, so they initiate a scam designed to liberate Broomhilda legally, though it requires some deception as to their real motives. However, Candie’s house is managed by a slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). He sees through the deception and exposes the scheme to protect his master’s interests. In the end Schulz and Candie both die and Django takes bloody vengeance on the entire Candie family, leaving the race-traitor Stephen for last. He and Broomhilda ride off into the sunset to make a new life, having also acquired papers that will give Broomhilda freedom.
It’s true, as my friend said, that aside from Schulz all the white characters are villains or ineffectual bystanders. What he didn’t notice, though, is that the same situation obtains for black characters. Nearly all black characters in DJANGO are ineffectual bystanders except for Broomhilda—but even though she's not a simple bystander, she's also unable to participate in Django's heroics. She does try to play along with her husband’s scam, but when it fails, she’s reduced to nothing more than a damsel in distress. There’s one moment when some liberated slaves manage to execute the man who enslaved them, but the event only comes about because Schulz liberates them.
And then there’s the one black villain. At first glance Stephen might appear to be just another “sell out to the Man,” as with the character in COFFY. However, I suggest that something more complex and non-political is going on.
For one thing, the relationship of Stephen to Calvin Candie is almost a mirror-image of the one between Schulz and Django. There are differences, of course. Schulz, coming from Germany, has had the benefit of a classical education, while Stephen—made up to look a malevolent version of the “Uncle Ben’s Rice” icon— mangles words to show his lack of formal education. Nevertheless, Stephen, despite having internalized the white man’s system of values, so that he feels extreme hatred toward Django upon seeing a “nigger” on a horse—is easily as subtle as Schulz. Where Candie is easily flattered and manipulated, Stephen remains suspicious and perceives the connection between Django and Broomhilda. After Candie has been killed, Stephen’s authority is sufficient to keep Candie’s relatives from killing Django too easily, as he persuades them to sell the former slave to a cruel mining camp. Of course this reprieve allows Django to save himself and his wife, and to bring an end to Stephen, after Django tasks him with having ignored the tortures of thousands of slaves of his own race. Yet the irony of this “moral” is that if one were to assume that race-loyalty is the standard, then Schulz would be as big a “race-traitor” in that he doesn't confine his loyalty only to Caucasians.
There are also obvious differences between the men being mentored. Django has apparently been born and raised in slavery, so his moments of ignorance—such as not knowing some of the words Schulz uses—don’t reflect badly on him. This feeling also extends to the one moment at his expense, when Schulz allows him to choose his own “valet uniform” and Django picks out an outfit that looks ridiculous even in the eyes of his own people. In contrast, Candie has had the benefits of good education like Schulz, but is plainly a mediocre intellect at best. Schulz chooses to mentor Django because he likes him and dislikes slavery. Stephen, having lived in the plantation-house since the days of Calvin’s grandfather, has become the mentor to Calvin via inheritance, much as the character of Mammy becomes a maternal influence on Scarlet O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Stephen continually sasses his master in order to manage the house the way Stephen thinks right, the bond between the two is as real as the one between Schulz and Django. Oppositional critics probably will not understand the scene in which Stephen weeps over his dead master, since it might seem to sympathize with standard “slave-weeps-over-dead-master” scenes out of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. This is the only way the scene can be understand in a “racial politics” sense, as a sneaky way of saying, “see, slavery isn’t so bad if the slaves feel affection for their owners.”
Of course this is not the point of the scene or of Tarantino’s film: only a fool would think that Tarantino has presented slavery as anything but evil in DJANGO UNCHAINED. However, because Tarantino is also capable of thinking outside the political box, he can reflect on the varied ways in which human beings allow themselves to be seduced into evil—sometimes in very ordinary ways, like Stephen coming to regard the young Master of the House as something akin to his own offspring. Candie clearly reciprocates the feeling, at least within the boundaries of the master-slave relationship. Thus we seen the differences between the two mentor-student dyads are largely superficial. Battle-lines are no longer drawn in terms of race in DJANGO UNCHAINED, so that evil and good can be determined in terms of a more abstract justice, rather than in terms of belonging to either a majority or minority ethnicity.