Richard Alleva, film critic for Commonweal and frequent contributor to Image, generalizes in his article “Raw Spaghetti ‘Django Unchained’” that “[v]iewers who enjoy Tarantino movies always accept a lot of nonsense in order to enjoy zingy patter, artful compositions, hypertense situations, and good acting." While that may be true for some, viewers who also enjoy his typically strong female characters were no doubt disappointed by this film. In addition to the weak character of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django Unchained is not historically accurate. Scott Reynolds Nelson, Legum Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, in the article “‘Django’ Untangled: the Legend of the Bad Black Man” in The Chronicle of Higher Education verifies that “[t]here was no such thing as the ‘Mandingo fighting’...dynamite wasn't invented until after the Civil War; and saloons with swinging doors were a creation of postwar Western towns...As in most of Tarantino's films, counting the anachronisms on every frame will make your head explode.” Nelson further states that the movie was borrowed “from three blaxploitation films of the 1970s, The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and its sequels, The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (1975)." While many agree that Django Unchained is a derivative fictional western rather than a historical narrative, the focus of this article is on how Broomhilda, Django’s wife, functions as a mere plot device for Django (Jamie Foxx) to show his love and power.
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) narrates the story of Broomhilda to Django, after killing the Brittle brothers when they are discussing what to do next. Django plans to “[f]ind [his] wife, and buy her freedom” (Tarantino). In terms of her narrative history in the film, Broomhilda was raised by the German slave owners, the Von Shafts. She was a house slave because of her beauty - only separated from Django some three months before when both she and Django ran away from the Carrucan plantation. Her cheek was branded with an “r” for runaway and both were sold separately at the Greenville auction in Mississippi.
Schultz explains the German legend of Broomhilda to Django. She was a princess who disobeys her father, Wotan, “the god of all gods.” He punishes her by putting her on top of a mountain with a fire-breathing dragon as her guard. Hellfire surrounds the mountain. She “shall remain [imprisoned on top of a mountain] unless a hero arises brave enough to save her...Siegfried…scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays a dragon, because he’s not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire, because Broomhilda is worth it” (Tarantino). Schultz decides to help Django find and rescue Broomhilda because “[w]hen a German meets a real life Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal." Schultz states, "As a German I am obliged to help you on your quest to rescue your beloved Broomhilda” (Tarantino).
However, the Brunhilde of the actual legend is very different from the film version of Broomhilda. In the legend, as described in the Encyclopedia Mythica entry written by Dr. Anthony E. Smart, "Brunhilde is a mighty female warrior, one of the Valkyries, and a heroine from the German epics, especially in the Nibelungensaga, in which she is an Icelandic princess. She defied Odin [the father of the gods] and in punishment he imprisoned her within a ring of fire on earth, decreeing that there she would remain until a brave hero rescued her. Siegfied braved the fire, broke her charmed sleep, and fell in love with her...Eventually she kills herself when she learns that [he] had betrayed her with another woman (Gudrun), not knowing he had been bewitched into doing so by Grimhild."
Micha F. Lindemans, founder, contributor, and the chief editor of Encyclopedia Mythica, defines the Valkyries ("Choosers of the Slain") as “beautiful young women, mounted upon winged horses and armed with helmets and spears…[who] scout the battlefields to choose the bravest of those who have been slain. They escort these heroes, called the Einherjar to Valhalla, Odin's hall." This legend can be elaborated further. Gudrun’s brother, Gunnar, wanted Brunhilde for himself and persuaded Siegfried to help him. Later, when Brunhilde realized that she had been tricked, she made arrangements to murder Siegfried. After his death, overcome by grief, she committed suicide by burning herself at his funeral pyre, like a sati, joining him in death. In the Nibelungenlied, the story was slightly different. Brunhilde declared that the man she would marry must be able to out-perform her in feats of strength and courage. Another version of the story is that Siegfried (also called Sigurd), disguised as Gunther (or Gunnar), passed the test, and won Brunhilde for Gunther. On discovering his deception, she arranges for Siegfried to be killed.
Consequently, in both the legends, Brunhilde and Siegfried do not live happily ever after. In fact, he dies a painful death that she engineers and orders. Not only is she clever, resourceful, and beautiful, but she is also willful and not afraid of her father or authority. Broomhild in the film is completely the opposite. Apart from her beauty that Schultz praises when he sees her, there is nothing in her that even remotely resembles her ancient namesake.
