Overboard with “Rationality”: Django Unchained and “Mandingo Fighting”

Quentin Tarantino certainly has a knack for igniting controversy with his films. Perhaps no movie of his has started such a hullabaloo than his latest work, Django Unchained, drawing criticism from a variety of circles, from both the political left and right.

After finally seeing it myself, the film has many issues addressed by critics, including (but not limited to): Tarantino’s gratuitous use of the n-word, excessive violence; being just another white messiah flick, or just plain irreverent.

All of these topics are important, but one issue that interested me was the questioned accuracy of the so-called “mandingo fighting” portrayed in the movie; i.e., fight-to-the-death matches between slave men. A commonly cited article at Slate authoritatively stated that mandingo fighting never existed, paraphrasing David Blight, a historian from Yale, that no such thing occurred because doing so would have been irrational to do so. This take on the film’s mandingo fights got picked up from other outlets, following Slate’s lead. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has a great post at The Root regarding the issue of mandingo fighting, as well as using bloodhounds for tearing apart and eating, not just capturing, runaway slaves. In the post he asks, “Did this happen — could this have happened — given the fact that the ultimate goal of a master was to exploit his human chattel for maximum profit, and destroying property would not be perhaps the best business decision?” Specifically regarding the dogs issue, Gates finds that it did sometimes happen. Certainly this same approach can be applied to the portrayal of mandingo fighting. However, Gates does not go that far, giving support to the Aisha Harris article at Slate and adding, “Destroying one’s property was not the smartest business strategy.” Unfortunately, Gates seems to contradict himself when it comes to the issue of mandingo fighting.

So, did “mandingo fighting” ever take place in the antebellum South? In fact, as Adam Rothman pointed out, new historical texts on the antebellum period describe the situation in Mississippi during the time having been even crazier and more bizarre than that portrayed in the film. Slaveholders constantly feared uprisings and runaways, and they commonly cracked down on supposed wrongdoers to “send a message” to the other slaves.

Still, I think more the pertinent question is: does it even matter whether they existed or not? I think that social scientists like Blight and others need to take great care in stressing the rationality of a social system, whether it be economic, political, etc. A dialectical approach is helpful here, as in George Ritzer’s notion of the “irrationalities of rationality,” in which rationalized structures produce undesired outcomes (such as the horrors of modern warfare). The whole point to take from this is that Americans of African descent, with the exceptions of freedmen and women, were PROPERTY of whites. This means they had no rights. While those fights may not have taken place, it seems folly to believe it never could have happened in such a rational economic system. Even worse, whether intentionally or not such a line serves to whitewash the antebellum South as a land of happy darkies and benevolent—even kindly—slave masters who would never abuse or kill their slaves due to enduring economic losses.

Whatever your thoughts about the film, it certainly was very powerful. Gates finished his piece this way: “Whether you like Django’s post-modern take on slavery or not, one of its most salutary effects is that it has generated a greater conversation about the enslavement of our ancestors than any that I have witnessed perhaps since Roots.”