Blogging “Django Unchained” (The Greenville Chapters)
• Over a shot of our two heroes on a plain backdropped by a snowy mountain, these words scroll up the screen: “And after a very cold and very profitable winter, Django and Dr. Schultz came down from the mountains and headed for…”
• The word “MISSISSIPPI” scrolls across the screen in huge letters, a reference to the opening title of Gone With the Wind. The letters are scrolling over two lines of slaves being herded in opposite directions. They’re picking their way through thick mud, similar to what we saw in Daughtrey. The mud is a callback to Corbucci’s Django and also Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, which both take place in settings of unrelenting muddiness. The mud is there to deromanticize the Western, telling us that this isn’t the sort of Western that celebrates freedom and the open skies, but rather one that deals in mucky business. There’s more about this in Bilge Ebiri’s highly knowledgeable post at Vulture, tracing the roots of the spaghetti Western and its cynical take on American history. Several of the slaves are wearing slave collars, which are hideous-looking things indeed. The camera cranes down and takes in our two heroes riding past them.
• A shot of a ledger containing the names of slaves and their ages who have been sold recently. In the records office in Greenville (an actual city in the state’s Western part, one that thrived in the antebellum days as a business center for the cotton plantations around it), Schultz reads Broomhilda’s name off the entry, which says she is 27 and cites the “r” on her right cheek. The entry further states that she has been sold to Calvin J. Candie for $300.
• Schultz says that Candy’s cotton plantation is the fourth largest in Mississippi, and that it’s called Candyland. Even if you’re not familiar with the children’s board game by that name, the name still evokes a fantastical paradise, but in the world of Django Unchained, it evokes fear among slaves. Typical Tarantino touch. Django has heard of the place, and says no slave hasn’t heard of it. Schultz hopes that she’s employed in domestic labor instead of fieldwork. Django’s voice softens as he says, “Oh no, she ain’t no field nigger. She … she pretty. She talk good too, but when they tore her back up and then they burnt that runaway ‘r’ on her cheek, they goddamned her.”
• There’s a shot of Hildy in a pillory having water splashed on her face and then the brand being applied to her cheek. She screams. This is a brief shot, but it’s enough. Here’s one instance where Tarantino uses restraint to his advantage.
• Back in the records office, Django says “She ain’t good enough for the house no more. They gonna try to make her a comfort girl.” Schultz starts to ask what that is, but quickly gets it, and really, I’m surprised it took him as long as it did. In that same soft voice, but with determination, Django says, “Not while I got freedom. Not while I got my gun.” He asks if they’ll offer to buy her. Schultz takes off his glasses and smooths out his mustache and his beard, a recurring sign of a vain streak in this character. He spins a hypothetical about a man who needs to buy a horse and asks a farmer to buy it, and the farmer says no. Django says, “Well, I say fuck that farmer, and I’m stealin’ that horse.” Schultz points out that would make the man a horse thief, a capital offense that results in the man being hanged and the horse going back to its owner. He’s not off base about that; liberating slaves without the owner’s consent was indeed a hanging offense in the slave states, which is why Schultz went to the trouble of getting a bill of sale for Django, and now needs one for Hildy. Schultz then spins the same hypothetical, with the man offering to buy the farm instead of the horse, and at an absurdly inflated price that’ll make the farmer sell. Django wonders if they’re going to offer to buy Candyland. Schultz says no, the place is too big. “But apparently, this farmer ain’t all about the farm.” He asks how much Django knows about Mandingo fighting, and could he pose as an expert on the subject? Django wants to know why.
