Yes: we lived through avalanches of tokens and concessions but white power remains white. And what it appears to surrender with one hand it obsessively clutches in the other.
—James Baldwin, Introduction: The Price of the Ticket1
On the one hand, I despise slavery. On the other hand, I need your help, and if you’re not in a position to refuse, all the better.
—Dr. Schultz, Django Unchained2
Django’s shivering, exhausted back is painted by a whip. We follow him and six other black slaves through the Antebellum South, bound together by chains and led by white masters. Suddenly a light appears in the distance, dancing in the dark. Emerging from the black night is a white man, wearing a gray three-piece suit and winter coat: Dr. King Schultz. White masters and black slaves center their gaze on this new light carried by the man in gray.
In Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, Dr. Schultz’s theatrical entrance is our point of no return. He speaks sophisticated English with a slight German accent, establishing his intellectual dominance over the half-witted Southern slave traders. In an instant, one white master is dead from Schultz’s bullet, the other trapped under his now-dead horse, screaming in pain. The black slaves remain spectators, still bound by chains as the white world fights for access to their bodies.
After purchasing a slave named Django, Schultz and Django ride off to find other white folks, and as we soon find out, to make other white corpses. Before leaving the scene, Schultz gives the other black slaves a rifle and points them to “a more enlightened part of the country.” Schultz, the dentist-turned–bounty hunter, is now the benevolent master, the one who “on the one hand” despises slavery but on the other hand is in need of Django’s “help.”3
In the official screenplay, Django is identified as “our hero,”4 not Schultz. Yet, while Tarantino’s script builds intentionally toward Django’s bloody revenge, it remains inside Schultz’s narrative. That is, Django Unchained is not merely a slave revenge tale; it is an exploration of the limits and possibilities of the white ally: the white progressive who stands within the dominant group and imagines it possible to stand against the dominant group’s injustices. And while Django struggles against white masters in truly original cinematic moments, the terror undergirding the narrative is this: Django is no longer in chains, but he is not yet free. He never escapes the world of Dr. Schultz, the enlightened white liberal. Approaching Tarantino’s narrative universe through this lens illuminates the instability of white progressives in a world of white masters and black slaves, a world into which we continue to live. Schultz’s one-handed hatred of slavery cannot evade the crisis of whiteness: the totalizing temptation for Schultz to remain the master even in his efforts to help vindicate Django.
To see the enduring world of the master in Tarantino’s film, however, we need other narrative universes, other visions that look up at the master from the world’s underbelly. One black intellectual who spent his literary career describing our ongoing world of masters and slaves is the mid-twentieth-century novelist, essayist, poet, and playwright James Baldwin. Turning toward Baldwin may help unhinge imaginations from destructive histories of white power, situating the reader’s vantage point inside the black artist’s text. And though Baldwin’s personal essays focus on the black experience in America, black/white identities remain inextricably bound together. If whiteness is accomplished by a history of power that imagines it possible to narrate one’s life without the help of black peoples, Baldwin’s essays defeat precisely this historical lie. He witnesses to a truth about whiteness that dominant histories never intended to reveal. After all, he “spent most of [his] life watching white people, and outwitting them, in order to survive.”5
For Baldwin, what bound white and black identities together was, paradoxically, a painful separation: we are bound by a totalizing divorce. In Baldwin’s essay, “The Black Boy Looks at a White Boy,” he faces the breadth of this chasm between black and white bodies. Painfully describing his white progressive friend Norman Mailer, he writes, “There is a difference . . . between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines that he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose.”6 In the essay he speculates that Norman’s “something to save” is white innocence, the unwillingness or inability to face the collision between one’s image of oneself and who one actually is. Later in his life, however, Baldwin sees it as something far more terrifying: the master/slave framework itself, without which white identity loses its coherence.
Indeed, Baldwin’s writings expose whiteness not merely as a skin color but as a social position and structure of power. His pedagogical approach avoids cheap visions of a reconciled world or one easily embodied through gestures of peace and some final harmony. Such visions only masquerade as serious accounts of race while continuing to suppress the discussion of the master/slave framework, a framework that still lives today. Instead, Baldwin challenges us to perform the difficult work of excavating our own histories of power and, in doing so, to see whiteness not as a problem to be solved but a crisis to be faced.
