Two figures challenge simple ways of thinking about slavery and agency.
Image from Flickr via Slackerwood
By Lucy McKeon
The October 2012 publication of historian Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his Slaves was met with much rebuke. Prominent Jefferson scholars such as Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the influential Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and a 2008 volume about the Hemings family, and Lucia C. Stanton, former chief interpreter at Monticello (both of whom had assisted Wiencek in his research) vehemently criticized the final product. They took issue with Wiencek’s work for—among other reasons—its tone. Wiencek’s palpable disdain and dramatic sarcasm give the book the feel of history-as-tabloid. Jefferson historians have also charged Wiencek with flawed reasoning, misuse of archival information, and irresponsible interpretation of historical evidence.
Jefferson, as a symbol, has been invented and reinvented over the course of history. His life and identity have been used by scholars, journalists, artists, and the general public both to justify and explore the dissonance between the ideals of American democracy and the reality of racial slavery. Jefferson is said to represent this ultimate American paradox.
This word “paradox,” however, can serve to sanitize a muddy past. That the majority of presidents before the Civil War, and many Supreme Court justices, were also slaveholders should no longer surprise. But if we hold an understanding of slavery’s diversity, longevity, complexity, and centrality in our shared history, it’s possible to view Jefferson as, if not paradoxical, a conflicted human being and one player in America’s intricate past. This is entirely different from claiming to understand him, reconciling his choices, or using his persona to rationalize the institution of slavery itself.
Master of the Mountain argues that there’s nothing paradoxical about the third president: he’s not an enigma but a manipulator who “skillfully played both sides of the slavery question, maintaining his reputation as a liberal while doing nothing.” Wiencek’s Jefferson is at first conflicted about slavery’s morality, but ultimately corrupted by the profits, and finally governed only by the bottom line. Due to his exhaustive, bordering on obsessive, record-keeping, Jefferson’s plantation is among the most extensively documented in American history. But even with this wealth of historical evidence, it’s impossible to write nonfiction from Jefferson’s perspective as Wiencek does.
The fact that American slavery was profitable is, of course, nothing new. And yet the book adopts the tone of an exposé. Wiencek’s critics charge him with contributing no new findings to the subject. That isn’t a true offense in itself, but, when coupled with the misuse of others’ research and a self-congratulatory tone of great discovery, a notable affront.
Wiencek’s reductive sensationalism delivers a simplified version of slavery at Monticello, indeed of slavery as an institution: either slaveholders were beholden to slavery’s profitability or they were attuned to its profound injustice.
“Wiencek has used a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities,” writes Stanton in a letter submitted to Charlottesville’s The Hook. Writing for Slate, Gordon-Reed argues that the tone and presentation “betray a journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop,’” most notably in Wiencek’s insistence that he discovered why Jefferson went from opposing to supporting slavery, as if by epiphany.
But while Master of the Mountain generally reads as a history-tabloid, there is some merit to Wiencek ’s rejection of the word “paradox.” He rejects it as a descriptor of Jefferson, but it’s worth scrutinizing the word as a larger explanation for the simultaneous origins of American democracy and white supremacy. This dissonance between professed ideal and practiced reality is perhaps less discordant than it appears. “It is no accident,” wrote historian Ira Berlin, “that a slaveholder penned the founding statement of American nationality and that freedom became central to the ideology of American nationhood.”
Freedom and slavery are ideologically interdependent, argues historian David Brion Davis in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Davis cites Hegel’s dialectic of dependence and independence between the master and the slave: within the system of enslavement, the master’s sense of identity depends on being recognized by his slave’s supposedly inferior, “unessential” consciousness. The master is “trapped by his own power,” writes Davis, “which he can only seek to maintain.” Only the slave might realize his own autonomous consciousness and, acting on it, might have the potential to escape the imbalanced reciprocal relationship toward freedom.
But Wiencek does not entertain the interdependence of this relation, nor is he able to take seriously the potential for human complexity on either side. In rejecting the term “paradox,” Wiencek’s reductive sensationalism delivers a simplified version of slavery at Monticello, indeed of slavery as an institution. He insists that history conform to an either-or-dichotomy, with no complex middle-ground: either slaveholders were beholden to slavery’s profitability or they were attuned to its profound injustice. The slave’s agency—key to freedom, according to the Hegelian model—is disregarded.
This forced polarity becomes most clear in Wiencek’s conclusion, when he contrasts the “new phase in Jefferson studies” with his own work: “Many writers on slavery today have emphasized the ‘agency’ of the enslaved people, insisting that we pay heed to the efforts of the slaves to resist their condition and assert their humanity under a dehumanizing system. But as slaves gain ‘agency’ in historical analyses, the masters seem to lose it…So we end up with slavery somehow afloat in a world in which nobody is responsible.”
If Wiencek rewrites history as tabloid, Tarantino rewrites history as revenge fantasy.
