Django Unchained, Lincoln, and the Use of History

16 Jan

lincoln-poster-gun-steven-spielbergThis January, it is common to find film critics such as this rather witty one comparing two new and somewhat controversial films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. Along those lines, the comparison between the gun-slinging Django and the politically savvy Lincoln has been humorously and visually made in the Django/Lincoln/James Bond mash-up poster that you see here. Both movies are made by white men about the subject of slavery; both feature heroic white men who over the course of the movie become devoted to the cause of emancipation; both have been nominated for best picture awards this year, and both have been discussed in light of the directors’ earlier films about the Jewish holocaust — Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

So, it’s not surprising that people would compare them, but I’ve got a slightly different take on these movies than what I’ve seen the critics say, and I think the critics have been avoiding both the real question and the troubling implications not only for these two movies, but for most movies. The real question, of course, is the use of history — why? who cares? Or to respond to a sentiment I often hear from students sometimes about watching movies just for “enjoyment” and not for any deeper meaning, why is history enjoyable? And the more troubling implication of this question has to do with the anti-social quality of both films, and I will explain what I mean by that at the end of this blog post by comparing Tarantino’s approach to the blaxploitation genre with the older 1972 film The Legend of Nigger Charley upon which Tarantino’s movie is based. But before that, I will briefly summarize and respond to the things critics are saying.

First, although there are some similarities as I mentioned above, critics and the public in general have all pointed out important differences. Both of Tarantino’s films (Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards)are violent revenge fantasies that self-consciously play with the genre conventions of blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, and both of Spielberg’s are about actual historical figures and purport to teach us something true about history. Django features a black man who engages in trickery and kills a lot of white men in order to free his wife; Lincoln features a white man who engages in political trickery during a war in which millions were killed in order to free slaves. Django is a bromance between a white man and a black man in which both characters develop and change as they get to know each other; Lincoln is a solid rock of righteousness, folk wisdom, and pragmatic virtuosity who never wavers and never changes.

Probably the most controversial aspect of both films is their use and abuse of history. Since Spielberg claims his Lincoln is “true,” he has been criticized for many historical inaccuracies (e.g., here and here, though curiously these inaccuracies are less worrisome to the American Historical Association’s executive director here.) The most troubling inaccuracy of course is the film’s strange occlusion of the abolitionist movement, especially Frederick Douglass’s influence. Many historians and theorists, from Angela Davis to Eric Foner, have demonstrated the importance of these movements on American politics in general and on Lincoln’s own mindset in particular. Along those lines, popular culture has also responded to Spielberg’s movie, and here is a somewhat amusing satire most of which is pretty accurate (until the end, when he starts talking about hats and beards.)

But the exclusion of this historical information is not the only problem. The movie even goes so far as to suggest that such radicals need to be contained when at a key moment in the film Thaddeus Stevens pragmatically shifts to the political center, when in fact it was the radicals who did most of the real work before Lincoln even took office. In what is probably supposed to be a touching scene but for me was a nauseating one, Lincoln’s very difficult and controversial shift from a separatist position (blacks free but separate from whites) to an integrationist position — a shift that was brought about by Douglass and other white and black abolitionists – is contained in a rather sentimental conversation between Lincoln and his wife’s maid. (And I use the word “contained” deliberately – in terms of narrative, quite literally the whole issue is contained in that one conversation and appears nowhere else, and hence in metaphorical terms, the issue is contained and its historical and political implications are prevented from contaminating the heroic image of Lincoln that Spielberg wants to present.) The two black women portrayed in the movie appear to be mere domestics, but in real history they were activists and organizers.

In contrast, Django has been criticized by Spike Lee and others less for its inaccuracies than for its disrespectful attitude towards the seriousness of slavery as well as in his perverse delight in having his characters so cavalierly brandish about the n-word (e.g., here and here.) To put it another way, few people expect historical accuracy from this sort of film, but what’s troubling to Spike Lee is that the movie transforms something horrible and traumatic into something hilarious and enjoyable. It trivializes something that we ought to take seriously.

But what’s historical fiction for, anyway? Accuracy? Perspective? Patriotism? Honoring the past? Hating the past? In discussing Lincoln with a friend, we both agreed that what Lincoln did well was focus very intently on a single month of time and bring to light the sort of hard and dirty political maneuvers that might lay behind any piece of legislation that came to define the very soul of the United States and our political system. This is a movie we could imagine a high school teacher showing in a U.S. history or civics class. And indeed, the movie begins almost like a high school class, with some minor characters attempting like schoolboys to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. But of course, what’s missing from all the political maneuvers is any sense of why any of the political figures feel or think the way they do. We don’t get a rich sense of what motivates any of the political positions. The issue of race that other critics have brought up is part of this problem. We don’t see the years of hard work that the abolitionists put in to make that happen. We don’t get any sense of black people as politically organized. But this is just part it. In fact, we don’t see any social organization of any kind or any aspect of American culture. We only see the epiphenomenal political superstructure on top of the much more complex cultural base, and what’s insidious about that is that it isolates politics and political action from the very stakes that political representation is supposed to be for in the first place.