Facing whiteness as a crisis helps us see Dr. Schultz anew, because it locates Tarantino’s narrative universe in Baldwin’s world, a world where no safe harbor exists for the white position, where there is no place to hide histories of power. Baldwin rejects attempts to instrumentalize his descriptions of racial identity toward the right way of being white. He was often pressed by white liberal reporters to admit the ways American progress had made it possible for a black male from the streets of Harlem to become a successful writer. When one reporter told Baldwin that America had given him his fame, Baldwin responded without hesitation: “[America] did not give me anything—it gave me my father and my mother, and his father and his mother. It gave me my ancestry. That is to say, it gave me the auction block.”7
From Baldwin’s vantage point, therefore, we can risk exposing the instability and incoherence of whiteness because Baldwin’s nothing-to-lose social position demonstrates that stability was always an illusion. We can face the crisis of whiteness without the need to salvage some imagined innocence. To begin this excavation, I turn our attention toward one of Baldwin’s less quoted essays, yet one that helps us see Tarantino’s cinematic visions through Baldwin’s lens. We find it in Baldwin’s essay, “The Northern Protestant,”8 where he fantasizes about making a film of his own.
In “The Northern Protestant,” Baldwin reflects on his conversation with the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. After Bergman discusses the way his film The Seventh Seal attempts to speak of our condition through northern sagas, Baldwin projected his own cinematic universe. He wondered what film could capture our current crisis through stories of the so-called “past.” He did not have Bergman’s northern sagas, but he did have the Southern slave songs: the African tom-toms, Congo Square, and Harlem. On his ride back into Stockholm, the “cinema of [his] mind”10 projected visions of a treacherous world that troubles, disconcerts, and never flinches. Baldwin saw that a quest for truth must turn toward the underside, toward what Frantz Fanon called the “zone of non-being,” among the so-called “wretched of the earth:”11
“My film would begin with slaves,” Baldwin writes, “boarding the good ship Jesus: a white ship, on a dark sea, with masters as white as the sails of their ships, and slaves as black as the ocean. There would be one intransigent slave, an eternal figure, destined to appear, and to be put to death in every generation.” On the good ship Jesus, the uncompromising slave is hurled into the ocean, her name never to be recovered. He appears again to lead a slave insurrection “and [is] hanged.” She becomes a Jazz musician “and [goes] mad.” In every age, the slave emerges to tell the truth, “vomits the anguish up,” and is crucified.12
In Baldwin’s world, black skin is immersed fully into the depths of oceanic liminality, the absence of safe harbor. Black bodies are fixed on a racial grid against which so-called humanity establishes its coherence. White masters identify who they are by identifying who they are not. White skin, in terrifying contrast to the black slaves’ liminality, is the manufactured stuff of slave ships, blending unnaturally into the world-making machine of the good ship Jesus. White skin marks civilization, whereas black skin blends into ocean waters. Whiteness is not merely pigmentation but inextricably bound to the slave ship’s structure, the societal machinations that put black bodies in chains and exchange their flesh for cash. Moreover, while black skin remains invisible, white skin is never out of sight. Black slaves are always aware of the white ship around which their life is forced to pivot, whereas white masters lose sight of black bodies against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Whiteness not only becomes an extension of the slave ship but, more specifically, an extension of the good ship Jesus. And here the racial grid announces its theological frame, its eternal intentions. At the heart of the master/slave framework is a deformed Christian logic: white bodies stand at the salvific center; black bodies descend into a veritable hell. In short, within Baldwin’s vision, Christian formation is racial formation. Whiteness is not merely a racial crisis; it is a theological catastrophe.
