Well, I've finally been able to set aside time to see Django. Though I rarely see first run movies, I make an exception when they relate to Jim Crow or slavery. Wow. So much to talk about, like the depiction of slavery -- and especially the law of slavery and slave sales. I was pleasantly surprised -- shocked might even be the right word -- with how much law is in that movie; jurisprudence even more so.
As we were walking into the theater, my colleague Rob Smith asked if I thought there'd be a character like Fed in it? I paused for a moment and said, probably. That requires a little explanation.... Turn back to the late summer of 1831 during the Nat Turner rebellion. As panic swept Southampton where the rebellion was taking place, in neighboring Sussex County slave-owners worried what would happen when the rebels reached their county. The rebellion never got there, but that didn't stop people from preparing to meet rebellion with violence -- and with violently responding to perceived threats to slavery.
One slave-owning family was convinced that their slave Fed would join the rebels and they repeatedly spoke about it in the presence of their slaves. I wonder about who Fed was and why his owners were so convinced he would join the rebels. Upon hearing the speculation that Fed would join the rebels, one slave said in essence -- yes, and I'd join them too. At trial a few weeks later, as the white community sought to regain control and retribution, that slave who said he would join the rebels was sentenced to death. Fed, however, was not convicted -- for he had never said anything. Fed's fellow slave was convicted of plotting rebellion; Fed, who may very well have harbored designs of freedom through rebellion, was returned to his owner to suffer what fate we will never know.
I suppose Django's character has a lot in common with Fed -- and maybe with Nat Turner, too. What surprised me about the movie was not the violence -- in fact, if anything it was less than I expected. I guess it's because these days I'm so used to the extraordinary violence that lay at the heart of slavery that the scene of the slaves fighting to the death for the amusement of Candie -- or the dogs tearing the run-away slave apart wasn't all that suprising. (I had initially written disturbing, but that's obviously the wrong word -- it was incredibly disturbing, just not out of keeping with what one might expect in this kind of movie.) I'm used to reading descriptions of extra-ordinary brutality -- not so much for amusement of the owners, though it wouldn't surprise me if that was part of slavery -- as for money and control. I mean, "Blackhead Signpost Road" got its name from the head of a supposed rebel that was placed on the road into Jerusalem, Virginia, as a warning to other rebels.
Two things particularly interested me about this, which I want to talk about now. First -- and some of this is sort of transparent -- is the role of law. There are three scenes of slave sales, where contracts (and particular warranties) loom large. Maybe Ariela Gross should be writing about this instead of me, because she is the leading scholar on slave warranties, but wow I find it interesting that the movie is so framed by law. There's the opening scene with the "sale," the talk of drawing up a contract for the sale of "Eskimo Joe," and the bill of sale and manumission document of Broomhilda. But law is present in a lot of other places, too. It frames what bounty hunters can do and on several occasions the community that's rising up against the bounty hunters accepts that there was a legal justification for killing. They even go to a local records office to see who purchase Broomhilda. I mean, how unexpected to find a title search in a Tarantino movie?! And then there's the pervasive talk of property -- of how Candy can do whatever he wants with his property. Tis is straight out of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. And pretty closely related to Thomas Ruffin's State v. Mann.
Second is the jurisprudence of all of this, such as how the bounty hunters justified their killings of both the people they're seeking and the slave-owners at Candyland. Maybe the most poignant scene of several in this regard is when Django kills a man who's plowing a field. Obviously Django is doing his job (and also extracting punishment for past crimes), but he's bothered that he's killing a person with a family. This may inspire people to go back and think again about the duties of people caught up in a system that is violent -- or in the case brutally oppressive. I guess Django is in some ways like the anti-slavery judges that Robert Cover (and Harriet Beecher Stowe) wrote about, who recognize inhumanity, but still engage in the system. Or maybe like lawyers for slaves, who try to work within a system that is unfair but still seek some balance for their clients. Shades of Melville's statement in Moby Dick, "who ain't a slave?"
And what do we make of Dr. Schultz' final words after shooting Candie, "I had to do it." (Or maybe it was "I couldn't resist.") In the moments leading up to the shooting, he was turning over in his mind Candie's order to have D'Artagnan fed to the dogs. Schultz, though quite dependent on law for his living -- and someone who recognized the constraints of law (he convinced Django that they couldn't just go and rescue Broomhilda) -- he stepped outside of the southern law and he did so because he believed he had to.
I'm going to think on this some more. Books and writing are all over this movie -- the contracts and receipts for sale; the record books; the wanted handbills; ... even the library at Candyland, where Dr. Schultz went to look for a copy of Alexandre Dumas' Three Muskateers. God I love the history of the book. One final thought -- don't you love how Broomhilda's emancipation papers were a pre-printed form?! Further evidence of how far the technology of printing was put to use by law. And one of these days I'll talk about the cemetery scene, too!
Want to know more about Fed? My paper on "The Nat Turner Trials" is up on ssrn. I talk a lot about Fed in there -- check it out.