So, why was a brave and fearless princess reduced to a victim? In an interview with Taylor Hackford, Quentin Tarantino said that he and Christoph Waltz had planned to watch an LA production of Wagner's Ring Cycle, but Tarantino missed the first opera (“Das Rheingold”). Later, Waltz narrated the story of the first opera at dinner. As Anne Thomson explains, Tarantino had seen “Fritz Lang ‘Die Niebelungen’” and “was fairly familiar with the legend, but there was nothing like Christoph telling you the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde, he was born to do that, he was terrific, there's no way the opera will be as good.” While watching the second opera, Thomson relates, Tarantino saw the parallels: "She’s already named Broomhilda, a coincidence...The daughter of Wotan is the daughter of all the gods, that's Bruce Dern, the mountain is Candyland, Candie is the dragon, the circle of hellfire around her and Django is Siegfried. It would be wonderful to see Christoph telling the story. I like bringing a fairytale aspect to the story anyway."
So, in Schultz’s version, Broomhilda and Siegfried live happily ever after, which is what Django and Broomhilda presumably do after the end of the movie. Django corresponds to Siegfried while Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his overseer, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), correspond to the dragon. The mountain surrounded by hellfire can be seen as Candyland, the fourth biggest cotton plantation in Mississippi. The hellfire is represented in the explosiosn at the end of the movie when Django blows up the invincible Candyland. Although dynamite was not invented until 1863 and patented in 1867 - as stated earlier - the anachronism becomes important. A western without blowing up people and places does not ring true, and this movie is no different. Django saves the damsel in distress. and they live a blissful life together, although after a lot of bloodshed and corpses, sixty-four according to an infographic by Alexadra Beggs in Vanity Fair.
Tarentino typicaaly writes powerful female characters, so it is strange that Broomhilda is beaten, branded, raped (off screen), humiliated, and tortured, but she neither retaliates nor kills her perpetrators. She reads like another plot device used merely to further the story. We always view her through Django, Schultz, Stephen, or Calvin. She speaks only a sprinkling of dialogue and can almost be seen as a subaltern who needs the assistance of the dominant power to articulate her thoughts and ideas. Women are usually silenced to show the authority of the patriarchy; Broomhilda cries, grunts, speaks German, and has a limited vocabulary. She has assimilated the German of her earlier mistress that earns her a slightly superior position, working as a house slave rather than a field slave. On the other hand, Django is on a quest to save his wife with the help of Schultz. He is like unto a medieval knight who is on a quest to save his lady love. The interesting point here is that the white European male is the sidekick to the African-American liberated slave, rather than the other way round. Django is the sidekick on the bounty missions, but there are instances when the roles are reversed.
In other words, the film reinforces traditional gender roles of the female as the domestic angel while the male is portrayed as the protector and provider. In a flashback sequence, for example, Django takes the blame for running away from the Carrucan plantation and begs for Broomhilda’s life, wanting to save her from the Brittle brothers. In that scene, he is shown frantically negotiating with Big John Brittle (M.C. Gainey), warning him not to whip a prized house slave (Broomhilda) as the scars would reduce her value as a slave. Django is also the protector when he wants to shoot Stephen and Calvin after they expose her back at the dinner table. For Calvin, a slave is his property, and he uses her to entertain his dinner guests, Schultz and Django. He rips her uniform to show her back, which he claims is like a painting, where the marks of the whip and other beatings have created macabre designs. Django, on the other hand, reifies the typical male figure who will do anything to protect the honor of his beloved.
As Adolph Reed Jr, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, states, “Django’s quest is entirely individualist; he never intends to challenge slavery and never does.” This individualization can be seen as reinforcing the capitalism of the slave enterprise. Broomhilda is the prize at the end of the quest, and she is the commodity that is to be bought under the guise of Mandingo fighting. The beneficiaries of the exchange of Broomhilda include Django who gets back his wife to take care of him as well as his house and Dr. Schultz who takes a personal interest in Django as he is the first slave that Schultz sets free. Schultz also enjoys conversing with Broomhilda in his native German after four years of not speaking the language. Calvin also appreciates Broomhilda as he can use her as a slave and pimp her out to his guests. Her owners at the Carrucan plantation use her as well: they work her as a slave, and her German mistress enjoys conversing with her in German. In this film, Tarantino does not disturb the status quo of the patriarchy.
In “From Script To Screen: The 12 Biggest Deleted Unfilmed Scenes From ‘Django Unchained,’” Drew Taylor narrates the deleted Scotty Harmony storyline that shows how Broomhilda landed in Candyland. Taylor asserts that she was originally bought for Scotty by his father, a plantation owner from the Greenville auction. However, “When she reaches the plantation, Broomhilda becomes ‘Scotty's sort of de facto sweetheart,’ and one night Scotty takes her into Greenville for a night on the town, eventually ending up at Calvin Candie's Cleopatra Club.” After Candie’s introduction, Broomhilda leaves. Taylor states the card game that night between Scotty and Candie leads to a raising of stakes to slaves: “Candie's favorite slave Sheba vs. Broomhilda (Candie: ‘We ain't playin' for money no more. We matchin' nigger gals. And a nigger gal you got.’)” Candie produces a winning hand, Taylor explains, “Scotty calls him a cheater, and Candie challenges him to a duel for besmirching his name in his own club. Scotty realizes his predicament - he can't go home without Broomhilda nor can he face his parents.” Thus Candie shoots him dead. Despite being long, Taylor agrees that “it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the script, and an amazing introduction to Candie's character...the only things that remain from this bit are the character of Sheba and the reference to how much Broomhilda enjoys jellybeans." This deleted scene shows Broomhilda and Sheba both as property that can be traded, exchanged, or used as a stake in cards. Slaves were property and this example illustrates it. As Susan B. Anthony said at the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1860, “By law, public sentiment, and religion - from the time of Moses down to the present day - woman has never been thought of other than a piece of property to be disposed of at the will and pleasure of man."