Turned away from white masters above, Baldwin looks below. His eternal, intransigent slave is a crushing judgment upon her particular master and a general judgment upon a world sustained by slaves. In a Baldwinian key, Afro-pessimist Frank B. Wilderson has powerfully described the master/slave framework as America’s foundational antagonism. “The Slave is not a laborer, but an Anti-Human,” he argues, “over and against which ‘Humanity’ establishes, and continually renews its coherence.” In short, “No slave, no world.” Take away forced labor, and the slave position remains.13
Baldwin’s film does not begin in the garden before slavery. It begins in the hold of the good ship Jesus, in hell. The slave’s life is bounded by death. The master/slave antagonism is not a problem that can be solved solely through constitutional amendments; it is an irreconcilable conflict, the resolution of which, Wilderson writes, “is not dialectical but involves the obliteration of one entity or position.”14 Indeed, Baldwin’s intransigent slave keeps appearing in the same world, telling the same truth, and meeting the same ghastly end. The resurrected slave is hurled again into the ocean, the eruption of true life unable to coexist with the good ship Jesus.
Contemplating his own film, Baldwin began to envision the tragic voice of the resurrected slave flowing through his own words, the preacher-turned-artist forced to tell the truth. Addressing the 1968 assembly of the World Council of Churches, Baldwin faced the theological root of racism and the tragic possibility of its dissolution head-on: “The destruction of the Christian church as it is presently constituted,” Baldwin proclaimed, “may not only be desirable, but necessary.”15 From the belly of the beast, he saw the Christian church transform a Hebrew “born in Nazareth under the very hot sun” into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed exemplification of white virtues.16 Looking up at the world from the slave ship’s hold, Baldwin recognized the chief cornerstone: a white Jesus.
As we place Tarantino’s script alongside this one, we notice some glaring and all-important differences: Baldwin’s world makes no room for Dr. Schultz, no room for the man in gray. There are white masters as white as the sails of their ships, and there are black slaves as black as the ocean. No enlightened white allies are able to escape the temptation of mastery. Moreover, we see that Baldwin’s script pivots around a theological center—the good ship Jesus—whereas Tarantino’s script pivots around Schultz’s enlightened white identity. Indeed, seen through Baldwin’s lens, Schultz’s identity is not post-racial; it is a diseased racial alternative to the good ship Jesus, the self-sufficient liberal who offers a more benevolent form of mastery. From the precipice of these insights, I now return to the world of Dr. Schultz.
Schultz twirls his mustache, still in gray, still the benevolent master who despises slavery “on the one hand.” We are in the heart of the South at the Bennett plantation. We find Big John Brittle, the brutal white overseer, ready to crack his whip across the back of an unnamed black slave woman. As Django approaches, flashbacks take us to another plantation, another time, when Big John was Django’s overseer. In the flashback, Big John readies Django’s beloved wife, Broomhilda, for the whip. As Django pleads to take her place, the flashback ends with the whip’s crack and Broomhilda’s scream.
Back to the present, Big John paces. He wields his whip in one hand and a worn-out Bible in the other. “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth,” he quotes aloud, as the whip’s crack resounds in the pause between words. Tarantino then pushes the religious symbolism to absurdity: Big John literally wears the Bible on his own body. Ripped pages of Scripture have been sewn into the fabric of his clothes. Like the white skin in Baldwin’s film, the extension of the good ship Jesus, John Brittle’s enormous white body engulfs the biblical pages.
As if Django heard Baldwin’s apocalyptic proclamation to the World Council of Churches, he raises his gun in a necessary destruction of John Brittle’s Christianity, and a bullet tears through one of the sewn-on biblical pages that is positioned exactly over Brittle’s merciless heart. Out of a small hole, blood runs down the Scripture. Like a giant edifice, Brittle’s power crumbles as he falls to ground. Django’s aim symbolically suggests he knew his target—the bullet not only strikes John Brittle; it strikes the white Jesus at the heart of the master/slave framework.
Baldwin would have understood that scene. In 1942, after experiencing the hostility of Jim Crow among his Southern coworkers in New Jersey, Baldwin once snapped into a rage. He walked through a mob of white faces, looking for a white neck to strangle. He was ready for revenge. He was ready to commit murder. And he almost did. Yet he also lived with another difficult word: vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. Baldwin certainly wanted to lop off heads, “but who, and how many,” he wrote, “and when does one know to stop?”17 When confronted with his own vengeful desires, Baldwin saw the danger into which the white world was drawing his life. Writing became a way to describe the very good reasons for his rage—not to indulge it or dismiss the anger too easily, but to face it in order to survive.
