Dancing on Thresholds: Boundaries in Django Unchained

Dancing on Thresholds: Boundaries, Space, and Trauma in Django Unchained

By: Travers Nisbet

Quentin Tarantino’s tour-de-force, Django Unchained, parodies the Spaghetti Western genre to address the complexities of the institution of slavery and the cultural trauma surrounding it. The 2012 film follows the eclectic, German bounty hunter – Doctor King Schultz – and former-slave ­– Django Freeman – as they navigate the tumultuous and morally depraved landscape of the antebellum south in search of Django’s slave wife, Broomhilda. Through the physical and figurative spaces in the film, Django Unchained confronts issues of racial injustice by exposing the massive denial of it, which has assisted in the perpetuation of myths throughout the nation’s history. In many ways, Django Unchained is a film assisted by, and built around, façades: physical, individual, and societal.[1] In this sense, the façades that are built around the characters and spaces in the film serve as a self-rationalizing veil to masquerade the ideals or intentions that these physical and figurative structures uphold. The film exposes the constant tension between conflicting sides, dancing on thresholds: the tension between perceived reality and actual reality, between the past and the present, between the sacred and the profane, all of which are sources of trauma–for the characters in the film and the audience itself. Tarantino too dances on the fringes of filmmaking, taking a controversial topic and approaching it in an unconventional, hyperbolic form. In many ways, this is what allows him to convey a powerful message effectively, and, in doing so, comments on the structures of society. Most prominently, the film is fueled by a collision of myths and the forces that seek to uproot or deconstruct them. The characters and the spaces they inhabit – or fail to inhabit – dramatize this collision. The most prominent perpetuator of myths illustrated through the film is the white revisionist: the racially motivated collective that sought to conveniently re-write history so as to disparage the perspective of the marginalized other. Through using the space – and thus, implicitly the negative space that exists around it – Django illuminates the motivations and intentions of the characters who serve as emblems for the white revisionist model. In many ways, the tendency of the film to reverse conventions or misconstrue binary oppositions suggests a moral disorientation and a collective ignorance to the traumas of slavery; this tendency is rooted in the perpetuation of myths and, ultimately, a lingering societal trauma from the dark corners of the past.

The plantation of Calvin Candie, also known as Candie Land, is a physical embodiment of the white revisionist model that Candie subscribes to and an agent of its preservation. Calvin Candie, the antagonist of the film, is the flamboyant, yet deceptively brutal slave owner who controls Broomhilda, Django’s wife. In many respects, the majority of the film is a pilgrimage to Candie Land. Perceived from the perspective of the white revisionist, Candie Land embodies the “sacred,” as Mircea Eliade defines it; the “sacred space” is “significant” in that it embodies order and “possesses existential value” for he who inhabits it.[2] For Monsieur Candie, the plantation is his city of order, the “Center of the World,” as he understands it.[3] By its very nature, what exists beyond the gates of Candie Land is that of the profane: the unstructured, “formless expanse surrounding it.”[4] The break in homogeneous space enclosing it, illustrated through the gates of Candie Land, “allows the world”– Candie’s white man’s world of revisionism – “to be constituted,” which establishes a standard of judgment for “future orientation.”[5] Candie Land as a sacred space is defined by the negative space that surrounds it; this world’s significance is defined by what it intentionally leaves out. Outside of the gates, the external world is that of the formless or unconscious; it is not part of the ‘reality’ that Candie has constructed. The drawn-out procession to Candie Land, essentially half of the film, underscores the “amorphous” profanities that exist in the darkness beyond, such as setting the dogs on slaves to devour them.[6] The façade of the ‘Big House,’ gleaming with white veneer and reinforced by uniform columns, serves as a physical manifestation of order, in opposition to the “amorphous” darkness that exists beyond the gates of Candie Land. (Stepping outside of the revisionist view, however, the white façade or the ‘white cake’ that the guests are served inside of the ‘Big House,’ suggests a form of whitening out of reality: it calls attention to the desire to revise the history of oppression to one of opulence, ‘success,’ and ‘progress.’) The ‘sacred,’ white man needs a formal, physical structure in order to eternalize the white man’s revisionism and uphold ‘order’ in a society threatened by the chaos that exists outside of it. Having one’s own world is critical to advancing the mythic agenda as it suggests an orientation for reality and existential purpose. If a slave is as an emblem of white revisionism – a physical manifestation of racial disparity – then Django, a former slave, embodies that of the profane, a threat to the reality or the existentialism of the sacred. As Eliade contends, “any attack from without threatens to turn [the sacred cosmos] into chaos.” [7],[8] Candie an “innocent victim,” ignorant to Django’s intentions, views this breach of threshold merely as an act of business.[9] Stephen, on the other hand, at the sight of imminent threat begins to question – without greeting his master – the possibility of Django’s breach: the ‘profane’ entering the space misperceived as a sacred figure. The breach of a threshold alludes to the notion that Candie is under a veil of massive denial to the traumas that exist around him; Django, in this sense, could serve as the spark or trigger for a return to the origin of the traumas of slavery. He is the personification of the “unknown.” As Cathy Caruth affirms in Unclaimed Experience, when “the outside” – or that of the profane – “has gone inside” – to the sacred space – “without any mediation,” trauma can repeated.[10]

