Django Unchained: Mandingo Fighting and Phrenology


The first full-length post on Django Unchained, my choice as Best Picture of 2012 was my first guest post and first translated post. However, owing to the accolades I gave it, and the wait, it was time to post my own thoughts on the film. This is the last of four posts. The first can be found here, the second part can be found here and the third here.

Mandingo Fighting and Phrenology

Here’s another section where some may have missed the forest for the trees. When we go to Candieland, perhaps the most deliciously hilarious and ironic name for a plantation to American audiences for its allusion to a board game where almost everything is wonderful, and, well, candy; we are introduced, directly and indirectly to two concepts: the first is Mandingo fighting.

Now, here’s a piece that covers the niggling question of “Is Mandingo fighting even a thing?” To be completely honest, I hadn’t read any piece on it until now, because to an extent it didn’t matter, and I’ll explain why shortly.

Next, there’s John Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) “scientific” assertions of why blacks are inherently subservient. The speech, his illustration of the ridges on the inside of the skull and the smashing of said skull are ultimately what won Leonardo DiCaprio his second BAM Award for Best Supporting actor; it’s a moment as captivating as it is chilling.

Django Unchained (AP/The Weinstein Co.)

Now, getting back to the matter of truth, I will draw a parallel to Argo. Right after Argo won its anticipated Best Picture some select Canadians decided to go into a tizzy about the historical inaccuracies of the film. Apparently, they needed to be reintroduced to what movies are and the fact that just because they purport to be based on historical events does not mean they are under any sort of oath to be factual.

Coming back to Django, it does not purport to be based on historical events. Quite to the contrary it is consciously telling an alternate history. So, how come when we as the film nerds hear of gripes about a historical thriller we rationally say “Well, it’s not a documentary and doesn’t have to report the facts” yet, invention in a work of fiction can bother us? I ask this question hypothetically just to point it out. I don’t think too many people were upset by either of these elements in the film, but why should a film that’s not beholden to as many facts as one “based on a true story” not invent things?

Mandingo fighting as an element in the film is not only an ode to blaxploitation film of the 1970s, but it’s also an allegorical representation of how the slave states were in essence cannibalizing the African populous and profiting off their bloodshed. As King Schultz would say it was “another flesh for cash trade.” If nothing else in the film, things that actually happened like slaves being branded and whipped, people being lynched or the Klan burning crosses and terrorizing the ignorant, then this would; and it did me.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Co.)

As for the Candie theory on black subservience, considering that the pseudoscience of phrenology purported that the characteristics of the skull indicated ones faculties or mental traits, this is not that outlandish to put into a racist character’s mouth. What’s outlandish in this day and age is anyone giving any credence to phrenology. However, even if phrenology charts never went so far as to say indicate “African subservience” there was a generally unfounded and accepted belief that these were inferior, in fact, inhuman beings and these were the most dramatic rendition that Tarantino found to illustrate those points, and he drove them home so hard it should shame anyone.

Whether there is any basis in fact for these constructs is virtually irrelevant. For as Hitchcock said “…in my fantasies, plausibility is not allowed to rear its ugly head.” Any of Hitchcock’s edicts needed to be ciphered a bit. I think he meant he didn’t lose sleep if something seemed plausible, I think he did worry about if it made the story better and if it made sense, and I think these touches by Tarantino definitely do.