We professors of African-American studies sometimes get these distinctions blurred, however, when it comes to feature films about historical characters and events. While I don’t get my black-history lessons from Hollywood, many people do (although they should not). And that unfortunate fact tends to make many of us quite concerned with matters of “historical accuracy,” especially because the opportunities for black filmmakers to make well-funded and widely distributed films have historically been severely circumscribed, and continue to be, and the number of films on black subjects made by any filmmakers remains inexcusably low.
Still, subjecting a film about the black experience, such as Spike Lee’s canonical Malcolm X or one of my favorite films, Miracle at St. Anna, to higher standards of historical accuracy than, say, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, would simply be wrongheaded, given the nature of the genre of feature filmmaking.
So, with these necessary caveats, let’s look at Django through an historical lens. Three things about the film fascinated me, as a scholar of the slave narratives. The first was its claims about slaves and their access to horses; the second, the use of bloodhounds not merely to track slaves, but to devour them; and third, sadistic rituals of wrestling to the death, which Tarantino calls “Mandingo fighting.”
They Rode Horses, Didn’t They?
The short answer is yes, of course, slaves rode horses, and some famously so. Several times during the film, either Django or Stephen or some white racist purports to be shocked to see a black man riding a horse. Django says, “They ain’t never seen a nigger on no horse,” while the Ultimate House Servant Stephen (played brilliantly and flawlessly by Samuel L. Jackson) wonders incredulously, “Who dat nigger on a horse?” And a few times a white character, outraged, demands, “What’s that nigger doing on that nag?” as if seeing a black man on a horse was a bit like seeing a pig fly.
The truth, though, is that this contrast between slaves on foot — and often barefoot — versus a free man riding a horse-drawn carriage was a narrative device that Frederick Douglass himself used as one of the key binary oppositions to demonstrate the distinctions between a slave and her or his master. In the first chapter of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845; pdf), Douglass says that he only saw his mother “four or five times,” and only at night, because she was a slave for a Mr. Stewart, who lived about 12 miles away. But most importantly, he stresses that his mother was relegated to “travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand …”
By contrast, his master — whom he suspects to be his father — seems to have had something of a horse fetish, his “riding equipage” consisting of “three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style.” And “in nothing,” Douglass stresses, was his master “more particular than in the management of his horses.” Nevertheless, the care and feeding of the horses, including, presumably, their exercise, was the responsibility of “old Barney and young Barney,” two slaves, father and son. And of course, the Barneys would have ridden the horses, just like countless other attendants to their masters’ horses would have. So, the care, feeding and exercising of horses was part and parcel of plantation life.