The psyche of Calvin Candie functions as an emblematic sacred space for the revisionist figure. In understanding the complexities of the characters and their relation to space, it is important to view Candie and his enigmatic house slave, Stephen, as a single entity. Thus, to understand the space of Candie’s psyche, it is critical to see the relationship that Stephen plays in forming the psychic space. Freud suggests the desire to dream is bound to the “desire of consciousness as such not to wake up.”[11] Candie, a child-like character who views life as a spectacle, thirsts to live in the dream so as not to be conscious to the fact that his ‘sacred world’ of white revisionism could be threatened. (Ironically, as Schultz mentions to Candie at the dinner table, “business never sleeps;” making a profit and continuing to build his empire serves as Candie’s façade to conceal his unconsciousness. Financial success suspends him in a waking sleep.) In this sense, Stephen, who writes Candie’s checks and calls attention to important matters, embodies that of the conscious mind, relatively speaking. The denial that Stephen and Candie exhibit illustrates that both of them are in fact asleep to the true realities of slavery. In one form or another, Stephen serves as the ‘axis mundi’ for Candie, the “central pillar” that grounds and orients Candie.[12] The bisected psyche of the Candie/Stephen entity is most prominently illustrated in a section of the dinner scene, when Stephen warns Candie of Schultz and Django’s intentions for recovering the captive Broomhilda. The two sides of the entity – one of the conscious, the other of the unconscious – sit together in a library, a physical manifestation of the entity’s psychic space. As this shot underscores, Stephen is not a servant to Candie but an associate, a critical portion of what the entity embodies and a manipulative force in shaping its identity. Illustrated through a two-shot with interlaced over-the-shoulder shots, the two sit at equal levels with a fire burning between them, alluding to the “fire altar” that Eliade notes as evidence of a “communication with the gods,”[13] perhaps those of mythic revisionism. Stephen ‘awakens’ Candie, to an extent, from allowing business interests to supersede the advancement of their ultimate cause: the conservation of the white mythic model. As Freud suggests, however, it is not the quantity of stimulus but the timing of the stimulus, “the fact that the threat is recognized as such by the mind one moment too late,” that can be disabling.[14] Thus, the real trauma for Candie and Stephen, is, perhaps, that their awareness or awakening to this threat and to their denial, apparently seems to be too late: “the outside has gone inside without any mediation.”[15] Up until this point, Candie was living in the unconscious – allowing his business interests to supersede his role as a revisionist – until Stephen calls attention to the presence of an unmediated spark that would threaten their blissful denial to the trauma: a freed slave, seen at a nearly equal level as those around him, seeking to disrupt the ‘order’ and values that the white man has built over centuries. Django is an emblem of the inability to deny the traumas of slavery, and Candie does not wish to wake up to this reality – and, perhaps, never does.

(Candie’s death further exemplifies the notion of the Candie/Stephen entity, grounded through an axis mundi. Candie’s death is a drawn out affair, a falling of a God in some respects. As he collapses, he swipes the globe that symbolically stands in his library as a reminder of the “cosmos” he has built. With his death comes the elimination of relativity; the world that he has constructed begins to be consumed by chaos. The axis mundi that has provided this world with a framework for its identity and purpose has lost its orientation. It is important to note, however, that this world does not collapse, but rather is temporarily disoriented or impaired. Time is distorted as the beholder of this space falls (as illustrated through the extreme slow-motion shot). Without a central axis, the world is left without a standard; without relativity, it begins to collapse. In the pursuing scene, after Candie falls, the profane, which has been lurking in the shadows of Candie Land, invades the space: a full shootout unfolds.)