Django’s symbolic attack on the white Jesus is thus only one side of a powerful Baldwinian moment. It is the vengeful Baldwin without the tragic Baldwin. Django is a cinematic glimpse of Baldwin’s intransigent slave, but only a glimpse. I imagine that Baldwin may have enjoyed Tarantino’s cinematic originality for a moment, seeing John Brittle’s world and the religious symbols that established it destroyed. But soon after John Brittle falls, Dr. Schultz returns to the scene. He finishes the job by shooting the last Brittle brother, and then he leads Django away from the plantation owner who is furious to find out that a former black slave has killed his white overseers. As Dr. Schultz and Django make for camp, the world of white liberal mastery begins to reassert its grip. The cinematic originality of Django’s symbolic act flickers and is gone, and with it, I imagine, would fade Baldwin’s enjoyment.
The master position shows its totalizing reach during a conversation around the campfire, when Django tells Schultz his wife’s German name: Broomhilda. What happens next becomes a microcosm of Django’s life and, as it turns out, our clearest window in the film into the crisis of whiteness:
“Broomhilda?” Dr. Schultz asked, perplexed. Before now he was marginally interested in Django’s life but now his curiosity is piqued—“Broomhilda is the name of a character in one of the most popular of all the German legends.” Schultz tells Django the legend, describing a world in which he captures Django’s own story: “Broomhilda was a princess. She was the daughter of Wotan, the god of all gods.” After she disobeys, the mythic Broomhilda’s father places her on the top of a mountain, surrounded by a circle of hellfire and protected by a fire-breathing dragon. She will stay there, Dr. Schultz says, “until a hero arises, brave enough to save her.”18
“Does a fella arise?” Django asks, whose life, from the perspective of Dr. Schultz, is being narrated back to him.
“Yes, Django, as a matter of fact he does. A fella named Sigfried.” Sigfried courageously scales the mountain, defeats the dragon, and walks through hellfire “because Broomhilda is worth it.”19
Dr. Schultz captures Django inside a white/European/masculine hero myth. But why can Schultz so easily make sense of Django, a black slave from the South, through European legend? Schultz’s progressive attempt to posit human universality through his European myth does not defeat the master/slave framework; it merely hides it. Tarantino writes Django as a vessel easily captured within Schultz’s German myth. In order to appear in his heroic position, Django must also appear in Schultz’s white masculine narrative. Though he has seemingly departed from the overt racism of his previous white masters, Django is reattached to the hidden racism of the enlightened white/European/male. Not yet free, Django still lives inside the world of Dr. Schultz.
Schultz’s apparent transformation from white power as coercion to white power as empathy works to stabilize his social position on the “right” side of whiteness. What looks like Schultz beginning to see Django is actually Schultz recognizing himself in the place of Django’s body. “When a German meets a real life Sigfried,” Schultz tells Django, “it’s kind of a big deal.” Only when the white Sigfried has replaced Django’s blackness does Schultz’s relationship to Django change. Schultz never engages in the personal excavation Baldwin insisted we must face. Instead, Schultz turns from doing something to Django (i.e., purchasing him) toward doing something for Django (i.e., “giving” him his freedom). Schultz instrumentalizes Django to secure his own ability to speak: “I’ve never given anybody their freedom before,” says Schultz, “and now I feel responsible for you.” Django remains at the center of white speech that gives freedom, whereas freedom is not something to be given, only to be recognized. And here is my point: Schultz secures an alternative white ally status without giving up his mastery.
This crucial conversation establishes the trajectory for the rest of the film. The quest to save Broomhilda takes Schultz and Django into Calvin Candie’s Candieland, the most ruthless of all slave owners, who uses his land as a playpen for violence against black bodies. With a Napoleonic air, Calvin Candie’s power manifests itself most gruesomely in the purchase of Mandingo fighters: black slaves who are forced to fight other black slaves to the death, all for white peoples’ enjoyment.
