Thinking Django Unchained through Nat Turner’s “Confessions”

A few weeks back, the spectacular Jacobin published this pretty great little critique of Django Unchained, not taking the usual direction of asking questions about whether or not the movie is racist, but instead calling it out for failing to treat Django’s violence as potentially revolutionary. The gist is in the final paragraph:

“There’s nothing remotely Fanonist about any of the film’s violence. No suggestion of solidarity or collective action. Nope, just one nigger in ten thousand.”

In other words, Django’s violence remains isolated, a matter of personal revenge, as there’s no mechanism in the film by which it could be connected to the possibility of larger class-based action directed against slavery or the slavers. Fair enough. Although to a certain extent this critique is grounded in an idea that Django Unchained should first be read straightforwardly as a historical piece, whereas I think the movie has a somewhat more complex relationship to history than that.

But that aside for now, the Jacobin article suggests looking back to the history of slave revolts, claiming that Django Unchained, in staging its violence as merely the personal vendetta of its ultra-masculine movie hero, elides the actual revolutionary content of historical slave rebellions. I admit, while I was watching Django it occurred to me both how interesting and how improbable a really high quality Hollywood Oscar-bait style historical movie about Nat Turner’s rebellion would be, and I’m still harboring a little pang of regret that Django is probably the closest we will ever get to that—because as that sort of movie, Django is absolutely a disappointment.

I’m not familiar at all with the rhetoric surrounding the Hatian revolution, which the Jacobin piece cites, but when I went back to read Nat Turner’s confessions it occurred to me that from a historical perspective what Django is really missing is not necessarily a connection to class-based ideas, but to a particularly violent and potentially revolutionary interpretation of messianic Christianity that formed the basis Turner’s revolutionary awakening.

The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia” (1832) is a really fascinating document, representing something of a cross between a brief autobiography and a detailed confession of the violence and murders of Turner’s rebellion, all as recorded by Thomas Gray. Because the whole document was actually written down by Gray, whose motives are clearly to portray Turner as the scariest sort of monster to a white Southern reading public, we can’t be sure the extent to which the document really retains Turner’s own voice. The document’s title page promises in exaggerated text “An account of the whole insurrection, with lists of the whites who were murdered,” and it’s clear this step-by-step story of how and who they killed is supposed to be the focus of the whole thing.

But before the confession gets around to this part of the story, we get the brief and sort of amazing autobiographical story of Turner himself, in which Turner more or less lays claim to being a prophet who has carried out his rebellion under the command of God. The differences between the tone and quality of language in these two sections makes me suspect that the first part is a much closer to Turner’s actual confession—it’s halting and circuitous, much more like speaking a story aloud, than the final half, which adopts a much clearer and more proper grammar as it relates in precise chronology the night of the rebellion. On top of that, the first part presents a lot of rhetorical flourishes that suggest the sort of Old Testament fire we might expect from someone who claims to be a prophet.

Whether or not I’m right to suspect this first part is more authentically Turner, in this section we do get a sense that Gray was perhaps fairly awestruck by Turner, and one of the things that I find so interesting about the document is that it ends up almost in spite of itself putting into public circulation a way that the isolated violence of Turner’s rebellion could be understood as a more total symbol of insurrection. Obviously, this was meant to scare the white South about the possibility of a nationwide insurrection, and I’m not sure how likely the language of this document would have been to have made it to the ears of many slaves, so I don’t think we can really read it as a pamphlet calling for revolution. But Turner’s rhetoric does suggest a way that he at least understood his actions to be warranted not simply by his own desire for revenge, but by a divine command for vengeance against Southern society.

Turner begins by relaying an origin story, in which his mother recalls overhearing him when he was a toddler tell some story about something that had happened before he was born. So she gathers everyone around to bear witness: “others being called on were greatly astonished, knowing that these things had happened, and caused them to say in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth. And my father and mother strengthened me in this my first impression, saying in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast.” He goes on to explain that one day as a young child he suddenly knew how to read, which, no one having taught him, further astonishes his fellow slaves. These things, along with his extreme devotion to prayer, mark him out among other members of his society.

When Turner explains how he came to conceive of and plan his rebellion, what’s striking is that these ideas, as far as he’s concerned, are external ideas that are delivered to him in a series of signs and visions. He never consciously comes to a revolutionary awakening, instead casting himself as something more like a tool for bringing into reality a vengeance whose origin is purely divine.

After a beating by an overseer, Turner escapes briefly and lives in the woods for 30 days, before coming back to his plantation. His fellow slaves are upset upon his return: “And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.” And as if to justify his return, Turner explains that “about this time I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.’”

Following this vision, Turner witnesses a number of miracles, finding in the corn fields morning dew made of blood, and coming across mysterious hieroglyphs composed in the leaves of the forest. In typically Biblical fashion, the signs are later explained to him: “And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me—For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew—and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens, it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.”

We see again as Turner takes the next step of beginning to think these abstract ideas of justice as material goals that he experiences the motivation as an external force: “And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” The agency behind the next step of laying out actual plans with fellow slaves is likewise attributed to divine action: “And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence, (Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam).” And finally, another sign reveals to Turner the exact moment to take action, at which point the narrative takes on the flat form of reenactment, recounting in precise order the events of the night of rebellion.

