Oscar-winning Film “Django Unchained” Critiqued at RIC Lecture

Gender, violence and the black experience found in the popular and controversial films "Django Unchained" and "Manderlay" were among several issues raised by award-winning author Frank Wilderson III at a recent Rhode Island College lecture.

Khalil Saucier, RIC’s director of Africana studies and assistant professor of sociology, said, “Frank Wilderson is one of the most important thinkers and voices on questions of the human, freedom, black liberation and the black radical tradition in the United States.”

“His insight and philosophical observations are like none other in the academy, so for him to be at RIC is a real coup and an wonderful illustration of how the upper administration values a diversity of ideas,” he added.

Wilderson, professor of African-American studies and drama at the University of California, Irvine, gave a talk titled “The Lady and the Whip: Gendered Violence and Social Death in Manderlay and Django Unchained,” to uncover blind spots and the ways in which the films map the relation of power between blacks and the rest of the world.

Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” follows a slave named Django in the late 1850s as he is trained to become a deputy bounty hunter in exchange for help finding his wife. The film won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards earlier this year.

“Manderlay,” written and directed by Lars von Trier, follows Grace and her father as they travel through rural Alabama and end up on a slave plantation called Manderlay.

Since the film takes place in the early 1930s, about 70 years after the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the plantation’s existence is unusual. Grace eventually takes on the role of leader at Manderlay and interacts with its inhabitants throughout the film.

One issue Wilderson raised in “Django Unchained,” which he called “a simple, bourgeois story” is the way race is portrayed in the film.

“Tarantino harnesses black men as instruments that exaggerate a reflection on moral whiteness,” said Wilderson. “Django is just a tool of white intellectual knowledge. … This is really a story about the moral transformation of Dr. Schultz.”

Wilderson outlined the film’s narrative arc: “Django Unchained” nearly begins in a state of equilibrium when Django and Dr. Schultz unite, quickly moves to a state of disequilibrium when Schultz realizes he has been “changed” by Django and back to equilibrium, which Schultz’s character experiences just before his death, said Wilderson.

Two mise en scène aspects of “Manderlay,” a film Wilderson described as being about “the place that blacks occupy in the collective unconscious of non-blacks,” add to this sense of disequilibrium.

First, there are no doors or walls visible in, but one can hear doors squeak and people knock. Secondly, the action of the film is constantly punctuated by a distracting British voiceover.

“These formal cinematic strategies immerse the viewer in a state of disequilibrium. ‘Manderlay’ begins in disarray and intensifies, even without the story,” said Wilderson. “These are moments which the spectators can feel. The moment of equilibrium is reserved for those not black.”

Those in attendance watched the final few moments of “Manderlay,” where Grace decides to give up her position of leadership when she discovers Mam’s Law, an exhaustive code of conduct for the plantation’s inhabitants, was written not by whites, but by the slaves themselves.

Wilhelm, an elderly slave at Manderlay, tells Grace it was written because it’s safer to be on a slave plantation than be free in the democratic United States. They hold Grace as prisoner to guard Manderlay and keep the “real white violence and American democracy” out, said Wilderson.

He concluded: “‘Manderlay’ ends on a low note, suggesting that slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation, and it certainly hasn’t ended today.”

This lecture was hosted by RIC’s program in Africana Studies.