This article is part of a segment here at BoomPopMedia.com called “Interpretation.” In this section, we will discuss themes and plot points from films we love. These articles are meant to be read only after you have seen the movie we’re discussing – they will, by their very nature, contain major spoilers and I would encourage you not to read them before you’ve had a chance to watch the movie. In this piece, we are taking a look at the film Django Unchained. Previously, we took a look at Inglourious Basterds, Cloud Atlas, and Spring Breakers.
Django Unchained is a movie that truly surprised me as few movies are able to; I assumed that Calvin Candie would end up being the primary antagonist for Django to overcome. It all made sense to me—the story of a freed slave murdering the owner of one of the largest, and most infamous, plantations in the antebellum south. It seemed like an ideal set-up for what is perhaps the ultimate American revenge fantasy. Instead, Quentin Tarantino had something far more subversive up his sleeve.
Upon reaching the sprawling plantation Candieland, we are immediately introduced to Stephen, Candie’s head house slave. The first shot of Stephen is a close-up on his face as Django and company ride in on horseback. What starts out as a look of confusion quickly morphs into a seething glare as the sight of a freed black man riding atop a horse enrages him. Later in the scene, Stephen argues to keep Broomhilda in a cramped box underground for a week’s time as punishment for a failed escape, but Candie wishes her removed immediately. Their back-and-forth is played for laughs—Stephen’s outraged profanity, mixed with his exaggerated manner of speaking, is both shocking and hilarious. At turns defiant and obsequious, it is clear from this scene that Stephen has an interesting relationship with Candie.
During the tense dinner scene, Stephen becomes aware of Django and Schultz’s plan to rescue Broomhilda, and alerts Candie accordingly. In this scene, the character of Stephen goes from a sycophantic character to a much shrewder, more ruthless one. His over-the-top mannerisms disappear when he and Candie discuss Django’s treachery one-on-one. During their discussion, the hierarchy of Candieland becomes clear—Stephen isn’t Candie’s house slave, but his strategic adviser. There is a motif throughout the film of characters putting on false identities as a means to an end—Schultz and Django act as slave traders first to assassinate three criminal brothers, then to gain access to Candieland. Stephen’s subterfuge clearly furthers this theme.
Despite Stephen’s intrusions, Schultz and Django are successful in acquiring Broomhilda (although at a much higher rate than expected). The necessary papers have been signed, and all that’s left is a handshake between the two parties. Unwilling to shake Candie’s hand, Schultz instead shoots him in the heart with a pistol concealed up his sleeve. Candie’s death arrives with little fanfare and is rather anticlimactic. Seeing the secondary protagonist kill what I thought would be the main antagonist was a real shock to me. Little did I know that there was still a whole third act on the horizon.
After a lengthy firefight, Django forfeits himself to the deceased Candie’s men. Hanging naked, upside down, Billy Crash is moments away from castrating Django. Then Stephen walks in, seemingly as a last-second reprieve. Perhaps this character that the audience has grown to despise is going to save Django, and make up for all past wrongs. Perhaps his cruelty and ruthlessness were all a ruse…maybe he was trapped in his position as Candie’s adviser, but with his death, he can now show some compassion to the fellow blacks around him. It is all-for-naught though, as Stephen reveals that he saved Django from castration in order to sell him to a mining company—a much slower death. It is clear in this moment that Stephen is the unquestionable villain of the film. Instead of using his powers of persuasion to help Django, he pushes for the vilest punishment imaginable.
The ending of the film finds Django returned to Candieland with a vengeance. In the end, the two men left standing are him and Stephen. Stephen, who had walked hunched over with a cane throughout the film, drops the cane and stands up straight, taking a few unlabored steps. This moment brings the Stephen character full circle—with no one left to fool but Django, Stephen completely drops his act. Django then shoots him in both kneecaps and leaves him writhing on the floor in pain as he blows up the entire plantation manor. It is a satisfying final showdown, although not the one I was expecting.
Earlier in the film, Django makes the point that the two lowest things a black man can be are a slave trader and the head house slave. The ending scene is interesting insofar as it showcases two men who acted as both of these archetypes. First we have Django—a man with good intentions—pretending to be a slaver. Then there is Stephen—a man with bad intentions—pretending to be a stereotypical “Uncle Tom” house slave. Both have done terrible things in their roles—Django let a slave get ripped apart by dogs, while Stephen committed a myriad of abuses against fellow slaves. But while Django took no pleasure in what was (for him) a necessary sacrifice, Stephen clearly relished the chance to cruelly exert his power over the other slaves.
And so, as the film ended and Candieland was left burning to the ground, I left the theatre pleasantly surprised that Tarantino had subverted my expectations. To me, Stephen was a much more interesting villain than Candie. Crafting a tale regarding the horrors of slavery and making a black man the chief antagonist is a bold choice, but in this case I think the subversion is effective and makes the film more thematically interesting.