• A shot of our heroes walking up to the Cleopatra Club in some nicely kept part of Greenville, while Schultz’ voiceover explains that he’ll be posing as a rich guy from Düsseldorf trying to get into Mandingo fighting, while Django will be posing as an expert hired to help him. “Mandingo” is a reference not to slavery but to a hyperventilating 1975 blaxploitation film by that name about a black slave in the 1840s who’s raised to be a bareknuckle fighter. That film breathlessly talked about interracial sex in the days when Hollywood films wouldn’t dare go near the subject, though Tarantino is more interested in the movie’s revenge plot than miscegenation. Of course, real slaveowners didn’t treat valuable property so profligately as to have them fight like gladiators for sport, but this whole subplot helps demonstrate the exploitative nature of slavery. As Schultz knocks on the door, he’s greeted by Coco (Daniele Watts), a tiny female slave in a French maid outfit who says, “Bonjour.” Schultz answers, “Bon soir, mon petite femme noire. We’re hear to see Calvin Candie.” Coco bids them “Entrée” in a tone that lets us know she’s pretty much at the limits of her French vocabulary.
• In the records office, Django tells Schultz that there’s nothing lower than a black slaver. Schultz tells him, “Then play him that way! Give me your black slaver.”
• In the club, a slave woman opens a door to reveal a bunch of old white men and young black women (wearing crinolines) sitting at a dinner table and singing the kids’ song “A Peanut Sat on a Railroad Track.” I’m not sure what’s going on here. I’m not sure I want to know.
• Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher, the star of the 1979 cycling movie Breaking Away) descends the stairs and warmly greets Schultz. As the doctor introduces Django, Moguy tells him to call him Leo and says, “This is the One-Eyed Charley I’ve heard so much about!” We heard Django using the term earlier. This is another movie reference, to a 1973 Western called Charley One-Eye starring Richard Roundtree as a black man who deserts the Union Army. Moguy leads Schultz, Coco, and Django up a winding flight of stairs, explaining that he and Calvin’s father went to boarding school together from age 11, and that Calvin’s grandfather put Moguy through law school. “One could almost say I was raised to be Calvin’s lawyer.” Django says in a low voice, “One could almost say youse a nigger.” Moguy stops, turns around, and asks him, “What did you say?” Either he really didn’t hear it, or he heard it and is asking Django to repeat that. Given the mores of the time, I’d bet on the former. Still, Coco and Schultz clearly have heard him correctly. I wish the sound design had been clearer that Django is speaking under his breath. Anyway, Schultz dismisses him as “being cheeky.” The doctor asks Moguy if there’s anything else he should know about Calvin. Moguy says Calvin is a Francophile who prefers to be addressed as “Monsieur Candie.” When Schultz responds “Whatever he prefers” in French, Moguy brings him up short. Calvin doesn’t actually speak French, and he’ll be embarrassed if they try to speak French to him. A look of contempt crosses Schultz’ face; this Candie fellow sounds like a poseur.
• As the party enters the Julius Caesar Room, we hear the sounds of men fighting and Calvin telling his man to get back on top. Without turning around, Calvin asks Schultz, “Why do you want to get into the Mandingo business?” Schultz is a bit thrown by the fact that a proper introduction hasn’t been made, but Calvin tells him to quit stalling. “The awful truth? I’m bored. This seems a good bit of fun.” That’s when Calvin (Leonardo DiCaprio) turns around, and Tarantino performs his trademark zoom on the actor’s famous face. Calvin invites Schultz over to the fight going on in the room.
• As Schultz goes over, Moguy asks Django to accompany him to the bar on the other side of the room from the fight. Django takes a moment to eyeball Calvin’s bodyguard Butch Pooch (James Remar again), a sharply dressed and cruel-looking white man who’s playing billiards and wearing a hat. Looking away, Django says sotto voce, “You don’t wear a hat in the house, white man. Even I know that.”
• Coco takes a handful of candy from a dish on a side table, while Calvin shakes hands with Schultz, interrupting the pleasantries to yell, “Keep fightin’, niggers!”
• Moguy instructs a black bartender named Roscoe to get Django whatever he wants, ordering sweet tea and bourbon for himself. Roscoe pours something (I don’t know, tequila?) for Django, while an attractive slave woman in evening dress named Sheba (Nichole Galicia) gives the stranger the eye from her spot at the bar. She picks up her champagne glass and a bottle from an ice bucket and sashays over to a couch.
