Editor’s Note: I have been reading Matthew Teutsch’s thoughts on comics as part of the tradition of American literature (particularly as it related to African-American and Southern literature) on his blog Interminable Ramblings for quite some time, and thus was excited when he offered to write a guest post on the comic book adaptation of the controversial and alternately praised and condemned Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. Here, Teutsch asks us to consider what happens when the notable absence of Broomhilda’s perspective from a story focused on saving her from bondage is addressed, but her voice remains mostly silent.
Reginald Hudlin’s comic adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained for DC’s Vertigo Comics imprint (with art by Denys Cowan, R.M. Guera, Jason LaTour, and John Floyd) contains some scenes that did not make it into the final cut of the 2012 film. Tarantino’s film focuses on Django’s attempts to rescue his beloved wife Broomhilda from her enslavement at Candyland, a plantation owned by a particularly sadistic Southerner, Calvin Candie. In 2013, Vertigo published the seven-issue adaptation of the film, adding sequences from Tarantino’s original script to the narrative. One of these sequences depicts how Broomhilda von Shaft came to be Candie’s property. The sequence (from issues #3 and #4 – penciled by Cowyn and Guera, respectively) provides an important narrative plot point in the story and a space for some very important discussions about the lives of enslaved women and the system that kept them enslaved.
Arriving in Greenville, Mississippi, to search for Broomhilda, Django, and his white bounty hunter compatriot King Schultz, enter the records office. As King Schultz speaks with the clerk, Django begins to “look into his past” as he thinks about “when he was on the auction block,” and he recalls the first time he saw the man who bought him, “the same man who sold him because of his love for Broomhilda.” These memories lead him to ponder, “Who owns Broomhilda now?” A 27-page flashback detailing what has happened to Broomhilda since her forced separation from Django follows.
A white plantation owner Mike Harmony buys Broomhilda for his son, Scotty, a 24-year-old who cannot seem to find love with white women. Harmony acquires Broomhilda solely as a sexual object for Scotty.
The only scene of sexual interaction between Broomhilda and Scotty comes in montage of panels showing her life with the Harmony family, the joy it brings Scotty, and the relative privileges of her position as a kept plaything for the family scion. The two of them are depicted as silhouettes with Broomhilda straddling Scotty. Her positioning astride her master in this panel does not diminish the forced sexual relations between the two. The removal of facial expressions from both Broomhilda and Scotty link them. While Scotty seems gentle and genuinely interested in Broomhilda and she eats at the same table as the family and plays games on the lawn with them, she is still very much Scotty’s property, even if she must perform the role of the enthusiastic lover.
About three months later Scotty and Broomhilda head into town for what Scotty views as a romantic getaway. In these panels, Scotty smiles broadly as he walks through the streets of Greenville with Broomhilda on his arm. However, Broomhilda’s countenance shows sadness, especially when she sees enslaved people being led through the streets under clearly dire circumstances. The two end up at Candie’s Cleopatra Club (where in the film Schultz and Django first meet the slave owner). Scotty starts playing cards with Candie, and eventually they reach the point where Candie wants to play for higher stakes, so he suggests that they bet their “property,” wagering Broomhilda against Candie’s slave Sheba. Scotty loses the hand. Scotty protests, Candie kills him and then barges into Broomhilda’s hotel room, chases her outside, and rapes her. This is the last image of the flashback and the narrative moves to a slave auction in the present where King Schultz tells Django that he has learned that Broomhilda is at Candyland.
From the outset of the flashback sequence, we see the ways that enslaved women endured sexual violence. Broomhilda stands on the auction block as the auctioneer exposes her breasts stating, “Fellas, you ain’t felt gentle till you felt nigger gal gentle.” Scotty looks on lustfully. The next panel shifts the focus from sexual exploitation to physical violence as the auctioneer displays Broomhilda’s scarred back and the “r” branded on her cheek. These images cause Scotty to “react with repulsion.” These six panels display, in full detail, the pervasive culture of sexual violence that enslaved women endured. As Alice Walker writes regarding this culture,
For centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic “outlet” for white men in Europe and America. We need only think of the black women used as breeders, raped for the pleasure and profit of their owners. We need only think of the license the “master” of the slave woman enjoyed.
