By Shawn StJean
When, in 1950, Ralph Ellison entitled his great novel Invisible Man, he wasn’t simply riffing off H.G. Wells. He had identified a specific racial issue that predates slavery in America: the double edged sword of existing as a black among whites. Black-ness both allows a sort of cloak of protection, and paints a target upon one’s back–oft-times, literally. The assumption behind the entire, stupid slurring of a race–epitomized by what we disingenuously call today the “N—–” word–is African racial inferiority, whether by genetic disadvantage, as Thomas Jefferson claimed in Notes on Virginia, or by culture and conditioning (as in barring from literacy, such an important trope in Frederick Douglass’ autobiography/slave narrative.) And one often ignores one’s “inferiors.”
Twenty years ago, before DVDs existed and before films were released on video just months following their theatrical premiers, I went back and forth to the cinema half-a-dozen times with my pen and notebook, to gather accurate notes on Pulp Fiction, publishing in 1996 one of the first peer-reviewed articles on Tarantino’s masterwork. In it, I specifically challenged the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for nominating Samuel L. Jackson in the “Best Supporting Actor” category, while John Travolta was nominated for “Best Actor.” Any careful analysis of the film will reveal that both actors share about equal stage time. Furthermore, Jackson’s character is more central to Tarantino’s thematic concerns, and he gives the superior performance. His effective erasure was disgraceful, then.
Skip to today, and history repeats the same injustice with Django Unchained. This time, however, the white actors siphoning attention are Christoph Waltz (as Dr. King Schultz) and Scorsese-darling Leonardo DiCaprio (as Calvin Candie). At least Schultz deserves such credit (his association with Q.T. has now garnered him two best supporting actor Oscars), as sharing the good-guy spotlight with title character Django (Jamie Foxx) is no easy task (though only MTV has so far remarked on Foxx’s effort by awarding him a statue). But as DiCaprio once more screams and grins through his Gen-Y-two-note-melodramatic range, and Candie is purposely written by Tarantino as ineffectual and somewhat dim, Jackson makes the picture as its real villain, in a multi-layered performance as “house nigger” Stephen. With all the “Yassuh”s, clownishness, and Uncle-Tom parroting expected of him, behind the scenes, he’s really running the plantation/Mandingo farm with a gaze more demonic than that of any overseer.
But where’s the recognition? Foxx and Jackson are the narrative’s major antagonists, after all.
It’s not like the Academy doesn’t consider villains for that award. Hell, Heath Ledger won it posthumously for his portrayal of old Pasty-Face (coincidence?) in 2009’s The Dark Knight.
The irony is at least triple-layered, however, as Jackson is flying under the radar of not only the other characters, but awards-bodies* as well as audiences, just as Stephen made a 75-year career of serving three generations of Candie patriarchs, while evading fates like being torn apart by dogs. “You wouldn’t pay no never-mind to no $300,” is how Stephen has to break down Django and Schultz’s grift for the clueless Calvin. “But that twelve thousand. . .that may you real friendly now, didn’t it?”
The writer/director wants us to see all this, of course–how many white filmmakers are bothering to center 100-million-dollar productions around African American issues and actors nowadays, anyway?–and I can only imagine his dismay when we don’t. Even the movie poster gives Jackson 5th billing–and his character does not appear on it. Perhaps there just wasn’t room? Or maybe he’s just blending quietly into the background. . .