In Candie Land, every act constitutes a ritualistic process driven by decadence and ornament, each as a materialization of white dominance. As Eliade describes, “the house is sanctified by a cosmological symbolism or ritual,”[16] which expresses a “religious nostalgia” for the purity and order as it was in the “beginning.”[17] In this regard, the sanctification could be viewed as nostalgia for a time before the trauma existed when white privilege was not threatened. The film’s form calls attention to the ritualistic nature of the scene by devoting ample time to the preparation of the table. The setting of the table before the dinner scene emphasizes the ritualistic nature of the dinner space: the house servants move methodically, each move choreographed and in accordance with the other. The candles are meticulously lit in order to indicate the sanctification of the sacred space for ritual. Ritual is crucial to the establishment of sacred space as “it is the universe that man constructs for himself by imitating the paradigmatic creation of the gods.”[18] The dining room is Candie Land’s chapel, with Calvin Candie himself as the preacher, and the white revisionist model as its Bible. On the altar behind him, a white, statue reminiscent of the Greek Olympic wrestling serves as his altar’s centerpiece, his divine cross. Inside this sacred space, wrestling is an act of beauty: the games of the ordered society expressing the strength and power that has fueled the white advancement and dominance for generations. The seemingly identical act of Mandingo Fighting, performed outside of this space by ‘savage’ slaves, is instead viewed as entertainment; it is in the sphere of the profane. As the deal to acquire one of Candie’s best Mandingo fighters represents, this form of fighting is simply a subsidiary to capitalist ideology: entertainment as business. At a central point in the film–an axis mundi providing orientation for the rest of the film–Candie delivers an in-depth sermon on the inferiority of the black man, rooted, from his perspective, in the factual realities of science. Using the skull as a space for intellectual value, Candie preaches that based on the “science of phrenology,” the black man is biologically “submissive,” and thus, mentally incapable of challenging the white man’s revisionist model. Through this story of ‘Old Ben,’ Candie seeks to formulate and promulgate a pattern of myth being understood as biological fact. In doing so, the threshold of myth and fact becomes permeable, the hermeneutic agenda seeps into the realm of history, or what is understood as fact.[19] In this sense, the profanities that the revisionist model seeks to advance are veiled in a façade of the sacred, shrouded behind the whitewashed veneer of the ‘Big House.’

In the final episode of the film, Django returns to Candie Land, revisits an origin, so as to begin to re-write the myths of history and fulfill his act of revenge. As Mircea Eliade underscores “any destruction of a city is equivalent to a retrogression to chaos.”[20] As the Candie ‘family’ returns from Calvin’s funeral, Django, lurking in the dark corners of the house, begins an onslaught of the remaining white figures, which includes Stephen. Incapacitated after being shot in the knee,[21] Stephen screams that “you can’t destroy Candie Land; we’ve been here and will always be in Candie Land!” To Stephen, the structures, the external façade of Candie Land can perish just like Monsieur Candie himself, yet the internal values, the myths that they have perpetuated, will never cease to exist. Through this symbolic inferno – a holocaust seeking to blaze the myths and profanity that live within the space – Django, eagerly watching on the property’s border, hopes to eradicate the injustices that held him and his wife captive. Nonetheless, as Eliade argues, the threshold of Candie Land that represents the boundary of the sacred and the profane is also the “paradoxical place where those worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred world becomes possible.”[22] In this regard, as Django stands on the property’s fringes, watching the structures of Candie Land collapse, he is enabling–or has the ability to enable–a dialogue between the profane and the sacred as well as between the past, present, and future. However, as Stephen argues, Candie Land will always survive, even if the space itself is destroyed. The remnants will continue to exist in society. Even if the “structures have vanished” – whether they be the physical, ‘sacred’ structures of Candie Land or the structural institution of slavery itself – “the values” attached to these structure “persist, in cheerful defiance of contrary evidence.”[23] According to Limerick, the “innocent victim” is the most powerful figure in advancing the misconstrued values laced in myth. The “innocent victim,” Calvin Candie, embodies the collective entity that will continue to advance the myths of white revisionism. The destruction of a space, thus, does not constitute the eradication of what the space embodies. In destroying one space considered to be sacred, Django fails to construct an alternative space: a new sacred space that replaces the prior profanities. He simply leaves with his prize, dancing lightheartedly into the distance. In one form or another, instead of seizing the opportunity to be a pioneer for altering the conventions of the sacred and profane, he regresses to Candie’s immaturity, treating life as entertainment. In Susan Sontag’s words on “Camp,” Django leaves the film valuing “style at the expense of content.”[24] Ultimately, the film’s conclusion reflects a societal trauma, an inability to eradicate the temporal conflict: the myths of the past resisting advancement and disrupting the present. Issues of race will continually seek to invade the present, and society as a whole will continue to live in the unconscious present, in the dream-like world upheld by facades that give an illusory understanding of reality.