On the auction block, Broomhilda becomes a “pornographic ‘outlet’” for the onlookers, though in order for her to remain appealing to Scotty he does not consider too closely the physical reminders of her enslaved condition. Standing on the auction block, Broomhilda looks out at the men who begin to bid on her. After each man bids, we see closeups of Broomhilda’s face as she peers at them in disgust and fear, aware of their desire. When Harmony bids, and wins, Broomhilda’s face displays more sadness than fear. These shifting emotions highlight that even though none of the men that Broomhilda outwardly feared purchased her, even the “best” result nevertheless continues to relegate her as a nonperson. In essence, she learns to develop levels of gradation regarding “acceptable” violence and humiliation, and Harmony’s appearance causes her to feel some miniscule sense of fortune because the other men, who openly display sexual desire for her, did not purchase her. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs highlights the same fears of sexual violence that enslaved women constantly encountered. Describing her childhood, Jacobs writes that fifteen marked “a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl,” when the master takes notice and “whisper[s] foul words in [her] ear.” Continuing, she describes seeing two young girls playing together: “One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister.” Jacobs looks into the future to see that the white girl will blossom into womanhood; however, the enslaved girl would endure sexual predation as “[s]he drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery.” Broomhilda’s expression reveals those very thoughts of “shame, and misery” regarding her inevitable circumstances and being fated to categorize preferences amid a myriad of awful possibilities.
After the auction, Scotty and Broomhilda ride to the plantation in a wagon. Scotty offers her jelly beans and even invites her to sit beside him in the front of the wagon. Yet, once they arrive at the house, the provisional nature of her treatment is made clear. Scotty’s mother tells Broomhilda, “Boy’s twenty-four. He still ain’t a man yet. That’s why you’re here.” Scotty’s parents see Broomhilda as something for their son to practice his manhood on. Scotty, however, views her as a friend and a romantic companion. They chase butterflies together during the day and catch fireflies at night. As they chase butterflies, they are completely blackened against a bright background. In the next panel, we see them catching fireflies at night. Here, we see both Scotty’s and Broomhilda’s faces, each with a smile. After catching fireflies, Broomhilda holds a jar with the lightning bugs she has captured as Scotty sleeps peacefully next to her. Here, Broomhilda’s face shows a mixture of sadness and anger. She sees herself, as similarly trapped, living an existence as just a pretty object for Scotty to enjoy while she physically and psychologically suffocates from that captivity.
While Scotty (perhaps unwittingly) challenges the unspoken societal rules regulating relationships between masters and enslaved women who are their property through how he expresses his feelings about Broomhilda, she knows these rules and refuses to completely reciprocate his feelings too enthusiastically. Ultimately, she is still property, and as property, she can be bought and sold on a whim. Scotty’s realization of this fact occurs during his card game with Candie. Up until this moment, Scotty appears naïve to the fact that he owns Broomhilda. His facial expressions and interactions with her make it appear that he sees their relationship as romantic, not as owner and enslaved.
When Candie bets Sheba, he demands that Scotty bet Broomhilda. Scotty refuses, and his facial expressions change from jovial laughter to fearful dejection. One panel shows Scotty with his hand on his forehead and downcast eyes telling Candie, “I can’t bet Broomhilda.” Candie persists informing Scotty, “In Chickasaw County, [Broomhilda is] money. Pony her up or fold.” Scotty doesn’t want to fold because he is all in and thinks that he has a winning hand. Reluctantly, Scotty signs a bill of sale, then the men show their cards. Candie wins with a flush, and Scotty then realizes that Candie cheated. He had sent Sheba over to kiss Scotty, thus spying on his opponent’s hand. Scotty calls Candie out and pleads to get Broomhilda back. Candie denies the request, telling Scotty, “You lost that girl, fat boy.” Candie then shoots Scotty, who falls on the table, blood splattering on the bill of sale. Candie walks, with the bloody bill sale, across the street to the hotel, asks what room Scott Harmony was staying in, and violently breaks down the door while Broomhilda sleeps.
Two panels show the bloody bill of sale, and each of these panels recall the opening of the sequence. In one panel, we see Scotty’s body draped over the table with blood splattered on the deed. Here, naïve Scotty from the beginning of the sequence who does not quite grasp how the “rules” work, lies dead and his blood stains the paper representing his relationship to Broomhilda. Rather than a marriage license, a bill of sale bonds him to the woman he “loves.” The next panel shows Candie’s feet walking through the door of the hotel as he holds the bill of sale between his fingers. Blood drips from it. Again, the bill represents a white slave owner’s relationship to Broomhilda, and the symbolic nature of the blood brings to minds the ownership of her body and that sexual violence again awaits her, asking readers to consider what the real difference, if any, might be between their ownership.
