Django of Django Unchained and Solomon of 12 Years a Slave may seem to have strikingly little in common. Django was born into slavery and only freed once Dr. Schultz needed him to help identify a bounty target. Solomon on the other hand was born free, only made a slave once he had entered middle age. Django’s position while in the South is one of power, he is a free man, and not just a solitary free man but one who travels as a white man’s equal, supported by Dr. Schultz’s assertions of his freedom. Solomon was born and raised in New York, and so when he enters the South, his freedom is no longer recognized nor verifiable. He loses his name, becoming Platt, and his only hope is to find a sympathetic ear to help him send word to his friends in the North. And yet, the two share the common experience of standing alone among enslaved African-Americans, Django due to his freedom, and Solomon due to his formerly free status. Their othering denies them access to the communities of the enslaved and prompts us to exam our assumptions about enslaved communities altogether.
Django’s status as a free black man places him in a social no man’s land. He is still black, and so cannot be afforded the full social standing granted to white males, and yet he is a free man, and so cannot be abused as a slave. The scene where he enters a plantation where Dr. Schultz depicts the way in which Southerners, both black and white, attempt to approach his unknown status:
(Columbia Pictures 2012)
The compromise at which they arrive is that Django shall be treated as a handicapped white person would be. Django’s othering is important for a few reasons. Django himself obviously wants to be viewed as different from the enslaved African-Americans he encounters, as demonstrated by his self selected, and rather outré, clothing choice. He does not want to be mistaken by anyone, white or black, for just another slave. Django thus others himself from the enslaved community through his insistence that he is something that they are not: free. Simultaneously, and not quite as fully explored in this scene, is the interest that the white plantation owners have in also keeping Django othered from his racial community. If Django were to be treated, or viewed, as just another black man, only different in that he is free, those enslaved African-Americans may begin to question their own enslaved state, noting that nothing really separates them from those freed African-Americans other than a property title. By insisting on Django’s unequal treatment from their slaves, the southern whites ensure that he is viewed as radically different from them, and thus not as someone to whose status they can aspire. This line of analysis then invites us to look at the nature of the slave community itself as one that demands a certain view of others within the community itself. All slaves must view all the other slaves as equals of a sort. Though some hierarchy may have been imposed with the selection of certain black overseers, nonetheless, the shared experience is one in which all slaves are for the most part equal to one another, forced to do whatever, whenever, the master asks it. In order for a sense of community to exist, no one slave can receive better treatment from the slave owner, because to accept such benefits would be to betray the rest of the slaves through cooperation in the slaving culture. The slave community thus to some degree must have self-imposed that relative equality. Because Django is not enslaved, nor does he seek the community of enslaved blacks, he is excluded both by choice and by the community itself.
Solomon’s exclusion is also at least somewhat due to the same factors of self-exclusion and community exclusion. Being born a free man, he is loathe at first to accept the condition of slavery as one of survival, but once he does accept that goal, he refuses to allow others to think outside of it. The following two scenes detail that contrast:
(Both Fox Searchlight 2013)
On the surface, it would seem that Solomon’s initial exclusion from the slave community is due to his refusal to accept his condition, to survive within slavery rather than continue to seek his freedom. But the second clip demonstrates that even with that acceptance, he is still not fully integrated. Yes, Eliza is still excluded due to her inability to mourn her children in silence, but Solomon too is excluded based on his silence based not in acceptance, but in hope that if he bides his time he will again gain his freedom. Rather than forge connections and friendships with those around him, we see Solomon set apart, presumably by his own choice, perhaps in the hopes that his eventual freedom will not lead to the further sadness of being separated from those he knows are still burdened with the condition of slavery. Though Solomon does eventually seem to accept his status, and maybe even give up on his hope of freedom, as shown (and discussed) in the Roll Jordon Roll scene (see other post in this section), the majority of his screen time is devoted to this self-imposed othering. It seems that for Solomon to maintain his sanity and hope for freedom, he cannot allow himself to connect with others born into slavery.
Solomon’s exclusion by the community stems from the dangers that follow him. While owned by the more generous Mr. Ford, Solomon engineers and proves a more efficient system for transporting lumber. He is congratulated both by Mr. Ford and by the other slaves. But this success instills resentment in the white overseer, played by Paul Dano. Dano’s character, Tibeats, harasses Solomon, and rather than accept that harassment, Solomon fights back, leading to the painful scene where we see Tibeats lynching Solomon, only to be scared off, but with Solomon left to hang, barely able to support his weight on tip toe, all day. This punishment doubtless frightened the other slaves; they too could be subject to that punishment if they were to commit a similar crime, and so why associate with someone whose behavior lead to that? Through his public punishment, Solomon is labeled a troublemaker, and those within the slave community cannot very well afford to be associated with someone so risky. Again, homogeneity is key to the community, rather than accept differing levels of submissiveness and rebelliousness, the slave community seems to be composed of a group of similarly minded individuals, neither too comfortable in slavery nor too willing to oppose its conditions.
Both films demonstrate that secure membership in the enslaved community was not an easy status to attain. While one could easily other himself from the community through choice, even if he sought out that same community, if he were too different from the others, either in treatment given by the master or in mindset in regards to slavery, he could equally be denied. As both films are focused on characters outside the space of community, it is difficult to speculate as to exactly what the benefits of community were in such a system of abuse and torture, but it would seem plausible that at the very least a sense of community would allow at least a limited sense of one’s own condition as still human within a very inhumane system. Django and Solomon self-selected out of that benefit, and their loneliness, and that lack of human connection, is just what drives them to their respective goals: Django’s journey to purchase his wife out of slavery, and Solomon’s attempts to endure until rescued and returned to his family. For those slaves who had no such hope of finding connection elsewhere, the community must have then been crucial. While the films focus on those external to the system, they still both show that within the enslaved African-American population there were still those who found themselves on the outside, and who subsequently had to find reminders of their humanity elsewhere. The most tragic figures then become those without outside hope, like Patsy, given better treatment in some respects, but more just singled out by the plantation owner. Her removal from equality within the community demonstrates the true brutality of slavery. Her experience demonstrated that slavery did not just deny physical autonomy, but also denied humanity by removing her ability to connect to the only community potentially available to her. And while her experience, as well as Django’s and Solomn’s, are at times difficult to watch, they all are nonetheless valuable for their ability to further inform us about the painful history of slavery.
How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/