July 21st, 2019

The Greatest Character of All Time: Stephen in “Django Unchained”

Uncle Tom (n): A black man who will do anything to stay in good standing with the white man including betray his own people.

Hollywood claims to be progressive about race. However, the topic of Uncle Toms in America was apparently too controversial and uncomfortable to discuss for the first century of cinema.

Finally in 2012, Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson teamed up to create an interesting, contemptible, hilarious Uncle Tom character for the movie “Django Unchained.” His name is Stephen. And he’s the greatest character of all time.

Stephen (Jackson) is a slave at Candieland: the largest plantation in Chicksaw County, Mississippi. But Stephen is no field worker; he absolutely runs the place.

The actual plantation owner – Calvin Candie (Leondardo DiCaprio) – is not especially smart and usually preoccupied with Mandango Fighting. So he leaves the day to day plantation operations in Stephen’s capable hands. Stephen pays the bills, calls the shots, and orders the punishments for runaway slaves.

Jackson shows us that a successful Uncle Tom has to be three different men in one body. When he is giving orders to his underlings, Stephen is confident and forceful. When he is entertaining guests with Calvin Candie, Stephen shifts personas and becomes an obsequious buffoon – laughing heartily at every stupid joke his master makes. When it is just Calvin and Stephen behind closed doors, Stephen becomes a different man altogether: an erudite old fox who calmly explains to befuddled Calvin what is really going on around them.

In conclusion, Stephen is a slave-driving race traitor – an unforgivable villain.

Not so fast. That’s not how Stephen views himself. And, to his eternal credit as an open-minded actor, that’s not how Jackson views him.

Stephen is a slave on a plantation. He can’t leave. And the plantation is his entire universe. Yeah, he could do the noble thing and work the fields, take the whippings, and die young with no say in his destiny. Or he could make the best of a terrible situation.

I can’t judge Stephen. Every man with a steady job has sold out to some extent or another. Only you and I have some choice in where we work. Stephen doesn’t.

And if you’re going to sell out, Stephen figures, you may as well do it really well. Stephen doesn’t have to answer to anyone. He is a rare slave who gets to fully utilize his intelligence and his talent. And he lives comfortably in the lavish Candieland mansion as opposed to a shabby slave shack.

Stephen is Dick Cheney to Calvin Candie’s George W Bush. Candie has the name and the blue blood. Cheney could never be President, but it didn’t stop him from running the country. We aren’t supposed to like Stephen any more than we like Dick Cheney. But we should darn well admire them for their hubris and political savvy.

Stephen is a fascinating character. And he is also hilarious.

In his first scene, he sees our hero Django ride up to the door of the Candieland mansion. Stephen seethes with righteous anger. “Who is this n****** on that nag?!”

The sight of an empowered freeman on his plantation is hideously offensive to both his sense of order and his place as the #1 black man in his world. Never has racism been so perversely funny.

Most movies about slavery present slave owners as monsters and slaves as pitiful victims. That’s easy to swallow but neither interesting nor accurate.

I’m sure there were slaves like Stephen in the American south: Uncle Toms who worked within the evil system to find meaning, satisfaction, and empowerment. “Django Unchained” is my favorite film about slavery. And Jackson’s Stephen is the greatest character of all time.

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