But scholarship, taken too far in the direction Wiencek describes, has been criticized and debated ever since the upsurge in the study of slavery and working-class life ignited by the 60s. Eugene Genovese reevaluated the master-slave relationship, emphasizing the role religion played in slaves’ ability to survive and challenge the dehumanizing system and redefining resistance as all efforts by which slaves rejected their status as slaves. While many praised the work, Orlando Patterson criticized Genovese’s celebratory portrait of resistance, arguing that there is no value in mere survival, an adaptation to authoritarianism. This is one instance amid years of scholarly deliberation.
In recent Jefferson studies in particular, with the work of Gordon-Reed and Stanton among others, there’s been a self-conscious avoidance of either extreme: a naïve exaltation in the agency of enslaved people on the one hand, a pessimistic assumption that the enslaved blindly followed prerogatives of power on the other. Some scholarship fails in avoiding the extremes, but much succeeds. Wiencek, however, seems uninterested in parsing distinctions. The question remains: in a system of racialized oppression that lasted over 300 years and varied tremendously, both geographically and temporally, how did actual people navigate and negotiate the master-slave relationship? How was agency denied and claimed? One conclusive answer can’t begin to explain.
If Wiencek rewrites history as tabloid, Tarantino rewrites history as revenge fantasy. Drawing on conventions of blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, Tarantino sets Django Unchained in the antebellum American south. He follows the journey of Django, a shackled slave who is promised his freedom by becoming a vengeful bounty hunter. This he does, hoping to rescue his enslaved wife. Django’s story is not entirely fabrication. Though the details of the plot are invention, the idea of slave agency that the character embodies is not.
Django shows that Wiencek’s resistance to complexity has no place in American slavery. On the one hand, Django’s action-packed revenge plot is strikingly simple. For this reason, in tandem with the film’s subject matter, the movie can seem simplistically crude. And Django is so wrapped in parody and irony—undistinguishable, at times, from old racialized laughs and gendered notions of power—that it’s easy to write off as irredeemable. The film’s Hollywood representation of slavery is definitely problematic.
But the relationship between the movie’s two main characters portrays complex negotiations of race, power, and identity. It’s impossible to order my thoughts on Django into one streamlined argument. To do so would flatten my experience watching and thinking about it—then watching again and thinking some more. Despite—because of—my unsettled feelings about the film, it seems that Django offers a more complicated, though flawed, view of the antebellum South—a view in which it’s possible for different enactments and perceptions of identity and agency to be held messily and at once.
Much is made of Django’s supposed exceptionality throughout the film. Only “one in ten thousand slaves,” could think and act as Django does, goes one repeated mantra. The spirit of revolt behind Jamie Foxx’s Django is of course not unique to history. But Django’s opportunity to “fight back”—his chance to claim agency—is notably afforded him by Christopher Waltz’s Dr. King Shultz, the white bounty hunter who flaunts an outlaw-ish, but technically legal, violence in order to kill slavers. Schultz buys Django because he needs his help to identify the next of his victims.
The central objective of Django’s journey, of the entire film, is the rescue of his wife Broomhilda from Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation, Candyland. Watching Schultz and Django ride, camp, and kill through awe-inspiring American landscapes, to the soundtrack of Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, and Rick Ross, it’s difficult to resist exhilaration.
Recognizing Django’s talents and, touched by Django’s epic romantic aspirations, Schultz offers him a sort of partnership, an agreement predicated—it’s easy to forget as the film continues—on Schultz’s initial ownership of Django. Django’s agency, unlike the agency required of the countless slave rebellions recorded in the historical record (and many more unrecorded) is dependent on his white ally.
Add the many layers of genre-parody within which the film is situated, and it may seem that in Django, as in all of Tarantino’s revenge fantasies, historical nuance is left unexplored in the name of stylized bad-assery.
Though European, Schultz represents a simplistically positive Whiteness. From his perspective, it is easy to critique, while still profiting from, what he calls the whole “slavery malarkey” by simply shooting the bad guy and avoiding complex questions of implication and responsibility. Doubly inculpable because of his foreignness, he is less familiar with American displays of violence, as Django explains at one point while a slave is ripped apart by dogs.
The film’s humor often, though not exclusively, relies on the ignorance or confusion of enslaved people, including Django’s own bafflement in transition to a more autonomous selfhood, with Schultz as his teacher. This can produce in the film’s audience what Cord Jefferson called “the Django Moment,”: when “a person of color”—or, I would argue, a white audience member—“begins to feel uncomfortable with the way white people around them are laughing at the horrors onscreen.”