To the extent that Turner’s “Confessions” could be said to approach or demonstrate any kind of revolutionary awareness, it is only to be found in the way Turner figures himself as a prophet who is shown the violence it will fall on him to make a reality. It’s also notable that there is not really any idea here of freedom as an ultimate goal. Turner’s visions do not suggest he is bringing about the liberation of slaves, but instead is annihilating society (at least, white society) wholesale. The vision is of “white spirits and black spirits” at war, because Christ has “laid down the yoke” he bore for the sins of humanity, as if the forgiveness contingent upon Christ’s sacrifice is being nullified, opening the way for direct conflict between white society and the slaves.

The utopian end of this violence is the time “when the first should be last and the last should be first,” but the purpose of this violence is not to bring about this time; instead it’s like it operates under a sort of reverse causality, where the violence is ordained to happen because that future time of utopian reversal is “fast approaching.” The nearness of this future time justifies and calls for the violence, rather than the violence leading to that end. The aim of both the actual violence Turner enacted and the rhetoric he develops to support it might be directed squarely at the evil of a cruel ruling class, but this is very much not a Marxist (or even Fanonist) materialist revolution. It’s much closer to the idea of revenge, or perhaps better, vengeance as a generic category: vengeance against a twisted societal order that is unsanctioned by an immaterial divine truth, vengeance enacted backwards through time by that divine truth.[1]

Where the sort of critique we find in the Jacobin piece really misses the mark with Django is that Django is a thought which comes out of and is addressed to our present, a present whose inequality and injustice is of a qualitatively different sort than the world of antebellum slavery. A movie that purported to be an account of the actual history of slave rebellions and their violence would have to answer for why it had focused the cause of rebellious slaves’ actions into the isolation of personal revenge for a loved one. But Django is not that sort of a movie, and it doesn’t really claim to be, so the question of just what it is doing in imagining and asking us to enjoy this violence is a very different one.

It seems like Django’s relation to history is something more like that it hijacks our awareness of one of the greatest historical sins of our culture in order to enact a revenge fantasy against its perpetrators in our present thought. This is actually a kind of weird maneuver. There’s a sense in which it’s more like the thinking of vengeance as a generic category we see in Turner’s confessions—that is, it’s not a violent tactic taken in order to bring about a real material goal, but is instead conceived of and justified entirely because of a prescient certainty about the eventual overturning of the situation. And so the question might then be what is that doing in our present.

One thing to realize about the fantasy of a historical Marxist Django whose absence Jacobin laments is that such a movie would actually leave the need for violence and revenge firmly in a historicized past. We would see the ways in which that historical rebellion was brought about, and successful or not, its effects would remain behind us, for us to contemplate and maybe understand, but it would not be not immediately available to us as something necessary in a present not at all defined by slavery. A materialist recipe for a slave rebellion would offer very little for the contemporary movie-going public by means of prescription against the current unsanctioned orders of power. But the thinking of vengeance at the behest of a future when the wrongs of a present will have been turned on their heads, the invitation to a little more outright and unforgiving anger directed against what we know is wrong  about those who wield power in our world (and even the encouragement to enjoy that anger), all of that might be something our present could really make us of.

Of course, there could be problems in thinking about Django this way. In order for this kind of delight in anger and vengeance to be active for us in the present it has to remain somewhat open. It can’t be closed off toward a precisely defined antagonist. This is what differentiates Django  from a historical investigation of slave rebellions, but it also leaves the movie open to the possibility that it just gets channeled into blank and misguided populist anger. One answer to this problem is that Tarantino’s last several films have all been exercises in thinking revenge, and taking them as a group demonstrates a refining of that thought so it becomes more specifically useful as radical anger. I don’t mean to suggest that I think Tarantino is radical.[2] But even so. In the Kill Bill films (and sort of in Death Proof as well), the revenge is directed, from a woman, toward a sort of evil father archetype. In Inglorious Basterds Tarantino took the gamble of linking his revenge thinking with actual historical crimes, but he made the twin mistakes of embodying that revenge in the pseudo anti-establishment figures of the American army’s “Basterds” and of letting the evils of a broader social order coalesce into the single body of Hitler. In Django, interestingly, because we’re aware (and because the movie reminds us rather powerfully) that slavery is a systemic problem that can’t be solved by killing just one person, we can delight in the satisfaction of Django’s revenge, but our desire for more vengeance remains open, even when all the visible villains are vanquished.

In spite of (or really because of) its danger, this thinking of vengeance is potentially disruptive in the contemporary liberal order. In our present, the only sort vengeance that is officially sanctioned is action taken against the marginalized figures of terrorists. Any other anger or desire for vengeance against established powers is denied us, because the liberal order insists at all points that any systemic wrongs are unavoidable facts of reality, which we have to come together benevolently and compromisingly in order to overcome. Django invites us to join it in feeling anger and a desire for absolute vengeance against what we already understand as powerful figures that control the social order of the movie. I’m still not sure it’s totally successful in this, but it seems like it at least leaves itself open to the possibility that it could be successful. And amplifying this possibility for Django Unchained seems to me like a better approach than focusing on its failure to be a different kind of movie.

[1] Notice that Turner’s first prophecy is actually a prophecy about things that already happened; it is just that they happened before a time when  he could have known about him.

[2] The Jacobin piece is really right on in a lot of its criticisms about Tarantino as a whole, especially it’s calling him out for a persistent strain of homophobic violence in his movies. But neither do I think Tarantino’s movies can ever be comfortably classified as reactionary, or even simply as liberal. There’s more going on and it’s worth unpacking to see what that could be.

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