Taylor further elaborates on Broomhilda's backstory, noting that she “exists as a cipher – a ghostly vision of pure love seen from a far away distance. She's a damsel and nothing more. For a director known for his complex portrayals of strong female characters...it seems almost criminal.” Taylor notes that the missing pieces of the movie contain "some really meaty and interesting inversions: about how much her previous white owners loved her, about how she was really the one calling the shots with Scotty, and how even if she didn't love Scotty, at least she had agency with regards to the power dynamics attached to their relationship. Not to mention that after Candie kills Scotty, he humiliates Broomhilda afterwards, whipping her naked through the streets of Greenville outside the Cleopatra Club."
This backstory would have provided Broomhilda with more substance, more character, and definitely more dialogue. She would not have been just a damsel, but a damsel who is real. If this section were included, then Bromhilda would not have been the pure and beautiful vision that Django idealizes her into. She would have been a person with real needs and desires who knew how to pull the strings in a relationship with Scotty. She would have been the one in power who would call the shots. She would have been seen as an opportunist who did the best she could, given her circumstances. She would not have simply been the victim.
Marc Ambinder, editor of The Week, in “Why Django is better than Lincoln” asserts that despite being a ridiculous and funny film, it does manage to get some things right, including, “the white sexualization of black slaves; the homoeroticism of Mandingo fighting; [and] the extreme levels of 'protection' that white men forced upon white southern women of privilege lest they be contaminated.” As mentioned earlier, Mandingo fighting is a fictional phenomenon derived from the 1975 film Mandingo, which seems to present evidence that Django Unchained is more of a film about films than a movie about history.
Broomhilda’s body appears to be public property. In her introductory scene at Candyland, she emerges from a hotbox as though she is being born. As mentioned above, Calvin rips off Broomhilda's dress to expose her scarred back to his dinner party. He says excitedly, “This is a painting” and later asserts that “Broomhilda is my property. And I can choose to do with my property, whatever I so desire” (Tarantino). She is undressed and scolded by Cora for being "undone." Perhaps the "undone" can refer to her loss of innocence, the loss of her virginity. At the beginning, Broomhilda’s cheek is branded with an “r” but the branding and her ability to speak well - and in German - earned her the position of a “comfort girl,” someone who is used for sex. Her body is also used as an offering of Southern hospitality to please Calvin’s German guest, Schultz.
Django does everything out of love for Broomhilda, helping Schultz, becoming a bounty hunter, and killing everyone at Candyland, yet there seems to be something of his ego playing a role. He loves his job of a bounty hunter as he exclaims to Schultz, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?” (Tarantino). He does not sympathize with the slaves, proclaiming his separation from them. Indeed, he always shows his superiority over the slaves while they all are travelling to Candyland and is proud to ride a horse as he is a free man. He also proclaims, “You niggas gon' understand something about me! I'm worse than any of these white men here! You get the molasses out your ass, and you keep your goddamn eyeballs off me!” (Tarantino). This scene shows Django as playing the role of an expert on mandingo fighting and being superior to the other slaves, as well as enacting the role of a trickster. Django blows up the whole of Candyland, but it is not only for Broomhilda but also because he seeks revenge for the death of his partner and friend, Schultz. He wants to show that he is better than all the slaves, and he is the one in 10,000 slaves who will not be kept down as described by Calvin earlier. Mathew Cole in “Django in Chains: American Racism and the Bootstrapping Myth” argues that “Django adopts this title of ‘one-in-ten-thousand’, displacing himself from the subaltern class of black slaves and embodying the exceptional individualism of the liminal outlaw. Tarantino also stated, 'It's not about him [Django] liberating everyone in shack row and them storming Canada together. He's got one mission and one mission only: extract his wife from this hell. And nothing else means a damn compared to that.'"