After Schultz’s theatrical scheme to free Broomhilda fails, he sits in the parlor listening to a harpist play Beethoven while the images of sacrificed black bodies fill his mind. Upon meeting Calvin Candie, he watched stoically as a Mandingo fighter was given a hammer and was forced to end another black slave’s life. And earlier that day, his commitment to staying in character as part of the scheme resulted in the execution of another black slave, by way of a pair of vicious dogs. Disgusted by Candie’s refined brutish ignorance and the horrors of slavery, Schultz cannot resist the temptation to obliterate him. When Candie demands a handshake, Schultz pulls the trigger of a gun hidden in his sleeve, and Candie falls with a gunshot wound to the heart. Knowing that Candie’s men will immediately exact revenge, Schultz turns to Django as if to say, “Goodbye,” before the blast of a shotgun sends him flying into the bookshelf. Both Schultz and Candie lie dead.
Schultz attempts to rid the world of the racist white master, to bury the wrong way of being white. He loses his life attempting to salvage white innocence. But the confrontation between Schultz and Candie is not a battle between the anti-slavery white ally and the pro-slavery white master; it is a confrontation between two competing visions of one position: the master. Candie rules by overtly violent tactics, whereas Schultz rules through benevolent gestures.
Tarantino has insisted that Django shifts from student to teacher at Candieland, that ultimately Schultz’s death allows the story to evade the dominant white-savior motif.20 Schultz’s death does not help Django, the argument goes—it puts him in danger. And to be fair, if there is a moment when Django might break out of Schultz’s white masculine mythology, this is it. Schultz is no longer alive to trap Django at the center of his speech. If whiteness is truly a crisis, it must endure the death of Dr. Schultz and Calvin Candie, but how?
Once Schultz’s benevolence is exposed for the mastery he cannot escape, the implications for Django, and for all of us, are terrifying. Consider the wide view of Django’s story: Schultz began as Django’s benevolent master. Then Schultz “granted” Django freedom. Inside Dr. Schultz’s gesture is an insidious trap: Django is implicated in the repayment of a debt that he never asked to take on. Freedom comes to him as a gift from his white master, and that kind of gift cannot be given without binding Django, however unintentionally, to a lifelong repayment. Django’s manumission does not free him from Dr. Schultz’s imaginative landscape; it fixes Django’s eyes on the white masculine world all the more severely. And the master’s death propels Django into a future of endlessly honoring Schultz’s gift; Django’s life becomes a tribute to Schultz’s life.
This paradoxical result of manumission, however, is not self-evident. Orlando Patterson’s groundbreaking work Slavery and Social Death helpfully illumines this dynamic with disturbing symbolism. The master’s death, Patterson argues, places the ex-slaves under the deepest possible obligation to repay their master with their lives: “the freeing of the slave at the death of the Master may well have had a death-defying and re-creative meaning: the master’s spirit resurrected in the living person of his favorite surrogate.”21 And if Schultz’s favor upon Django is ever doubted in Tarantino’s script, one line makes any doubt that Django is Schultz’s “favorite surrogate” disappear. After purchasing Django’s freedom, Schultz tells the white slave owner, Mr. Bennett, “[Django] must be treated as an extension of myself.” We should recognize the resurrection of the master/slave framework, therefore, when Django returns to Dr. Schultz’s dead body one last time, kneeling next to him in silence.
Django’s homage to the late Dr. Schultz comes at the film’s end. Django destroys the plantation that enslaved his wife Broomhilda. But more to the point, Django destroys the plantation that took his master’s life, thereby accomplishing the mission Dr. Schultz clarified for him with his white masculine myth. More triumphant than Django’s revenge is the totalizing temptation of mastery. The cinema audience cheers for a black Django, who smiles while the white Candieland Plantation literally explodes. Yet the official screenplay makes explicit a more insidious end: “Django leaves Candieland having rescued his Broomhilda from her Mountain, her Ring of Hellfire, and all her Dragon’s.”22 Django triumphs, not as the black slave struggling against white power; he triumphs as the exemplification of Sigfried, the white European masculine hero. In short, the world of Dr. Schultz endures.23
Baldwin challenges us to face this crisis of whiteness. He witnesses against cheap visions of post-racial societies and projects of assimilation that hide antagonisms and histories. Facing the pain and terror of our history, Baldwin thinks, is nearly our only hope. He refuses to save us from the incoherence that confronts our lives when we attempt to shed ourselves of white mastery; instead, he hurls us into limbo. Baldwin calls on the artist and, I argue, the preacher to help us bear the truth of our lives: the good ship Jesus has shipwrecked us all. To face this crisis, we will need sermons that preach the vulnerable promise of instability inside Christ’s body, our dark-skinned Lord who died the death of a slave. We will need communities of faith that do not offer a return to some “vanished state of security and order”24 but that send us out, demanding that total risk of excavating the terrible depths of the worlds into which we’ve been born, the ones we did not choose, the ones that have given birth to us. Through Baldwin’s lens, neither the good ship Jesus nor Dr. Schultz’s progressive white identity will do. Both are fundamentally unhopeful because both capture the world at the center of their speech. Both distract us from Baldwin’s intransigent slave, the eternal figure who appears in order to tell the truth, vomits the anguish up, and is crucified. Neither the good ship Jesus nor the bourgeois white progressive can hear God’s word resounding from the slave ship’s hold.