In this sequence, Broomhilda essentially becomes the bill of sale. While Scotty may feel like he loves her, he actually owns her. Candie wants her because he knows that she can add to his stock. When Candie first enters the cardroom to gamble with Scotty, he lustfully leers at Broomhilda, his eyes following as she leaves the table to return to the hotel room. Both men ignore Broomhilda’s desires by denying her humanity and agency. In fact, throughout the entire sequence, Broomhilda rarely speaks, uttering probably no more than five or six lines throughout. (Most are only one word or two.) Writing about Broomhilda in the film, Eisa Nefetari Ulen argues, “What Broomhilda lacks, even when she appears in real time, is agency over her destiny—a destiny where she will be free. This lack of agency, this powerlessness, is an insult to real slave women like [Harriet] Jacobs, who crafted complicated strategies to liberate themselves.” Even in flashing back to her backstory, this comic maintains a perspective that denies her any agency.
Broomhilda’s lack of agency and voice is problematic, especially considered within the context of Harriet Jacobs’ escape and narratives from women such as Sojourner Truth. Broomhilda becomes more akin to Aunt Hester in Frederick Douglass’ A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). In Douglass’ narrative, the suffering of enslaved women takes place on the sidelines or under a voyeuristic gaze as is the case with Aunt Hester’s whipping. This positioning, like Broomhilda’s, places Hester and other enslaved women as nothing more than serving as a lesson leading to Douglass’ realization of his position as an enslaved individual and his desire to escape or Django’s vengeance. This is something we need to consider along with the stark depiction of the violence enacted upon enslaved women in Django Unchained because by solely focusing on Django, Broomhilda’s voice becomes subsumed beneath a male-centered tale of revenge. While Broomhilda does not speak much in this sequence or the narrative as a whole, seeing some of her story gives voice, albeit only through facial expressions and body language, to the suffering that enslaved women endured. This manner of representation, however, falls short because ultimately Broomhilda continues to exist as a narrative tool for Django’s journey towards enacting his agency and humanity through his revenge.
Hudlin’s adaptation of Django Unchained, however, adds an important narrative point that the film lacks, the constant suffering and sexual predation that Broomhilda endured as an enslaved woman that is otherwise erased save as motivation for the protagonist. Broomhilda’s path to Candyland is important in highlighting the sexual violence of slavery, a violence that the film does not explore in detail. The film does show physical violence against Broomhilda, and there are sexual discussions about her; however, the punishment and physical violence she endures occurs because she gets caught running away from Candyland not as a consistent strategy of discipline and control. If the scenes that appear in the adaptation were in the film, there would still be a problem with Broomhilda’s lack of agency and voice, but they would allow for a larger focus on Broomhilda instead of just focusing on Django’s quest to reunite with her. While still not centering Broomhilda’s voice, the sequence showing how she becomes Candie’s property highlights that slaves, specifically women, encountered sexual violence at every turn. Even with this sequence, this can still come across as an exploitative and dehumanizing representation of enslaved women.
Writing about the ways that Frederick Douglass used photography to counter stereotypes during the nineteenth century, Renee Graham points out that along with Douglass’ “self-possessed and unafraid” representation the majority of images “reinforced ideas of subservience such as the cowed and broken slave, his back a mass of scars from the lick of an overseer’s whip.” Unfortunately, Broomhilda is portrayed in the same manner. We see her suffering, the scars on her back, and her naked body on display for those who seek to purchase her. This representation differs from the ways that John Ira Jennings presents Dana Franklin’s experiences in antebellum Maryland in the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred. There, Dana expresses resistance, not exploitation. In Django Unchained, however, Broomhilda exists as nothing more than a victim and enslaved woman. Dana along with Alice, Sarah, and others in Kindred show that Black women resisted the system of control over their bodies to varying degrees.
We see Broomhilda, but we do not hear her. What does this do for readers? How can the horrors and violence that enslaved women endured be represented visually—specifically in sequential art—in such a way that does not render them voiceless and that does not exploit or dehumanize them through sexualized and violent images? These are questions that arise when reading something like Django Unchained. It may be credible to show the violence, both physical and psychological, enacted upon enslaved individuals, but when does that representation work challenge this history and when does it reinforce wide-held beliefs?
Matthew Teutsch is currently a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at the University of Bergen. He is an instructor of English at Auburn University. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy, and is a regular contributor to Black Perspectives and Teaching United States History. His research focuses on African American and Southern literature, and he has published on the works of Ernest J. Gaines, Charles Chesnutt, Robert Beck, Jean Toomer, and others. His writing has appeared in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, and Studies in the Literary Imagination. Currently, he is working on an edited collection of Georgia author Frank Yerby and on a monograph that examines the continued impact of Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run (1998-2003). Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.