In an interview with Lianne MacDougall, Kerry Washington whole-heartedly supports the idea of Django rescuing the damsel in distress as “from a feminist perspective, it was such a rare opportunity to be the princess and be rescued. Black women in America have not been able to afford the fantasy of being rescued by our husbands in a tower, because we come out of this legacy as women not able to even really have husbands.” She later describes marriage. Marriage among the slaves was unheard of as Schultz expresses his surprise on hearing that Django is married. Washington notes, “Most female slaves in America didn’t have husbands, they couldn’t, and if they did, their husbands and children could be shipped down the river at any moment. .. this love between these two people which isn’t even really legally sanctioned, that they would fight so deeply for their marriage” (quoted in MacDougall). She felt it was a revolutionary idea that honored African-American women, although she is not a fan of violent aesthetics.
The princess in the tower who waits to be rescued remains a standard trope in most fairy tales, including “Rapunzel,” films such as Pretty Woman (1990), as well as superhero movies like Spiderman and Iron Man. Broomhilda in the original myth is rescued, but she also engineers the death of Siegfried, her rescuer. Yet, by choosing to get married, both Django and Broomhilda become a part of the system and assimilate the rhetoric of the oppressor. For them, marriage is a requirement to provide legitimacy to their relationship. Was their love so weak that it needed an external approval, or was it simply just a way to safeguard their tie to each other as families were often separated? Broomhilda and Django do everything possible to ensure that their marriage remains a secret from Stephen and Calvin because marriage was illegal among the slaves: she denies knowing Django and he does the same. Marriage was considered profitable in the early 1700s when plantation owners believed that marriage would make slaves content and manageable. However, sometimes the owners discouraged marital union and erased relationships by separating husbands and wives, as seen in the case of Django and Broomhilda. Perhaps, their marriage is Tarantino’s own wish fulfilment of a happily ever after married love story as he has sacrificed marriage and kids at the altar of his career claiming, “I'm not saying that I'll never get married or have a kid before I'm 60. But I've made a choice, so far, to go on this road alone. Because this is my time to make movies."
To show how extraordinary he is, Django not only returns from the dead, escapes from his new Australian masters, but also kills everyone at the farm. Does he do it out of duty or out of love? Duty to Schultz and love for Broomhilda. Does he do it to show how much he loves his wife or to show how superior he is to the slave owners and the other slaves? Both, the latter especially when he rides a horse with his wife into the future. Or are his desires to take revenge and his wish to rescue his wife connected? Both, he wants to rescue his wife out of love but also because she is his wife and his property, which leads to the conclusion that Django Unchained is a contest between rival male “owners,” with Broomhilda as a passive pawn. The film may offer a critique of slavery, but feminists who view the film might very well offer a critique of the portrayal of marriage and of patriarchy in general. Broomhilda is the pawn for both Django and Calvin. Django is in power and Broomhilda is not; hopefully, he will not abuse her like her owners. In the interview with Gates, Tarantino proposes the future with Django and Broomhilda. He illustrates what would have happened if Schultz’s plan had worked and Schultz was alive: "Django would have taken her to New York. She probably would have gone on the abolitionist cocktail party circuit, telling her tales of woe and everything, with Django because he's not an outlaw now. He's still on the right side of the law at this point, if that were to happen that way. And everything would be great for Django, and everything would be great for Broomhilda, but he would not be the hero of the story...Things have to go awry, and Schultz has to be taken out of the picture for Django to truly emerge as the hero."
For Django, Broomhilda is not only a vision of beauty and love, but a paragon of virtue and perfection. Perhaps, if the backstory had been kept, she would not be seen in such ideal terms. Nevertheless, she functions as an Oriental versus the Occidental Django. She is sensuous, docile, submissive, and exotic. She even visits him in two visions: one in the orchard surrounded by flowers and the other when he is bathing in the river. She seems almost divine in her appearance, proving that she is idealized without any foundations of reality. Her introduction from the hotbox provides a stark gruesome contrast jolting the audience into reality. As Simone de Beauvoir describes in The Second Sex (1952), “Woman is thus slave, queen, flower, hind, satuned-glass window, wanton, servant, courtesan, muse, companion, mother, sister, child, according to the fugitive dreams, the imperious commands, of her lover.” Broomhilda fulfills all these roles, though not always in connection to Django. She is a slave; she is the queen of Django’s heart; she is imagined as a flower in a flashback; she is a wanton if her backstory had been included; she is a servant both at the Carrucan planation and Candyland; she is a courtesan as a part of being a slave (Calvin pimps her out to Schultz); she is a muse and companion to both Django and Schultz - and likely will be a mother too.
In conclusion, Django and Broomhilda reinforce the traditional gender roles, he as the knight in shining armor who rescues the damsel in distress and saves the day. Tarantino inverts the original legend, making Broomhilda weak, dependent, and a victim. Django rescues her not only out of love, but also to show his superiority and power over her and her owners at Candyland as well as to avenge the death of his mentor, Schultz.
From guest contributor Rashmila Maiti