115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Economic Value and the Freedom of Mobility: Examining Django’s Ideological Becoming in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

Julie Guerrero, California State University, Los Angeles

In his 2012 film, Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino appropriates the slave narrative by rewriting the typical history of the black slave and allowing his protagonist, Django Freeman, to secure the power of free and uninterrupted physical mobility within Antebellum Southern societies. 

Proposal: 

In order to gain this unconventional, but essential, power of mobility, Django must participate in white economic power structures, in this case, the slave trade; through his participation, Django forms an identity that is accepted by both the­ law and the social public and he gains access to social spaces he would not usually have under the oppressive circumstances of slavery. In Django, the possibilities that film provides Tarantino with allows him to capture and illustrate the social tensions present between the slave and the master by complicating his seemingly simple plotline with graphic imagery and subtle allusions to economic mobility; Django’s physical mobility has traces of economic and political mobility that provoke anxieties within the white master class; furthermore, these anxieties allude to the underlying fear the master class held that slaves will reclaim power over their bodies and redefine the American economic system of circulation and exchange. Django removes himself from the grim reality of the slave by presenting himself as a free and mobile black slaver and what arises in the film are the anxieties of the master class encountering a black body that can no longer be circulated and exchanged for monetary value.

Tarantino calls on long existing traditions of slave narratives when he showcases both the effects of self-representation and the opportunities that can be secured for an enslaved black man, or woman, living in the Antebellum South by participating in the dominant culture. For example, in Brown’s Clotel, Clotel, a nearly white runaway mulatto slave woman, gains access to modes of transportation only after posing as a white gentleman; in concealing her blackness, value is attached to her appearance as one “belonging” specifically to white patriarchal society (Brown 161). Respectively, by participating in the slave trade and altering his physical appearance through clothing, speech, and attitude, Django, an ex-slave, becomes a character whose manhood is acknowledged, and begrudgingly accepted, by his white counterparts. Thus, these characters occupy liminal spaces in which their identities are concealed and new identities are assumed for the purpose of being able to move freely through their slave ridden societies. Django does not conceal his blackness, but does conceal his true self and is therefore always in a state of “in-betweenness;” instead of being “suspended between seller and buyer,” as Clotel (Sanborn 72), Django is suspended between white and black spectators that he must elude using the role he takes as a black slaver. Wucher cites another scholar, while moving forward his observations that Tarantino’s characters’ self-awareness complicates the plot, and says “The characters live, as Susan Hopkins describes, ‘through impermanence and uncertainty [that] requires reinventing a disposable self, a character appropriate to the task at hand’” (Wucher 1292). It is for this reason that Django reinvents himself as a black slaver, even though he abhors the role, as a means in recuperating his slave wife.

Topic Area: