In a 2013 interview with Vulture, screenwriter John Ridley ruminates on the most difficult scene he has ever written, which is the exchange between slaves Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Patsey (Lupito Nyong'o), and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a black woman who ascended the plantation hierarchy by becoming a slave owner. Although Mistress Shaw is a minor character in the original Twelve Years a Slave narrative, with only a few lines devoted to her, Ridley expands her representation in the film version of 12 Years a Slave (2014) with the purpose of educating the audience about different roles women could occupy on the plantation. He states, a "lot of folks may have been completely unfamiliar with the concept of the woman of color in that era being able to elevate herself to a degree, or the notion that a white master may have felt secure enough not just to have a black mistress but one that he could have a relationship with openly on that level" (qtd. in Buchanan).
Ridley's decision to pull Mistress Shaw out of the original narrative and expand her characterization represents a postmodern creative intervention – he uses twenty-first century conceptions of black womanhood as a way of reimagining black female subjectivity in the nineteenth century. The moments of the film that deviate from the original narrative illuminate black female characters, which demonstrates the influence the twenty-first century cultural and political climate has on the filmmakers. I argue that representations of slavery in the twenty-first century look different from previous iterations, and we need to adapt new language to describe these representations. Although some scholars have described 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained (2012) as neo-slave narratives, this term does not encompass the temporal aesthetic that embodies twenty-first century creative productions, nor does it account for the interconnectedness of contemporary genres. Neo-slave narratives were a response to the renewal of interest in slavery depictions during the Civil Rights Era, and I argue that these films are a response to the twenty first century's cultural climate. To account for this shift, I classify Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave as "post-neo-slave narratives."
To reconcile postmodernity, as a temporal, aesthetic, and genre convention, with the neo-slave narrative, I articulate post-neo-slave narratives as literary and visual texts that mesh conventions of postmodernity with the neo-slave narrative. This sub-genre is distinguished from other neo-slave narratives in that these texts apply twenty-first century theories of identity to the portrayal of slavery. Moreover, unlike neo-slave narratives, post-neo-slave narratives are not limited to literary texts, but rather embrace the connections with non-literary, visual, and multi-media texts. Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave are from the new millennium and were created after Ashraf H. A. Rushdy's seminal book Neo Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. Similar to how the slave narrative took on an alternative and new meaning during the Civil Rights Era, I argue that conventions of postmodernism have influenced how contemporary writers, filmmakers, and musicians represent slavery in their texts. The definition of postmodernism that I utilize in this article comes from Linda Hutcheon, who argues that a foundational characteristic of postmodernism is its ability "to fragment or at least to render unstable the traditional unified identity or subjectivity of character" (90). Identity within a postmodern framework becomes destabilized, and traditional identity categories are fragmented, which challenges essentialist theories about identity. Conventions of postmodernity allow artists to make creative interventions in the study and representation of slavery. Postmodernism's potential for ingenuity lets artists complicate standard American cultural tropes such as the slave owner and the plantation mistress. In particular, postmodern conceptions of identity focus on the idea that identity is a performative, rather than fixed, concept, and the boundaries between slave/owner, enslaved/free, and other categories are destabilized. As Brian Ott argues, "How one performs identity has to do with how one conceives of image and reality at/in a particular moment/space," which demonstrates the importance of context and representation in the definition of postmodern identity (57). Although many of the women in Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave seize power in the form of slave ownership, I argue that they transform into enslaved slave owners where they embody contradictory identity categories.
In addition to the connection between postmodernism and identity, as well as examining postmodernism as an aesthetic, I am also interested in postmodernism as a time period, specifically its relationship to the twenty-first century. In his formulation of the postmodern slave narrative, A. Timothy Spaulding argues "that the discourse of postmodernism played [a] crucial role" in the texts his project examines (3). For Spaulding, postmodernism allows for more fantastical representations of slavery, ones that are not limited by realism. I argue that this point is what separates the postmodern slave narrative from the neo-slave narrative; as articulated by Bernard Bell and Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, the neo-slave narrative mimics the form of the slave narrative and tries to capture the realistic perspective that made slave narratives believable and marketable. Bell, Rushdy, and Spaulding, in their definitions, focus on representations of slavery in literary texts, but do not consider how visual genres interact with and complicate their arguments.
To address this gap, I propose the creation of a genre that consists of literary and visual texts that exemplify postmodernism's temporal and aesthetic influence on representations of slavery. The definitions of the postmodern slave narrative and neo-slave narrative are preoccupied with the narrative form as a genre, as well as the narrative's relationship to history; while twenty-first century artists are interested in providing counternarratives, they are also critiquing the popular culture figures that emerged from slavery representations, as several artists in this project discuss the intertextual approach they use to challenge cultural figures in literary and visual texts such as Gone with the Wind and Roots. Artists of the twenty-first century are utilizing postmodern creative interventions as a strategy for challenging and rewriting American cultural tropes such as the slave, the slave owner, the plantation mistress, the mammy, and the jezebel.
These postmodern creative interventions and, by extension, the post-neo-slave narrative allow filmmakers the freedom to reimagine the story of women, especially black women, in positions of power. Although 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are narratives told from the perspective of black male slaves (Solomon Northup and Django [Jamie Foxx], respectively), both films portray white and black women as active, willing participants in the exploitation of slaves and are explicit in their implication of women in contributing to the slave system. In the context of these two films, the plantation mistress, a popular gendered trope featured in representations of slavery, is further debunked – she is no longer weak, passive, and oblivious but is rather cunning, devious, and masterful. The debunking of this trope is possible due to the freedom allowed by the post-neo-slave narrative – since identity is fluid and characters frequently shift between multiple, competing subject positions, postmodern concepts of identity and power make it possible to construct women, specifically black women, as colonizers and slave owners.
My conception of post-neo-slave narratives considers the multimedia nature of twenty-first century texts, which is why the genre includes literary, visual, and oral representations of slavery. Including visual genres, such as film, illuminates the post-neo-slave narrative by providing visual representations of slavery, and it is crucial to interrogate visual imagery that reaches a mass audience. Many popular cinematic films and television series featuring slavery, such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and Roots (1977), were book adaptations. Several critics, including Miriam Thaggert and William Foster, have criticized Gone with the Wind for romanticizing Southern antebellum culture and treating slavery flippantly. Twenty-first century representations of slavery are challenging and dismantling this romanticization. Any romance that occurs in 12 Years a Slave is cloaked with depressing imagery, such as the dark colors used to visualize Solomon's sexual encounter with a woman slave at the beginning of the film. Django Unchained uses humor as a strategy for making fun of Southern material culture; however, at times, this makes some characters, particularly Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), seem misguided and likeable rather than cruel and heartless.
This article also demands a further exploration of the connection between the postmodern slave narrative and the neo-slave narrative. The postmodern slave narrative and neo-slave narrative are often discussed in opposition rather than in unison. Scholars treat the postmodern slave narrative and neo-slave narrative as separate genres with no connection to each other. The original conception of the neo-slave narrative is altered by postmodernity while simultaneously providing a critique of postmodernism. In addition, a neo-slave narrative focuses on a literary character's journey from bondage to freedom, but postmodern conceptions of both identity and genre allow the new post-neo-slave narrative genre to include non-literary cultural artifacts such as film and music. This article treats Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave as post-neo-slave narratives due to the postmodern creative interventions the writers and directors make when reimagining slavery. I argue that postmodernity shapes the methods filmmakers use to visualize slavery – both films use music, juxtaposition, and clothing to align twenty-first century America with its slavery roots.
Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave,
and Postmodern Creative Interventions
Superficially, Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave seem to contain drastically different approaches to the representation of slavery on film. Django Unchained encompasses the fantastical elements of postmodern slave narratives that Spaulding defines, as it "rejects the boundaries of narrative realism" (1) and engages with "aspects of postmodern subjectivity, history, and textuality by examining the instability of our narrative representation of the past" (3). 12 Years a Slave, however, is rooted in a "realistic" representation of slavery since its referent is Solomon Northup's famous slave narrative, but as Stephanie Li observes, director Steve McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt take creative liberties with the original text by including scenes not featured in the book as well as illuminating peripheral women characters such as Patsey, Mistress Shaw, and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson).
The departure from the original text is where postmodern conceptions of identity come into play, as constructions of female identity are based on postmodern ideas of exceptionalism and mastery. When discussing conceptions of black identity in the new millennium, Soyica Diggs Colbert argues that some contemporary black artists, such as artist Pharrell Williams, are defining blackness based on "neoliberal exceptionalism," a situation in which a black celebrity's ability to accumulate wealth is a sign that it is time to "forget the old black that equated blackness with slavery, loss, or domination" (8). 12 Years a Slave, however, marries black exceptionalism with slavery and mastery through the characterization of Mistress Shaw. Rather than treating black identity as either/or, 12 Years a Slave uses postmodern techniques to demonstrate that these identity categories are both/and. Mistress Shaw transforms into a slave owner by mastering the slave system, demonstrating her exceptional ability to acquire wealth and freedom. The filmmakers' decision to transform and expand the character of Mistress Shaw is an example of twenty-first century notions of identity that are based on fluidity and destabilization.
Both films subversively engage with the fantastic and the real simultaneously – scholars often praise Django Unchained for its playful take on slavery while 12 Years a Slave is heralded as a firm, realistic representation of slavery; however, I am interested in the moments when Django Unchained engages in realism and 12 Years a Slave dabbles in fantasy as this feature is precisely what makes them perfect candidates for inclusion into the post-neo-slave narrative genre. I argue that they challenge standard conceptions of what representations of slavery should look like by playing around with genre conventions. In 12 Years a Slave, the fantastical moments are included because of our twenty-first century political climate – black women characters such as Patsey and Mistress Shaw are highlighted because black feminists demand more inclusion of black women's experiences into literature, film, and other genres. Though Spike Lee and other critics have chastised Django Unchained for its historical inaccuracies and perceived offensiveness, the moments in the film that "are true to slavery" relate to the treatment of black women. Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), in particular, is a reminder that black women were raped and abused during slavery, and although the film is not told from her perspective, she is constructed as a black woman worth saving, complicating Kimberle Crenshaw and other black feminists' arguments that black women are incapable of being portrayed as victims. Broomhilda's victimization, however, is undermined by her construction as different from other slave women due to her fluency in German and her characterization as a comfort slave. These slaves were treated as prostitutes whose owners pimped them out to buyers, and the slave owner received money for the transaction. Django implies that only attractive women are allowed to become comfort slaves.
In addition, each film features women plantation owners – Lara (Laura Cayouette) in Django Unchained and Mistress Epps and Mistress Shaw in 12 Years a Slave – who simultaneously illuminate and resist the plantation mistress trope that is the focal point of this article. Although the past few years have seen an increase in scholarship about these films, most scholars do not focus on the white women characters. While some scholarship exists on Mistress Epps, there is even less about Lara, probably due to her lack of exposure in the film. Most scholarship discusses their reliance on male counterparts instead of how they attempt to construct an identity separate and in conjunction with men. My analysis highlights the integral roles played by the characterizations of Mistress Shaw, Mistress Epps, as well as Lara and places them in the broader context of the plantation mistress trope as a crucial figure in American film and culture. Both films portray these characters as active participants in the financial exchange of slaves, and in representing this direct and explicit participation in the economic aspects of slavery, the films challenge and revise the romantic plantation mistress trope associated with Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Julie Marsden (Bette Davis). In addition to challenging the plantation mistress trope, Django Unchained classifies Broomhilda as a damsel in distress, a trope that rarely features black women characters, and I argue that when considering previous renditions of this trope, Django Unchained shows that black women are worth saving.
The White Plantation Mistress on Screen
The white plantation mistress in American films is usually portrayed as spoiled, childish, and weak. Scarlett O'Hara is the basis of this stereotype – she "is often classified as a misrepresentation of antebellum southern women or the embodiment of white southern womanhood that has historically justified the oppression of African-Americans" (Antolini 25). However, some critics challenge this characterization of Scarlett and insist that she is a brave heroine. The goal of A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O'Hara and Her Literary Daughters is to rescue Scarlett from her critics, as Margeret D. Bauer argues that Scarlett "is an inspiration to female readers, an icon in American popular culture, and yet she is more often than not condemned for being a sociopathic bitch" (12). She also argues that Scarlett's obtuseness and inability to run the plantation after her family begins dying off is a more realistic portrayal of white Southern women than Melanie's characterization, who, contrary to Scarlett, immediately begins helping the Confederate cause. In many ways, Scarlett fails to become an efficient slave owner.
Julie Marsden, the protagonist of the 1938 film Jezebel, is often compared to Scarlett; similarly, she is characterized as evil and manipulative. In the film's most iconic scene, Julie wears a striking red dress to the Olympus ball instead of a white gown, which white women were expected to wear during this time period. Whiteness symbolizes purity, and Julie's refusal to adapt this color represents her tainted identity. As Michael Bibler argues, "These scenes thus code Julie's choice to wear the gown as an affront to aristocratic southern customs and the very codes of white femininity," which demonstrates Julie's failure to adjust to her role as a plantation mistress (20). After the yellow fever epidemic becomes more pronounced and starts killing more white men, Julie is tasked with controlling the plantation, as well as the slaves, but feels that she is unfit to do so. Unlike Scarlett, Julie does not interact with her slaves – even if Scarlett is yelling at or hitting them, she does acknowledge that they exist.
Scarlett O'Hara and Julie Marsden are the precursors for Blanche Maxwell (Susan George), the white plantation mistress in Mandingo (1975) who is criticized by the other characters for being impure. On her wedding night, Hammond (Perry King), her husband, is shocked to discover that she is not a virgin, which taints her reputation. After learning that her husband is having sex with slaves, Blanche forces Mede (Ken Morton), a slave who participates in Mandingo fighting, to sleep with her and tells him that she will accuse him of rape if he disobeys her. After Blanche gives birth to a biracial baby, Hammond poisons her: unfaithful white women who do not fulfill their duties as plantation mistresses are punished with death.
In 1993, Alex Haley's Queen: The Story of an American Family becomes a television miniseries starring Halle Berry as the titular character. Queen is the product of an interracial romance between Easter (Jasmine Guy) and James Jackson, Jr., (Tim Daly) her slave master. Easter is verbally and mentally abused by Lizzie Perkins (Patricia Clarkson), James's wife who later treats Queen with the same disdain. After the Civil War begins, James enlists in the Confederate Army – putting Lizzie in charge of the plantation. Slaves begin to leave and head north, stifling the crop production. In order to keep up with market demands, Lizzie works in the field, harvesting crops, until one of her neighbors insists that the field is no place for a plantation mistress. Lizzie is covered in dirt during this scene, suggesting that she is no longer pure, similar to how their choice of clothing marks Scarlett, Julie, and Blanche as impure. Lizzie cannot keep the plantation intact after Union soldiers destroy it, and she exemplifies the idea that plantation mistresses are failed owners who cannot run their property.
As these films demonstrate, white plantation mistresses are depicted as being sexually impure rather than economically impure, and "tacitly accepted their place within the South's gender and racial hierarchy"; they also "were not socialized to fill the masculine roles of family head and business manager," which results in their failure as slave masters (Antolini 26). However, the conceptualization of this trope changes in twenty-first century representations. The post-neo-slave narrative allows for this alteration – because gender identity is no longer conceived as a fixed concept, women are portrayed as fluctuating between being oppressed and oppressing others; therefore, contemporary representations of white plantation mistresses show how they have mastered the slave owner role. Specifically, in Django Unchained, Calvin praises Lara's bartering skills, admiring her ability to sell female slaves.
12 Years a Slave and Mistress Epps
In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon is a free man in New York where he is a musician with a wife and children. Two men offer him a music gig, but instead trick him into slavery. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, black people in the North technically were not free as they could be taken at any time and forced into slavery in the South. This law blurred the boundary between the North and South, slavery and freedom. Solomon is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a white Christian slave owner who reads bible sermons to his slaves. After tensions arise between Solomon and a few white male workers, Ford sells him to Master Epps (Michael Fassbender). There, he encounters Patsey, a slave woman who routinely picks the most cotton and is the object of Master Epps’s sadistic behavior. Mistress Epps abuses Patsey so badly that Patsey asks Solomon to mercy kill her. After several tumultuous years as Master Epps’s slave, Solomon meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian freelance worker who gives Solomon's Northern friends a note explaining his predicament. Eventually, Solomon returns to New York, but Patsey and the other slaves remain in captivity, demonstrating that slavery continues after the film ends.
Although scholars have analyzed Mistress Epps’s vicious disposition, as well as her abusive treatment of Patsey, most do not focus on the subtle ways the film characterizes subjugation. White plantation mistresses occupied a contradictory space in the domestic sphere in particular and slavery as a whole – some went so far as to compare their plight to slaves. Because of white women's subservience to their husbands, Mistress Epps does not have the power to rebel against Master Epps, which is why her anger is misplaced onto Patsey. She uses emasculating and vindictive language to show her disdain for him, such as insulting his manhood by calling him a "eunuch" and suggesting that he needs to beat his slaves before they plan a rebellion and kill them in their sleep. However, her attempts are insufficient, as Master Epps either ignores her or reminds her of her roots, "back to the hog's trough."
Mistress Epps has a troubling relationship with Solomon as she asks him to make financial transactions for her and demeans his speech patterns. When Solomon runs an errand for Mistress Epps, he mentions to slave catchers that he belongs to her, demonstrating the immense reputation and ubiquitous role she has within the slave community even though she never actually leaves the plantation. Usually, the man is the master who runs the plantation and conducts business in the public sphere. This dynamic demonstrates the immense power her name and reputation has outside of the domestic sphere even if her power is overshadowed by her husband on the plantation. Her attempts to conduct financial transactions on the plantation, such as when she demands that Master Epps "sell the negress" (Patsey) fail, as her husband undermines her financial authority.
Mistress Epps is confined to the house during most of her scenes, and when she interacts with slaves, she is on the porch, above them, symbolizing her position on the pedestal. However, Mistress Epps’s wardrobe changes now that she is no longer the "pure" woman. After she breaks up Master Epps and Solomon's fight, her dress looks stained, representing the duality of her position as plantation mistress. Her dress completely transforms from white to brown in the scene where she gives the other slaves food while refusing to feed Patsey, which demonstrates Mistress Epps's inability to be kind towards her slaves. Her dress is also brown in the scene where she throws glass in Patsey's face while Patsey wears a pure white dress, a stark contrast to Mistress Epps’s clothing, which represents a racial role reversal.
Black Women in 12 Years a Slave
In 12 Years a Slave, the black women characters receive more attention and sympathy than in the original narrative. This fact, I argue, is due to contemporary black feminist activists who demand more representations of black women's experiences. Tamara Winfrey Harris praises Steve McQueen for "a uniquely impressive job of illustrating female slave experiences through the women that Northup encounters during his years of bondage," but reminds us that 12 Years a Slave is still told through Solomon's perspective. She also expresses a frustration that many black feminists share. bell hooks argues that "[n]o other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women," chastising American culture for treating black men as the default faces of the black existence and rarely acknowledging black women's experiences when questions of gender are raised (7). hooks continues to argue, "Sexist historians and sociologists have provided the American public with a perspective on slavery in which the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery in the lives of black people was that black men were stripped of their masculinity," which demonstrates how slaves' experiences are still gendered as male, pushing black women out of the frame.
In response to black feminists' calls for more representations of slave women's experiences, McQueen and Ridley made a conscious decision to include more black women in the film. The scenes in which the film deviates from the narrative are when black women characters are illuminated. At the beginning, while Solomon is packed inside a slave ship, a black woman crawls on top of him, guides his hand, and cries once she climaxes. In an interview with The New York Times, McQueen explains his rationale for including this scene: "Slaves are working all day. Their lives are owned, but those moments, they have to themselves. I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she's climaxed, she's back where she was. She's back in hell, and that's when she turns and cries" (George 18). This scene, for McQueen, exemplifies black female agency and allows a slave woman to have control over her pleasures and desires. On the contrary, Solomon is a passive recipient who does not move away from the woman or deny her advances. McQueen's explanation also represents a postmodern approach to using the present as a methodology for reading the past – he refers to this moment as "sexual healing," an homage to Marvin Gaye's famous song. This point, I argue, is a crucial characteristic of the post-neo-slave narrative, which functions as a genre that allows artists to make contemporary interventions into representations of slavery, and this scene represents a response to contemporary black feminists' calls for more explorations of slave women's experiences.
This interpretation, however, is one with which some critics have disagreed and instead argue that the emphasis on black women's pain is a source of "torture porn." Film critic Armond White criticizes the film for capitalizing on "an opportune moment when film culture – five years into the Obama administration – indulges stories about Black victimization" (qtd. in Rosen). Artist Kara Walker, whose silhouette art pieces have also been criticized for indulging in black exploitation, is disturbed by the many scenes that depict Patsey's abuse: "Staying on that scene and coming back to Patsey over and over, she is abused and deteriorating and wanting to die. We don't need to see that scene over and over again" (qtd. in George 18). I disagree with these interpretations. Making Patsey the focus of the film allows the audience to connect with her and, thus, makes them more sympathetic to slave women's experiences. Although I agree with many black feminist scholars who want more films that genuinely explore black women's experiences, 12 Years a Slave effectively highlights the dismal treatment slave women received.
Another scene that has caused controversy involves Patsey as well. She asks Solomon to kill her because "I got no comfort in this life. If I can't buy mercy from yah, I'll beg it," which Solomon refuses to do. In the original slave narrative, Mistress Epps fails to use bribes to convince Solomon to kill Patsey:
Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit, if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand. (Northup 189)
Noah Berlatsky argues that McQueen and Ridley misread this line, mistakenly attributing it to Patsey; however, when placed in a twenty-first century context where black feminists are voicing their concerns about black women's visibility, this line exemplifies another postmodern intervention, rather than a misinterpretation. It was not uncommon for slaves to commit suicide rather than suffer through slavery. With the 2010 film adaptation of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey as well as the emergence of several organizations and blogs about health issues, black women's mental health is becoming a more visible and public conversation. McQueen, thus, connects these contemporary moments to history by illuminating how slaves used suicide as a way to assert their agency and seize control of their lives. McQueen also imagines Patsey's interiority in a twenty-first century context where that option is allowed – as Li argues, "given the role of David Wilson, Northup's white amanuensis, in the text's production, such a request may have been excised as too disturbing for antebellum white readers," which demonstrates the shifting audiences as well as the limitations placed on the original narrative (Li 330).
Mistress Shaw: Self-Exploiter
The postmodern interventions McQueen make all involve black women. While the sex scene with Solomon and Patsey's suicidal request focuses on black women asserting agency in a slave system that allows for none, Mistress Harriet Shaw's sexuality represents a contradictory portrayal of a black woman slave owner who uses her master's sexual advances as a method for avoiding "the end of a lash." Mistress Shaw is a minor character in the original narrative; she is only described as the black wife of a white plantation owner and has no dialogue. A former slave who marries her white slave master, Mistress Shaw is endowed with a certain amount of control over the plantation. She has Sunday afternoon tea with Patsey on the porch as Solomon runs up to her, telling her that Master Epps wants Patsey to come back. Mistress Epps strongly asserts herself as the master of the plantation when she silently orders a slave to refill her tea cup and calls Solomon “N----- Platt,” emphasizing the distance between her and the slaves. She addresses Solomon in a demeaning manner similar to how Master Epps does, a rhetorical strategy to assert her authority. She tells Solomon to sit down and join them for tea as Solomon explains that Master Epps thinks Master Shaw is "something of a lothario and an unprincipled man." When Solomon calls Master Epps's words, "misguided," Mistress Shaw smiles and says, "No doubt...if not born outta truth itself." This comment shocks Solomon, who is surprised to hear Mistress Shaw refer to her husband in a derogatory fashion.
Mistress Shaw continues to denigrate her husband even after she coyly waves to him as he attends to his horse:
Ha! You worry for me? Got no cause to worry for my sensibilities. I ain't felt the end of a lash in 'mo years than I cain recall. Ain't worked a field, neither. Where one time I served, now I got others servin' me. The cost to my current existence be Massa Shaw broadcasting his affections, 'n me enjoyin' his pantomime of fidelity. If that what keep me from the cotton pickin' n-----s, that what it be. A small and reasonable price to be paid fo' sure.
Mistress Shaw becomes an active participant in her own commodification. Like other representations of former slave women in this project, Mistress Shaw realizes the benefits of being a house slave when she describes how she "ain't worked a field." She discusses her predicament in terms of finances ("the cost to my current existence") as if she is pimping herself out to her husband. Simultaneously, she treats her husband as a piece of entertainment when she enjoys "his pantomime of fidelity," which suggests that this financial exchange is one in which she positions herself as the gazer, rather than the one who is violated by the gaze. The film demonstrates how slaves were on call to entertain their masters during any time of day or night, and Mistress Shaw adapts the language and mannerisms of the planter class. Later, Mistress Shaw advises Patsey to "take comfort" in Master Epps's sexual violations, encouraging her to use the slave system to her advantage, for she may also end up as a plantation mistress rather than a field slave. Although Mistress Shaw enjoys Patsey's company, she demeans her during this exchange since Patsey is not only a field slave, but the most efficient slave on Epps's plantation; Mistress Shaw's relationship to the planter class, as well as her condescending language towards Solomon and Patsey, undermines this scene's attempts to show unity amongst black people.
In light of contemporary debates surrounding sex work, this postmodern intervention imagines that some slave women might have displayed agency by acting as madams who sold themselves in exchange for a less laborious position on the plantation. It also depicts black women as participating in the exploitation of slaves, which contradicts their usual characterization as victims during this time period. Most black feminists disagree with sex work as a form of empowerment and agency for black women. When discussing hip hop's influence on young black women, Sharpley-Whiting argues that "sexual freedom is illusory," especially when considering that the hip hop video vixen stereotype originates from the perception of black women as jezebels during slavery (66). Hopkinson and Moore, however, suggest that "sex workers mobilize their sexualities in the marketplace of desire for their own interests of access, opportunity, mobility, and fame," which claims that sex workers may wield some form of agency and choice (qtd. in Miller-Young). The twenty-first century debates surrounding black female sexuality is something that McQueen might have been attuned to, which may explain why Mistress Shaw's role highlights how black women may have used sex as a form of agency.
When Solomon leaves the plantation, Patsey and Mistress Epps are the last images he sees as Patsey faints and Mistress Epps becomes a blur. These shots represent slavery's continuity even after Solomon is gone, which is a different ending than Django Unchained when Django kills his enemies, burns the plantation, and rides off with Broomhilda who is armed with a rifle, which suggests that her resistance will continue off screen. Patsey's image is blurred as she lets out a heavy groan before she faints as if she just saw a ghost, and another female slave rushes to her. Mistress Epps, however, keeps her attention on Solomon and is not fazed by Patsey's fainting – these are the images of slavery that the audience is supposed to embed in their brains after the film is over, snapshots of women's complex roles during slavery as well as the perception that slavery continues even when the screen fades to black, a point most American films do not grapple with. The shot of Mistress Epps out of focus fades into the road, representing another example of her characterization as a commodity and piece of property.
Lara Lee: "Tonic to Tired Eyes"
Django Unchained opens with Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist who now works as a bounty hunter, purchasing Django Freeman from the Speck Brothers. The two begin an apprentice-expert relationship in which Schultz trains Django as a gunslinger who kills people with bounties on them. After Schultz frees him, Django asks Schultz to help him locate his wife Broomhilda as they were separated when they both tried to escape slavery. They learn that Broomhilda is held captive at the Candyland plantation, owned by Calvin Candie, and Schultz devises a complicated plan in order to free her. Django and Schultz fool Calvin into thinking they are interested in purchasing Mandingo fighters, and Calvin invites him to Candyland where they encounter Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), an old house slave who acts as if he were the true owner of the plantation, and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), Calvin's widowed sister. Schultz pretends as if he is interested in a romantic encounter with Broomhilda, and when she enters his room, Schultz tells her in German that he and Django are there to rescue her. At dinner, Lara and Stephen uncover their charade, and Schultz kills Calvin. Schultz is then murdered by one of Calvin's henchmen. Django then steals a gun and goes on a murdering rampage. Eventually, Django and Broomhilda are reunited. Then Django kills Stephen and all the white people on the plantation.
Lara Lee acts as the mistress of the infamous Candyland where Broomhilda is captured. We are first introduced to the plantation when a wide-angle lens shows the white buildings and yellow cornfields while Django, Schultz, Calvin, and a group of slaves ride down the path leading to it – the song that plays in the background ("Nicaragua" by Jerry Goldsmith) makes it seem as if they are participating in a parade. Lara drinks tea with a gentleman while Cora (Dana Gourrier), her female slave, stands beside them. At this point, we do not see Lara's face, but only see the back of her. The flowers in her hair and the pink dress makes her seem younger than she actually is as if she were a princess at a tea party. She stops drinking her tea and smiles as she sees them riding in, and we now see that Lara is in her forties, older than her initial princess image suggests. This princess image continues to disintegrate as the film progresses.
Though the audience has already seen Lara at her tea party, she is introduced after Calvin dramatically screams, "Where is my beautiful sister?" This scene presents Lara as both a commodity and an owner, demonstrating her precarious position as a plantation mistress. She walks out of the plantation slowly, with Cora behind her, and poses for the audience as if she were in a beauty pageant. Calvin introduces Lara to Schultz as his widowed sister, an "attractive Southern belle." This scene reveals her duality as a sister and lover – her body language with Calvin suggests that their relationship is incestuous. He kisses her frequently and gushes over her good looks while he still wants Shultz to see her as an object of affection, which would solidify their brotherhood bond. Calvin's emphasis on her status as a widow points to the fact that she is on the market as a marraige commodity. Not only does this scene present Lara as a commodity, it also presents her as a slave owner. She is placed on a pedestal until Schultz asks for Broomhilda, which sours Lara's mood and shows that she is not the object of his desires. Her face changes from happy to worried and disappointed: as Ortiz suggests, Lara is "gazing on Broomhilda," which "betrays in succession envy, desire, hate." Lara is the primary slave owner when Calvin is away, and dialogue in this scene suggests that Lara was the one responsible for putting Broomhilda in the hot box.
In addition, Lara is symbolized by a rose that Calvin gives to Dr. Schultz as a symbol of marriage offering, which is also why she is decorated in flowers and not wearing black. Wood discusses the significance of mourning wear, especially when widows entered the public sphere:
Deep mourning ensured that women would remain identifiable as bereaved wives even after many years of husbandless legal independence. This visibility had mixed implications for slaveholding widows. Widow's weeds announced that a woman had no husband to protect her, so mourning may have made her more vulnerable to insult or manipulation at the hands of strangers. At the same time, black clothing silently explained why a widow entered into banks, courthouses, and other places of business where women rarely appeared. Mourning wear also contributed to widows' self-representation as ladies. (36)
Lara is clearly not in mourning gear – quite the opposite as her gown is cheerful and festive, which suggests a rejection of the societal responsibilities placed on widows. We can read this as a postmodern construction of widowhood – the twenty-first century widow does not wear black and is instead back on the market, flowers in tow, in search of a new husband.