• While all this has been going on, we’ve only had obstructed views of the fighters and heard them grunting, but now we clearly see what’s happening over by the fireplace in the room. Calvin’s fighter Big Fred (Escalante Lundy) is in a battle to the death against a fighter named Luigi (Clay Donahue Fontenot), who’s backed by an Italian whose name is given as Amerigo Veseppi (Franco Nero), though we never hear his name being used. The slaves are wearing only their pants. Calvin’s telling Big Fred to use his weight, because the other guy is bigger. Sheba takes a drink and Calvin lights a cigarette, both studiedly paying no attention to the proceedings. Calvin complains that Big Fred isn’t obeying his advice. Luigi lands some punishing blows on Big Fred’s ribcage, then gets an arm around Big Fred’s neck and tries to squeeze the life out of him. Veseppi cheers him on in Italian. Moguy says, “Big Fred, come on!” Big Fred wriggles out of the chokehold and rolls Luigi over on his back. When Luigi wraps his legs around Big Fred’s waist, Big Fred picks him up and slams him on the floor. Big Fred then gets Luigi’s right arm in a hold and twists it until we hear the bones break. The shot of Big Fred’s face shows wild desperation. Vaseppi groans while Calvin shouts, “There you go! Blind him black, boy!” Big Fred takes that advice, gouging Luigi’s eyes out. Schultz looks queasy, while poor Coco looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. As Luigi’s left eye pops out, Coco stands up, spilling candy all over the floor. Calvin whoops in joy, while Veseppi moans at the loss of his investment. Roscoe has a look on his face like he’s been forced to take part in something horrible, while Sheba’s expression says, “Aren’t these white people silly?” Butch looks up long enough to register that the fight is effectively over, then goes back to his game of pool. While Luigi continues screaming, Calvin throws a hammer on the floor near Big Fred and orders him to finish the guy. Big Fred picks up the hammer and puts Luigi out of his misery, the hammer blow silencing Luigi’s screams and causing his feet to stop moving. With a chunk taken out of his left shoulder, Big Fred only shows relief at his win as Calvin congratulates him.
• A number of critics took issue with the violence in this movie, and while complaining about violence in a Tarantino movie may be like complaining about rain in Seattle, they weren’t without some merit. Keli Goff at Huffington Post thought the filmmaker was taking too much delight in visiting violence on black people, while Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress was closer to the mark when she said it was too easy to present the evils of slavery being blown away by one guy with a gun, or even two guys with guns. Real social progress comes from the sort of compromise that we see celebrated in Lincoln, she said. Fair enough, but while moderation is what I choose in the real world, in the movie theater I choose what gives me pleasure. At The Root, Lawrence Bobo (a powerful thinker on the subject of race and film) hailed the movie’s depiction of the brutality of slavery as outstripping that of any other mainstream film on the subject. Of course, Tarantino himself has admitted that any film including his own falls short of depicting what was really done to slaves. Maybe the most unsettling point was made by Michelle Orange in a superb post at Capital New York, when she asked why we want to see the evils of slavery resolved by a guy with a gun. What does that say about us? Nothing too flattering, probably. I’ll leave you with this reminder of the way retributive violence has always been intertwined with the narrative of slavery: Frederick Douglass said that he traced his freedom not to the moment when he made his way to the free North, but to the moment when he struck an overseer who tried to whip him. Food for thought there.
• Back in the movie, a defeated Veseppi collects his coat, walks up to the bar, and orders a tequila. As Roscoe pours him one, the Italian asks Django (sitting next to him) what his name is. Django tells him and, at Vaseppi’s request spells it out. “The ‘D’ is silent,” he said. “I know,” says the actor who once played Django. Veseppi leaves.