Baldwin thus turns us away from a Christianity of the slave ship, where whiteness transforms a dark-skinned Hebrew into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white Jesus. Baldwin’s struggle to articulate freedom from the world’s underbelly turns us toward the “disreputable Hebrew criminal, crucified between two thieves.”25 That is, Baldwin turns us toward the deepest horror of death, the part of our own personal excavation where we find ourselves at Golgotha: God’s life suspended at the break between the last word of an old history and the first word of a new one. As we face the unrelenting master/slave framework, Baldwin’s intransigent slave calls us to begin at the only place to begin: the end of the world.26
1. Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1985), xvii.
2. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained (Original Screenplay, 2012), 15.
5. Baldwin, “The Black Boy Looks at a White Boy,” The Price of the Ticket, 290.
7. Quoted in Russell Banks, “John Brown’s Body: James Baldwin and Frank Shatz in Conversation,” Transition 81/82 (2000): 250–66.
8. Baldwin, “The Northern Protestant,” The Price of the Ticket, 194.
10. Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work,” The Price of the Ticket, 561.
11. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grover Press, 1963).
12. Baldwin, “The Northern Protestant,” The Price of the Ticket, 203
13. Wilderson, Red, White, and Black (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 11.
15. Baldwin, “White Racism or Christian Community,” The Price of the Ticket, 437.
17. Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work,” The Price of the Ticket, 491.
18. Ibid. This essay does not directly address Tarantino’s vision of femininity in Django Unchained as shown through the character Broomhilda. My argument is structured as a no to what I take to be destructive visions of white masculinity, which is only an implicit critique of the film’s specific instrumentalization of Broomhilda toward the fulfillment of masculine fantasies. Another essay could be written on the ways that Schultz’s German myth captures Broomhilda inside the same white/European/male imagination that he deploys to capture Django. And perhaps Toni Morrison’s fiction could do similar work in that essay that Baldwin’s nonfiction is doing here.
22. Tarantino, Django Unchained.
23. A more compelling version of Dr. Schultz would have bent more toward Tarantino’s American hero (and, in fact, one of Baldwin’s American heroes): John Brown. Dr. Schultz shows glimpses of the John Brown story in his willingness to take the guns from white masters and become a threat to white power alongside black fighters. Yet Tarantino writes Django inside of Schultz’s narrative instead of writing Schultz inside of Django’s narrative, whereas John Brown’s life represented a rigorous attempt to situate his own life inside the histories of slave insurrections and black freedom struggles. His life displayed a quality familiar to the black position. In fact, when James Baldwin was asked which president he would be voting for, he was known to answer, “John Brown.” To read a powerful telling of this abolitionist, unhinged from the stability of dominant American myths and dropped inside black history, see W. E. B. Dubois’s brilliant biography, John Brown (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1974).
24. Baldwin, “The Black Boy Looks at a White Boy,” The Price of the Ticket, 290.
25. Baldwin, “White Racism or Christian Community,” The Price of the Ticket, 437.
26. This echoes the Martinique poet and theorist of negritude Aime Cesaire and his important work, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001). In the face of the colonial world, he writes, “What can I do? One must begin somewhere. Begin what? The only thing in the world worth beginning: The End of the World of course” (27).