Messages from ‘Django Unchained’: The Black ‘Damsel’, the ‘Django Moment’, and Phrenology’s Centerstage Show

Now that Django is released in the UK, let’s start spoiling it for real.

Before writing my last post on Quentin Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained,” I intentionally collected perspectives from many of my friends, relatives, and confidants on what their early impressions were of the movie. Needless to say, I surround myself with some truly intelligent people. And, in doing this, I was attempting to get to the underlying causes of people’s frustration with the film. I found three central, repetitive themes in that psuedo-research that I think are worth further analysis. Those in the black community (since no one outside the black community would touch this with a ten foot pole) that I spoke with echoed issues with a) the black “damsel in distress,” b) the ‘Django Moment’ , and c) phrenology’s seemingly unchallenged presence in the film. And, although I too felt these things to some degree, I am wondering how much validity these issues truly hold.

The Black Damsel in Distress

Previously, I made the assertion that Spike Lee should have had less criticism of the gratuitous use of the n-word in the film and more qualms with the way the character Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, was written.

“One major critique I have of the film is the understated and generally lackluster role of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Though Washington has spoken candidly of her desire to play the damsel in the film, it was difficult to watch such a prominent female figure in the black community spend 3 hours waiting to be saved by her pompous hero. She has noted that the “fairy tale” like imagery of her story was what contributed to her desire to do the film. But, my core issue with her character was less about how her relationship appeared on screen but how little she contributed to the film at all. For ‘Hildy’ to be the primary focus of Django’s affections, she did little to show why she was able to do so except for the fact that she was a pretty ‘house slave.’ So, I would lodge this critique with much more justification than Lee’s flaccid argument that the movie doesn’t respect our ancestors.”

But, the wise Miss Usher (DUsher) asked the following of me in the comments:

“Why does she have to do anything to ‘earn’ being the primary focus of Django affections and worthy of rescue? Why do we need to know her character resume’? Should it not be enough that he loves his wife and in his eyes she is worth saving.? She could be a lousy cook, a horrible lover etc. she could be as useless as a pink tutu on a bull but the fact that he was willing to kill, steal and destroy to save her.. [Isn't]  it wonderful in a world where black  women were/are not  highly valued we see a black woman who we know little about who was the object of  such a dramatic rescue? Can we only breathe a little easier if we know some redeeming quality about  the character Broomhilda that says to us ‘okay NOW I see why he wanted to rescue her’. Maybe he simply loved his wife and wanted to save her.”

So, here is my question: what is the black woman’s problem with being saved by her man (no matter his race)? Have we been so jaded by stereotypes of strength and masculinity that we are incapable of being treated like dainty flowers? I definitely struggle with this. And, while watching the film, there was a part of me wanting ‘Hildy’ to do something cool or prove her worth to Django. But, after this conversation, I am realizing that this is a socialized need rather than a true one. No woman should have to “prove” anything to anyone. But, many black women are raised to believe that they must assign some value to their characteristics to add up their innate worth.

A fallible ideal this may be, it is an ideal nonetheless. Do you have this issue?

The ‘Django Moment’

Another key issue many black folks raised with the film was something called the “Django Moment.” Per Cord Jefferson, it is “the moment when, while watching Quentin Tarantino’s campy new slave-revenge movie, a person of color begins to feel uncomfortable with the way white people around them are laughing at the horrors onscreen.” He explains how it felt to have non-blacks around him laugh hysterically at particularly sensitive scenes. And, I will admit, I had a similar experience. But, I never had ‘the moment.’ I never thought to myself, “why is SHE laughing?” or “why does HE think that’s funny.” Why? Well, because I found the entire thing darn funny myself. And, I could totally see the humor in the script and delivery.

Judging from the reactions to the content of Django from a varied audience, it is obvious that the way we view race relations, specifically black/white race relations, is changing. And, though this seems like a good thing on the surface, these types of changes sometimes lead to desensitization. Sometimes folks forget the true lived experiences of racial groups because the way society chooses to view said group shifts to something a bit more palatable for the general public.

Did you have a “Django Moment?” Whether black, white, or something in between, did you feel awkward while watching any of the sensitive scenes (like the Klan scene or the Mandingo scene)?

Phrenology (just because it has ‘ology’ at the end doesn’t make it scientific)

So, this might be the biggest issue I have with the film. And, when discussing it with my peers, I found the widest spectrum of responses to it. Phrenology, a non-science that works inductively assuming that a small group of individuals can be used to attribute characteristics to a population or whole, is mostly hackish. It was exploited in the 19th and 20th centuries to justify forced enslavement, sterilization, and other horrors for people of color. And, in attempting to be true to this era, Tarantino included a healthy dose of it in the film.

In one particular scene, the white slaver, Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio), explains how the black race has specific brain and skull characteristics that make them suitable, almost made for, enslavement. And, instead of disproving this soliloquy in the film, Tarantino let it linger for the entirety of the piece. In the end, Django (Jamie Foxx) almost seems to validate the claim by calling himself a “one in ten thousand n#%$@.” This, to me, is the point of contention for many.

A good friend of mine mentioned a very valid criticism of this issue on my Facebook feed.

“the ‘one in ten thousand [n*%$#]‘ reference seemed to dangerously play into that phrenology pseudoscience.  if you recall the scene where this term is introduced in reference to django, candie is fascinated because he’s never ‘met a [n*&%$*] quite like’ django.  that is to say, he’s never met a black man who was his equal.  as far as candie was concerned one such black man did not exist (phrenology).  he’s suggesting that it takes a special kind of black man to rise to the level of a white man.  and the phrase seemed to play into this faulty reasoning.  as i said i’m still processing my thoughts on this.  but it’s a loose end that i don’t feel tarantino ties up nicely.”

Another friend replied that it didn’t bother him at all.

“I’m not at all desensitized to overt or covert racism, but by Calvin making the statement about the one in 10k I think it was a part if his character, and a part of a racist ideology that there are ‘exceptional Blacks’…. it’s a fictional movie, not a documentary. To speculate that QT shares these thoughts as a part of his own belief s seems a little hypersensitive. As I said before, we are our own worst enemy. Once I see people protesting against stereotypical images such as Trinidad James, then we can tackle the Django Conspiracy.”

And, honestly, I don’t know exactly where I land here. In one sense, I agree that movie watching is an extremely passive act that could result in folks digesting some of the messaging on phrenology that QT likely intended as farce. But, in another sense, how do we rage against that machine without raging against real characters in the media or otherwise who make black folk look foolish daily? It suffices to say that some folks could still believe in phrenology. But, does QT’s take on it contribute to or neutralize that belief? It is hard to know.

Overall, I still found the film intensely enjoyable but these three issues remain relatively un-analyzed by many. With the likely increase of interest in movies like this, how will these messages form the race dialogue going forward? It is a lot to consider. One thing is for certain though, good or bad, the film brought slavery to the fore. Now we just have to figure out what we are going to do with it.

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