Lara's job as a plantation mistress is to keep the female slaves in line and ensure that the domestic sphere is tidy. As such, Calvin tasks her with cleaning up Broomhilda after removing her from the hot box, so she can meet Schultz. Lara acts as a madam when she escorts Broomhilda up to Schultz's room, so she can fulfill her duties as a comfort slave girl. When Schultz opens the door, we see a single frame of Lara, which makes it seem as if she came up to his room alone. This is another red herring – Lara is set up as the object of affection as if she were the one on the pedestal when it is Broomhilda who Schultz appears to be after. This scene also demonstrates Lara's active participation in slavery and a type of prostitution. Broomhilda did not have a choice and was forced to enter Dr. Schultz's bedroom, her worried face showing that she was not comfortable with this transaction. Lara is content with pimping slave women out to white men, which challenges the idea that white women were innocent, inactive participants in slavery. Lara's objection to Calvin and Stephen showcasing Broomhilda's whip lashes on her back during dinner shows how much she cares about the appearance of the domestic space. Lara, by extension, looks bad if Broomhilda does, as if she cannot keep her slaves in line, which unveils the fact that Lara's objection is more about her selfish need to keep up with appearances than stopping Broomhilda's humiliation as the upkeep of clothing is constructed as a feminine task (46).
Although scholars credit Stephen for outing Django and Broomhilda, it is actually Lara who first alerts the dinner table that these two have chemistry. After flashing an envious eye at Broomhilda, who Schultz pretends to be smitten with, she mentions that Broomhilda "has eyes for Django," which makes Stephen question their motives. This innocent comment is the catalyst for the rest of the film as the charade is now uncovered, which leads to her brother's death, and further aligns Lara with the villains. Before Calvin confronts Schultz and Django, he tells Lara to speak with a slaver outside who is interested in buying female slaves since Lara knows more about slave women than he does. This interaction illustrates Lara's active involvement in the purchasing of slaves as well as highlights her mastery as a slave owner. Both points deconstruct the characterization of white plantation mistresses as naïve and delicate as Lara is just as guilty as her brother in furthering the slave economy. It also discloses her mastery of bartering with slavers. When Django is captured after unsuccessfully attempting to rebel, Lara sells him to the mining company, which is reminiscent of how plantation mistresses handled slaves when their husbands died and represents another example of how she barters with slavers.
Although Lara's death has caused controversy amongst scholars, as some do not feel she deserved to die, it is quite clear why Django kills her since she participates in the exploitation and dehumanization of slaves throughout the film. Jarrod Dunham is surprised by Lara's murder, rationalizing that Django
quite literally shoots every White person he encounters, including Miss Lara, the relatively sympathetic sister of Candie, whose principal role in the film has been to insist on the indecency of displaying Hildi's lash scars for the dinner guests. It would seem that Django is violently enacting an absolutist rebellion against slavery, taking vengeance against every White representative of the institution he encounters. However, while the pretense of radical justice remains intact, Django's flippant murder of Miss Lara, whose complicity in the slave economy is not obviously greater than that of Schultz, his late owner and master, suggests there is something indiscriminate in his violence—or, rather, that he is discriminating on the basis of race, and not guilt.
I would argue the opposite – Lara is implicated in furthering the slave economy – she acts as a madam when she escorts Broomhilda to Schultz's room as well as negotiates with slavers. When considering these acts, Lara's murder is justified, as she is an active participant in keeping slave culture afloat.
In the midst of Django's brutal and bloody revenge, he murders Lara with a single shot to the abdomen, and she flies out of the scene in a cartoonish, fantastical manner, which is different than the serious way other white people are murdered. For Michael Ralph, Tarantino is forced to construct Lara's murder in this fashion, calling it "a cinematic technique to lessen, for the audience, the moral weight of having a menacing black man kill a delicate white woman" (410). I disagree with Ralph's analysis, as the film challenges the construction of Lara as "delicate," and purports that her death is justified.
Another aspect of the film that complicates this scholar's analysis is Django's killing of a white woman earlier in the film. He murders a female slaver, played by Zoe Bell, who views images through her stereoscope and works for Stonesipher (David Steen) as a slave tracker. When discussing acts of seeing in the film, William Brown observes how "spectacle (bodies as attractions that one looks at in a supposedly detached manner) is key to capitalism and slavery," implicating the female slaver for her consumption of slavery imagery for both pleasure and research, which to Django is a form of guilt, hence why he unapologetically murders her along with her seven coworkers. I argue that the film attempts to disrupt the plantation mistress on a pedestal trope by killing both Lara and the unnamed white woman slaver. Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave incriminate white women for their role in slavery, something that most American slave movies refuse to do. Postmodernity allows for these interventions since white plantation mistresses are characterized as commodities who commodify slaves. Thus, white womanhood is deconstructed, providing infinite possibilities for constructions of white women characters.