Schultz’s un-Americanness is associated with an overpowering sense of morality it’s clear we’re supposed to applaud, at least at first; but his moral fastidiousness and his relative detachment put Django and Broomhilda’s lives at risk near the film’s end. But Schultz both is and isn’t American, as he becomes officially involved in the American slave-trade by laying his name to paper. It’s Schultz’s principled, but ultimately self-serving, refusal to symbolically associate with white supremacy that precipitates the famously violent final scenes. Whether recognized as a critique of white liberal egocentrism or a celebration of virtuous resolve, Schultz’s exaggerated agency is just as problematic as Django’s.
The moral universe created by the constant navigation of a system based on “human property” presents a representational challenge for any artist. The fluctuating agencies Schultz and Django inhabit, as they play various roles undercover as bounty hunters, allows for interesting considerations of race and power. But because Tarantino’s particular brand of over-the-top violence is by now expected by viewers, the stylistic and historical choices specific to Django become entangled with those of Tarantino’s oeuvre.
The director has a controversial history portraying race and violence. Add to this consideration the many layers of genre-parody within which the film is situated, interwoven against the backdrop of our painful, often misrepresented history, and it may seem that in Django, as in all of Tarantino’s revenge fantasies, historical nuance is left unexplored in the name of stylized bad-assery.
The lack of female agency in Django is tied to a long celebrated aesthetic of masculine violence-as-cool.
“Tarantino is dangerously in love with the look of evil,” writes Anthony Lane, “and all he can counter it with is cool.” The film definitely operates within the aesthetic of masculine “cool,” where violence and stoicism are central to heroism. No doubt Django’s single-handed retribution, during which he meets many slaves, none of whom seem to display any sort of autonomy, sniffs of an all-American obsession with individuality over collectivity. It’s the fantasy of a single man avenging an entire order, a seductive and perhaps inadequate retort to our country’s perplexing and disturbing past.
But in the context of slavery these options may seem appropriately bleak. As Schultz himself remarks, Django’s transition from slave to bounty hunter is a transference from one “flesh for cash” business to another. Django claims agency but within the system. Through his transition, questions concerning identity, perception, and race are raised. Operating in the morally corrupt world of “flesh for cash,” Django—playing different characters as Schultz’s partner—inhabits a position defined outside the borders of the antebellum black-white dichotomy. This creates interesting interactions in which characters, black and white, have explicit or visible difficulty understanding Django’s identity. In a sense, both Django and Schultz seem to exist outside of race: Schultz simplistically above-it-all, and Django self-consciously an embodiment of race’s self-construction. And yet, Django is ultimately black, as he—and we—are frequently reminded by the slur Tarantino’s films have been criticized for overusing ever since Pulp Fiction.
In addition to spaghetti western and blaxploitation, the film takes from the traditions of melodrama and myth. Broomhilda is named for Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie daughter of Wotan, trapped atop a mountain in the Germanic and especially Wagnerian fable that Schultz narrates to Django. But Django’s parody of operatic epic descends into unexamined melodrama since in Tarantino’s handling it replicates the trope of the near-mute damsel in distress.
The film’s provocation of both entertainment and uneasiness might be one of the more effective ways of depicting the mire of agency within slavery, self-consciously or not.
The film misses an interesting opportunity for parodic subversion, ensnaring rather than liberating Kerry Washington’s character from the traditional gender conventions. Not having seen the film, Ta-nehisi Coates perceptively writes, “I worry about rendering enslaved black men as eunuchs restored, and enslaved black women as merely the field upon which that restoration is demonstrated.” Indeed, Broomhilda is little more than a prop by which Django can claim his agency. The limited role Washington—and all female characters—plays in Django is troubling. Issues of race and gender are inextricably tied, nowhere more overtly than within a system reliant on forced black female reproduction. Beyond considerations of historical accuracy or responsibility, it’s clear that the lack of female agency in Django is tied to a long celebrated aesthetic of masculine violence-as-cool.
“We have always wanted Jefferson’s unchangeable symbolic role to be that he makes slavery safe,” Wiencek writes, concluding that we must guard our collective memory from such narrow idealization. This much is true. We must also guard ourselves from the dichotomization of either-or thinking, of which Wiencek is expert.
Despite its uncomplicated plot and familiar motifs, Django plays with Wiencek-esque simplification—both interestingly and dangerously. The film is made for an audience desiring the entertainment of an action movie, an audience whose historical knowledge of American slavery—in all its variety and complexity, profitability and barbarity—is arguably in all likelihood lacking. In this sense, Django may make slavery safe: the fantastical portrait of a one-man shoot-em-up individualizes and answers for an entire system, the effects of which linger today. Django-as-representative-individual acts out a vision of agency that disregards collective history and contemporary responsibility.
But throughout Django’s singular journey to autonomy, the film’s provocation of simultaneous entertainment and uneasiness gets at some of the mire of agency within slavery, self-consciously or not. It’s a film worth considering in the context of our lengthy struggle to represent our historically under- and misrepresented past. In this context, uncertain conclusions may be realistic.
Lucy McKeon is a New York-based freelance writer and photographer.