When we Black women tell our stories, we center ourselves in the American experience. This legacy of voiced expression in the public realm dates back to the 1700s – 1800s. Nineteenth century slave woman Harriet Jacobs wrote about her 7 year self-imposed confinement in an attic overlooking her owner’s property. From the tiny crawl-space where her body is disabled by the immobility she experiences there, Jacobs literally and figuratively looks down on the master who would rape her if she emerged. She also remains in close proximity to her two children, whom her grandmother raises on the plantation. Though her body is confined, her mind is free. Jacobs offers not only her personal experience of sexual degradation, confinement, and the clever use of disguise to eventually escape slavery by sailing north to freedom, she also bears witness to the experiences of other slaves, male and female. She tells the tales of the others, like her, her sisters and brothers in bondage.
From her master’s point-of-view, Jacobs disappears from the plantation during those 7 years she hides away in an attic crawl-space. To him, she is invisible. But just because the dominant white male does not see her, that doesn’t mean she is not there. She is, there, in the middle of it all, cleverly compelling him to waste time and money tracking her in the north, outwitting him, eyeing him all the while.
Through the first half of Django Unchained, Broomhilda appears either in Django’s imagination as an umbra, a delightful spirit compelling his quest, or in flashback, as Django recounts the horrors of slavery as experienced by Broomhilda, whose beauty is assaulted by the medieval torture employed by filthy overseers.
When the audience finally sees the real Broomhilda in real narrative time, she is naked and locked in an underground torture chamber, her punishment for attempting escape. This symbolizes a kind of death for her. Django rescues her from near suffocation in the searing, tomb-like space just outside the big house where, we are made to understand, she is frequently the target of rape.
The images that come from Django’s imagination carefully construct a counter-narrative to the prevailing stereotypes of Black women as crass jezebels and big-bodied mammies. Broomhilda is bi-lingual, poised, classier than any of the free white women in the film. The images that come through Django’s flashbacks carefully construct the slave narrative of Black female degradation. As punishment for attempting to run away to a more authentic liberation, Broomhilda is branded like a horse, whipped like a dog, then dressed like a doll.
Broomhilda willingly acquiesces her position as favored house negro, a kind of pet for her former owner, to forge an authentic union with the man she loves – but we don’t really see her do this. The audience only hears Django say that she does this – then we see him leading her by the hand to run, begging for her not to be whipped.
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 Jacobs, who crafted complicated strategies to liberate themselves.
It also dishonors the memory of real slave women like Harriet Tubman, who was skilled enough with firearms to become a scout and spy in the Union Army. This weak portrayal of one fictional slave woman’s life acts as a kind of erasure of the powerful testimony of actual slave women like Sojourner Truth, who “ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns… [who] could work as much and eat as much as a man – when [she] could get it – and bear the lash as well!… [who had] borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery” and yet remained, through it all, an autonomous woman.
This lost opportunity to authentically render the real-life heroism of Black women during slavery weakens the film. When Broomhilda first sees Django, she faints. When the shootout occurs, she can’t manage to grab a gun and fire even one shot all by herself. When Django comes back for her after the shootout, she doesn’t help plan the destruction of Candie Land. When the mansion where she was sexually assaulted on a regular basis is blown apart, she can only close her ears and smile approvingly at her man’s cunning power. When she and Django ride off together, the careful viewer might catch the silhouette of her holding a rifle in her hand, but of course, at that point, the movie is over. There’s no one left to shoot.
I would enjoy a film where the talented Kerry Washington is given the opportunity to express a breathtakingly powerful strength, just as she did so well in her feature debut, a beautiful, quiet little film called Our Song. I would have liked to see her in the center of this hyper-masculine, big-budget film, not in its margins. I would have liked to see her do more than just smile and fold her hands and pass out and splash in the hot springs of male fantasy and sit on a horse while this looming symbol of her people’s oppression is destroyed. I would have liked to see her kick ass, too.
I do wish Tarantino had given her the opportunity to be more than just Jamie Foxx’s onscreen helpmate – again. I would have liked to see Broomhilda unchained.