Rescuing Broomhilda: Women as Commodities
The purpose of my literary analysis is to highlight the women characters in Django Unchained and analyze their construction as commodities in the slave economy. Broomhilda, the primary female character and damsel in distress, is treated as an object by other characters, even by her own husband, Django, whose mission is to rescue her from the evil Candyland plantation. When Django is on his horse riding to Candyland, he sees an image of Broomhilda smiling and laughing in the cornfields. The yellow dress she wears blends into the tall corn stalks we see throughout the film, demonstrating that she is a crop, a commodity. This construction of women is common in both films as Lara is likened to a flower and Mistress Epps is juxtaposed against a white corn husk doll that Patsey creates. Osumare parallels Broomhilda's dress with Oshun the Yoruba goddess, who is also depicted as wearing a yellow, flowing dress, to champion Tarantino for invoking "another parallel with African undertones through the meaning of Hildy's character" (83). This point enhances my analysis by demonstrating how Broomhilda is a royal commodity in Django's eyes as the status of Africans in Africa (or amongst themselves) had little influence on whether or not they were enslaved. This fact also elevates the perception that Broomhilda is different from other slaves, which is why she is worthy of rescuing in the first place.
Conversely, Broomhilda is constructed as damaged goods by Calvin, who insists that she is not worth more than $300 due to being an escape risk and her battered back. Though the entire film focuses on Django's retribution, Broomhilda's resistance takes place off screen – she is initially separated from Django because of her attempts to escape and is later thrown naked in the hot box on the orders of Lara and Stephen for attempting to run away from Candyland – which stifles her character as she never transcends her objectification. Women slaves commonly rebelled against their masters and tried to escape, a point highlighted by Angela Davis and Deborah McDowell, but this is not the point of Django Unchained, as the film is more concerned with fraternal bonds and exploring the male hero figure in a spaghetti western/antebellum slavery context.
Though a black woman being constructed as an object is not surprising, Broomhilda as a damsel in distress is revolutionary. Black women are usually not characterized as worthy of support and rescuing. I would like to extend Halifu Osumare's analysis of Broomhilda as a damsel to suggest that she is occupying a space that black women are usually not allowed to enter. The damsel in distress is a common American cultural trope that focuses on the rescuing of vulnerable white women, from films such as King Kong to the Missing White Woman Syndrome, which is different from how kidnapped black women are constructed. As Sojourner Truth reminds us in her famous "Ain't I a Woman" speech, black women were treated as workhorses who labored alongside black men and did not have the same feminist narrative trajectory as white women who were fighting for the right to work and exit the domestic sphere. While Zora Neale Hurston reminds us of the parallel between black women and mules, bell hooks describes the fact that "black women fantasize about not working" and "dream of being able to stop working for a time if there is a man to watch their back," which demonstrates that some black women, even black feminist scholars who are concerned with gender equality, are receptive of being a damsel in distress because they are usually not portrayed this way. While many scholars, such as Dana Weber and Robert von Dassanowsky, have drawn a connection between the Brunhilde German tale and discussed the damsel in distress trope, most have not considered how being a black woman complicates Broomhilda's characterization as a damsel, especially in a slavery context where black women were blamed for their subjugation. As Houston Baker explains, "In slave law black women are seductresses, deemed so lascivious by nature and so passionate in lust for carnality that they are always dangerously willing to give themselves to lust. They are thus legally incapable of being 'raped'" (33). Because slave women are considered property, their subjectivity and citizenship are flattened, which makes them the opposite of damsels.
Broomhilda as a damsel in distress is complicated, however, by her characterization as an atypical black woman. Django emphasizes that Broomhilda is different from other slaves because she speaks German and is attractive enough to serve as a comfort slave. Despite a large body of research that suggests that slaves' reliance on community as a form of resistance and support was a crucial element of slavery, Django and Broomhilda do not show any communal bonds with their fellow slaves. In some instances, Django is even antagonistic or condescending towards them. Django does "next to nothing to free the rest of the slaves," which emphasizes his disconnect from the rest of the slave community (Dunham 402). Perhaps one reason Broomhilda is allowed the characterization of damsel results from the fact that she is different from other slave women, hence why she is worth saving.
Ishmael Reed dismisses Broomhilda as "the usual sexual toy role assigned to minority actresses by Hollywood," speaking to the stereotype of black women as Jezebels (Reed 51). While his assessment is accurate, especially when we consider Kerry Washington's role as Olivia Pope on Scandal, it is important to place Broomhilda in a slavery context where black women were treated as sex objects and raped by their masters. This illuminates Lara's role as a madam who pimps Broomhilda out to Schultz as Lara advances the exploitive transaction between white male slave owners and black women slaves.
12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained depart from the traditional Hollywood narrative by depicting the plantation mistresses as complicit in slave ownership and challenging their characterization as innocent and naive. The women characters understand the dynamics of slavery and seek to increase their positioning within the plantation hierarchy. This article also provides new language for discussing representations of black women in American slavery based on their innovative characterizations in these texts. Black women were usually not characterized as slave owners, colonizers, and damsels in distress. Now filmmakers are drawing on these cultural tropes in ways that challenge the traditional conceptions of them. The goal of this article is not to diminish the real discrimination that black women face, but to analyze how postmodernity allows for more complex representations of black women. Postmodern conceptions of identity as fluid and pluralistic make it possible for artists to portray black women in a multiplicity of ways.
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