• Calvin tells Moguy to find Big Fred a soft bed and send him a pony (an attractive slave woman) to “lick his pole.” Gee, is Big Fred going to be in the mood for that after having just beaten a man to death? Even if he’s not, he’ll probably appreciate the sentiment. Calvin tells Big Fred they’re leaving for Candyland tomorrow. Stopping by the bar, Calvin orders a tall beer from Roscoe for Big Fred. As the bartender hands the beer to the fighter, Calvin says, “You enjoy that, boy. You’ve earned it,” as if Big Fred needs his permission to take pleasure in the beer. (In Calvin’s mind, he probably does need permission.)
• The camera pans back to take in Django, as Calvin finally notices him. Calvin asks his name, but this time Schultz jumps in and introduces him, saying “a fortuitous turn of events” brought them together, which isn’t untrue. Calvin addresses Django with the rumors that Django is unimpressed with the local fighters. “I’m curious. What makes you such a Mandingo expert?” Django’s first words to Calvin are, “I’m curious what makes you so curious.” Butch leaves his pool game and starts advancing on the mouthy black man, but Calvin calls him off without taking his eyes off Django. “No offense taken.” Schultz takes this chance to say that Calvin’s inquiries should be directed at him. Finally leaving Django’s stare, Calvin suddenly snaps to his manners and offers Schultz a drink. Schultz orders a beer while Calvin asks Roscoe for a Polynesian pearl diver, “do not spare the rum.” I found this recipe for the drink, and I think I gained a couple of pounds just reading it. Calvin goes back to Schultz’ concerns, saying that he’s trying to ascertain if Django might be taking advantage of a newcomer with a fat wallet and little experience. Schultz responds that he’s here to buy a fighter, not for Calvin’s advice. “Now I was under the impression that when you granted me an audience, it would be to discuss business.” Calvin dodges this one, saying they were merely discussing his curiosity. He then dismisses Roscoe and Coco, bidding Sheba stay there. The drinks arrive, with Calvin’s in a coconut shell. Schultz toasts him with “Prost!”, and Calvin insecurely notes that that’s German. Calvin asks whether Django and Schultz are indeed a team in this deal. “He does the eyeballin’, you the billfold? Is that it?” Schultz agrees, pouring his beer. Turning to Django and addressing him as “Bright Boy,” Calvin asks, “Moguy tells me you looked over my African flesh and you was none too impressed, huh?” Django says, “Not for top dollar.” Calvin doesn’t see the point in continuing to negotiate, but Django says, “He don’t wanna buy the niggers you wanna sell. He wants the nigger you don’t wanna sell.” Leaning in, Calvin says, “Well, I don’t sell the niggers I don’t wanna sell.” Injecting a note of diplomacy into this, Schultz says, “Well, you won’t sell your best. You won’t even sell your second best. But your third best? You don’t want to sell him either, but if I made an offer so ridiculous that you’d be forced to consider it, who knows what could happen?” Calvin asks him to define ridiculous. Django offers $12,000, which makes Butch stand up straighter and makes Calvin slurp the last of his drink through his straw. “Well, gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.”
• On what appears to be a blazing hot day, we get our first glimpse of Calvin’s sizable entourage on the road from Greenville to Candyland, with slavedrivers on horseback and slaves (all powerfully built men) on foot. Django and Schultz ride up on their horses to the barouche that’s carrying Calvin and Moguy. The carriage’s upholstery and Calvin’s outfit are both deep red, a color that the movie associates with him, signifying perhaps that he’s the Devil. Calvin offers Schultz (but not Django) a ride in the Victoria. (A possibly accidental anachronism, since the term for a carriage of this description wasn’t used until 1870.) While Schultz ties Fritz to another horse in the retinue, Calvin tips his hat to Django.