Understanding Django Unchained through a binary perspective, such as the opposition of sacred and profane, assists in demystifying the complex motives that drive social injustice. As Eliade’s assessment of space reveals, the world is constructed on relativity: objects, characters, and spaces gain their shape in relationship to the other. This implies, however, that there must be a standard of judgment, an origin, which assists in providing meaning to the seemingly ambiguous. Nonetheless, in doing so, we put ourselves at risk in understanding life through the reductionist squint: categorizing everything to what is, and, thus, what is not. By constructing a world forged through opposing spheres, we limit our perspective. While relativity and opposition help provide a framework for conceptual understanding, subscribing to this perspective excessively is a threat to the advancement of society. It offers a dangerous, yet enticing, view of the world in binary terms: defining what something is by examining what it is not, “all other space.”[25] If we allow the boundaries, the thresholds of our society–our perceived ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ spaces–to be too rigid, then we are unable to truly consider the meaning and understanding of reality. It limits our ability to deconstruct mythological theories. As Eliade rightfully contends, the threshold must be, paradoxically, the venue for communication between the sacred and the profane.[26] An honest dialogue between what is in a space and what is not in the space is critical for constructing a reality, a world that avoids false assumptions and ultimately the perpetuation of myths that limit the capacity of culture.


Works Cited:

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Print.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane; the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. Print.

Limerick, Patricia N. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on “Camp”” The Best American Essays of the Century. By Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. N. pag. Print.

Tarantino, Quentin. “”An Unfathomable Place”: A Conversation with Quentin Tarantino.” Interview by Henry Louis Gates. Transition 2013: 47-66. Print.

–––. Django Unchained. Digital. 2012. The Weinstein Company, 2013. Film.

[1] As Tarantino notes in his interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr., the construction of an individual façade is clearly evident with Schultz’s character throughout the film. In order to pursue his conquest, he had to erect a façade “in dealing with this inhuman depravity that he’s witnessing,” which is challenged towards the end of the film.

[2] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1959), 20-22.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ibid., 49. It is interesting to note that the continual flashbacks throughout the film to the dog scene in some respect illustrate a ‘formlessness’ of the medium of film itself; the flashbacks serve as the chaos that clutters and complicates the temporal order of the narrative of film. In a sense, they provoke the audience to slip into a “formless state of fluidity.”

[7] Ibid., 48. Schultz claims that the name “Broomhilda,”–Django’s enslaved wife–comes from the German legend of a fire-breathing dragon guarding the captive victim (Broomhilda) in a circle of hellfire. An attack on the sacred world, is “equivalent to an act of revenge by mythical dragon” and the attempt to annihilate the sacred space or “retrogression to chaos.”

[8] Ibid., 47.

[9] Patricia N. Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York, NY: Norton, 1987).

[10] Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) 59.

[11] Ibid., 97.

[12] Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 53.

[13] Ibid., 30.

[14] Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 62.

[15] Ibid., 59.

[16] Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 56.

[17] Ibid., 65.

[18] Ibid., 56-57.

[19] Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest, 35. There is an inherent irony in the use of the word ‘history’ here. As Limerick notes in The Legacy of Conquest, history belonged to “the keepers of written records,” as opposed to anthropology, which was affiliated with “teller of tales.” The divergence of these two represented the difference between those that were literate and those that were not. For the white Americans in the West, “humans live[d] in a world in which mental reality [did] not submit to narrow tests of accuracy.” The ‘Old Ben’ story is an example of this form of ‘tale-telling’ perceived as history.

[20] Ibid., 48.

[21] Stephen’s appearance of being disabled throughout the film is another façade, another veil which Django seeks to dismantle.

[22] Ibid., 25.

[23] Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest, 35.

[24] Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” in The Best American Essays of the Century by Joyce Oates and Robert Atwan (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 200) 290.

[25] Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 20.

[26] Film, among other mediums, serves as a powerful venue for allowing a dialogue between opposing forces, such as the past and the present. Paradoxically, as the Western genre shows, they also can be instruments to further reinforce these thresholds: limiting a dialogue between oppositions while perpetuating myths.