• We flash back to Calvin at a fancy restaurant in Greenville discussing phrenology, the pseudoscience that was in vogue in the 19th century, holding that specific areas of the brain performed specific functions. In some cases, it even said that a person’s personality could be determined by examining the shape of their head. It was all junk science, but a number of influential doctors and psychologists subscribed to it. Its main legacy is some funky diagrams, but it was used to reinforce gender stereotypes and racial prejudices. Calvin is holding forth on the subject, saying that unlike other phrenologists, he believes that black people are capable of higher intelligence. “Say, one nigger that just pops up in 10,000. The exceptional nigger.” We’ll revisit that line.
• “Bright day, huh, Bright Boy?” asks Calvin on the road. Django affirms that the sun is up. “Shinin’ on all of us,” says Calvin. We see a stocky and exceptionally angry-looking slave named Rodney (Sammi Rotibi) spit on the ground.
• Back at the restaurant, Calvin names Django that one in 10,000 and opines that such will become more frequent. Calvin’s actually rather enlightened compared with other slaveowners, but this only makes him more dangerous, as we’ll see.
• One of Calvin’s overseers, Hoot (Brian Brown), tells Django “The name of the game is keep up, not catch up, nigger.” The other white men laugh, but Django’s only reaction is to casually walk over to Hoot and pull him and his horse down to the ground. Before Butch or any of the others can get their weapons out of their holsters, Django has already drawn his, threatening them with death if they touch their guns. Calvin stands up in his carriage and appeals for calm. “I saw the whole thing, and no harm done.” Calvin’s supervisor Billy Crash (Walton Goggins) starts to protest, but Calvin loudly repeats “no harm done.” He orders his guys to take their hands off their pistols, especially Butch. “Everybody stop antagonizing my guest.” Django twirls his gun before holstering it. Calvin orders Hoot back on his horse, but Hoot moans that his collarbone is broken. Calvin just asks someone to help Hoot back up on his horse, which elegantly demonstrates that the master doesn’t care much about the white people who work for him, either. Billy taunts Django, “You are one lucky nigger.” Django tells him to listen to his boss. Billy says, “I’m gonna go walkin’ in the moonlight with you.” Django asks, “You wanna hold my hand?”
• As the caravan starts moving again, Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins” plays on the soundtrack. The whistling motif fits the Western genre, but it’s the march tempo and the grim lyrics that make us feel like this is a ride into the heart of darkness. “I need a hunny black coffins for a hunny bad men. / A hunny black graves so I can lay they ass in. / I need a hunny black preachers with a black sermon to tell / From a hunny black Bibles, while we send ‘em all to hell.” The sunglasses hide Django’s reaction as he has a vision of Hildy, wearing a resplendent yellow Empire-waisted dress, walking beside him. She disappears behind a tree.
• Django spots Rodney walking on the other side of his horse, glaring at him and spitting on the ground. He asks, “You got a problem with your eyeball, boy?” Rodney turns his glare straight ahead and says no. “You want a boot heel in it?” asks Django. He then issues a general threat to the slaves. “I’m worse than any of the white men here. Get the molasses out your ass and keep your eyeballs off me.” Seeing this, Calvin turns to Schultz and says, “He is a rambunctious sort, ain’t he?” Schultz asks to stop for a moment to consult with Django.
• There’s a clumsily inserted scene with our two heroes standing and talking quietly over Django’s horse in the middle of the road. Schultz informs Django that he Calvin has told him Hildy is indeed at Candyland, which we haven’t seen, but it’s borne out by later events. The real point of the scene is that Schultz calling out Django for his misbehavior, namely antagonizing Calvin and abusing the slaves. “You are going to … get us both killed, and I, for one, don’t intend to die in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, USA.” He’ll change his tune about that later. Django responds just as forcefully that he’s intriguing Calvin with his behavior and acting as a black slaver would. He brings up the earlier incident with killing Smitty Bacall in front of his son. Schultz admits this and seems to make peace with Django’s tactics, leaving to retake his seat in the carriage. Django gets back up on his horse and says, “All right, niggers, back at it.” To Billy, he says, “That means you too, Moonlight.”
• This next scene is much more powerful at demonstrating the moral murk into which Django’s revenge quest is descending. A slave named D’Artagnan (Ato Essandoh) is trapped in a tree by three vicious dogs. Calvin asks why D’Artagnan has run away. The slave says he can’t fight anymore. Calvin says, “Yes you can! You might not be able to win, but your ass can fight.” Calvin then roughly orders Mr. Stonesipher (David Steen), the tracker who has control of the dogs, to shut them up. Another tracker removes the dogs from the tree. The other fighting slaves are watching, and Moguy shoots a loathsome look of disapproval at D’Artagnan while Calvin mournfully asks the slave to get down from the tree. D’Artagnan does. Moguy opens the door so Calvin can disembark from the carriage, and he walks through manure as he goes over to D’Artagnan. Calvin then asks Stonesipher how long D’Artagnan was gone, and Stonesipher’s reply is well-near unintelligible because he’s so bad at speaking. It’s a funny note in a grim situation. The humor in this movie is, like much else about it, pretty vexed. Give a read to Cord Jefferson’s post at Gawker about the “Django moment,” and remember that Tarantino’s movies have been inspiring inappropriate reactions since Day 1, when a screening of Reservoir Dogs made someone in the audience call out “Sexy!” as Mr. Blonde was cutting off the cop’s ear.
• Calvin establishes that D’Artagnan was supposed to fight on Friday, but he’s in no shape to do so now. D’Artagnan weeps piteously as he pleads, “I ain’t got it in me no more.” Calvin cuts him off: “No playin’ on my soft heart.” His tone is gentle and stomach-turningly condescending as he points out that he paid $500 for D’Artagnan and hasn’t got his money’s worth. “You gonna reimburse me?” he says to the slave, pointing out that D’Artagnan probably doesn’t even know what the word means. Most of the white men laugh at this, but Schultz stands up in the carriage and announces that he’ll reimburse Calvin. There’s another whip pan on Calvin’s amazed expression as he turns around to face Schultz. “You gonna pay $500 for a practically one-eyed old Joe who ain’t fit to push a broom?” Django interrupts, “No, he won’t. He’s just tired of you toyin’ with him, is all. Matter of fact, so am I. But we ain’t payin’ a penny for that pickaninny. Ain’t got no use for him.” Schultz, back in character, agrees, puts his wallet back in his pocket, sits back down, and takes in Moguy’s disbelieving gaze with a look that says, “What?” Calvin turns to Django and says, “You’ll have to excuse Mr. Stonesipher’s slack-jawed gaze. He ain’t never seen a nigger like you in his life.” Stonesipher spits and says, “That right.” Calvin says, “For that matter, nor have I.” Walking up to Django, he takes a moment to stroke the nose of Django’s horse before staring at him and asking whether Django objects to Calvin meting out punishment. Staring evenly back at him, Django says, “He’s your nigger.” Without taking his eyes off Django, Calvin tells Stonesipher to sic the dogs on poor D’Artagnan. The dogs run at the slave in slow motion, while the trackers cheer the coming bloodlust. Amid D’Artagnan’s screams and the sounds of flesh being torn apart, we see the other slaves looking solemn and not surprised, Schultz looking horrified, Calvin continuing to stare down Django, and Django staring back with the slightest trace of mournfulness in his eyes. Finally Calvin looks around, sees the expression on Schultz’ face, and notes to Django that he seems ill-suited to be in the fight game. Django replies, “He just ain’t used to seein’ a man ripped apart by dogs, is all.” Calvin asks if Django is so accustomed. The reply is, “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is.” Schultz has been making fun of Calvin’s affectations throughout this by exaggerating his French accent when addressing “Monsieur Candie,” but Django really exaggerates his as he says, “Now, Monsieur Candie … we rode five hours so you could show off your stock. Let’s get to it, ‘cause as of now, if [D’Artagnan]’s an example, I ain’t impressed.” Calvin leaves, the dogs drag away what’s left of D’Artagnan, and Django puts his sunglasses back on and signals his horse to start walking.