Of course, Lincoln would be a very boring movie if it were only about the politics. Spielberg has to humanize the characters and give them a semblance of depth, and this is especially important and hard to accomplish for the character of Lincoln considering that this is a character who does not develop because his heroic image is based on his rock-like consistency. Spielberg achieves this semblance of depth by shifting the focus of the story back and forth between the political intrigue and his family. The camera technique that Spielberg uses to achieve this is the deep focus shots pioneered by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, where what is happening in the foreground relates to or contrasts with what’s happening in the background. But for Welles, this deep focus technique was used to create ironic juxtapositions that revealed a deep ideological and psychological conflict. In contrast, for Spielberg, the family man foreground functions to humanize and justify Lincoln’s politically unconstitutional maneuvers in the background. What if, instead of all the family imagery, we were given a broader view of the culture in which Lincoln lived? This might diminish his agency and his heroic image, and more to the point, it would undermine Spielberg’s hagiographic use of history to celebrate heroic, individualist pragmatism at the expense of radical social organization.

For me, for all its differences, Django has the same problems as Lincoln, even though its abuse of history is for entirely different ends. First, what I think is politically effective and amazing about Django can be summed up by telling my experience watching it in a movie theater in downtown Brooklyn. The audience was a mix of white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., but seemed mostly white. What I saw as Tarantino’s achievement is that every time the black character killed a white character, everyone in the audience cheered. But of course what’s missing from Django is precisely the politically and socially organized black community that is also missing from Lincoln. Just as in Lincoln, we see no positive culture in this film. Instead, in both films (and also in the new James Bond films that I just wrote about recently) we see individual heroism against a vague backdrop of a negative culture, and specifically in the case of Django, this heroism is mostly manifest in Django’s talent with a gun and with his partner’s ability to twist the law towards his own ends. (To qualify this, I would say that what’s actually really great about Django is that unlike Lincoln we do have character development as the two men become friends; by the end of the film, what Tarantino has carefully and brilliantly plotted is a very clever role reversal as the white man and black man gradually switch positions.)

It might serve us well to compare Django to its predecessor from three decades ago, The Legend of Nigger Charley and its sequels The Soul of Nigger Charley  and Boss Nigger which were also box-office hits. How does Tarantino’s new movie differ from the older blaxploitation film that inspired him?

Obviously, in the early 1970s, it was a new and astonishing thing to have heroic black men brandishing guns, beating up whites, and getting the girl at the end of the film. And these movies were not intended only for black audiences. White audiences liked them too. Of course, at the time, as the excellent documentary BaadAsssss Cinema showed, the black community was deeply divided over these films, some celebrating them for giving the same sorts of roles to black characters that whites had always enjoyed in the movies, and others condemning them for emphasizing crime, sex, violence, and derogatory language (i.e., the n-word) — things for which the black community had been stigmatized. What’s different about the debate in the 1970s and the debate over Django that people are having now is that in the 70s, these films really were doing something new and enacting a cultural transformation. One can’t say that about Django.

But there is a deeper and more profound difference. In movies such as Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Nigger Charley, we frequently see scenes of groups of black men having serious conversations about what to do and how to improve their lives and overcome racism. Nigger Charley even concludes with a multi-ethnic alliance between whites, Native Americans, and blacks against corruption. This important dimension of the plot was totally missed by the critic Roger Ebert in his review. The plots of these movies are not especially complex, but they allude to the ways that racism is complex and sometimes functions in ways that are not obvious. In contrast, in movies like Django, racism is simply the ideology that evil men have, and in Lincoln, racism is simply a back story that we’re already supposed to know about but is left unexplored. Additionally, in Tarantino’s homages to blaxploitation Django and Jackie Brown (and in my view Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best movie by far and is more attentive than Django to culture and society), the n-word is simply tossed around because Tarantino says “that’s how people talk,” but in The Legend of Nigger Charley, it is always a word that is spoken by white characters who clearly use it as a term of oppression until the end, when Charley appropriates it as a term of revenge in order to inspire terror in the very people that once terrorized him. That complexity which was central to the older blaxploitation films is absent from Tarantino’s.

In sum, the older blaxploitation films were attentive to the complexities of culture and the difficult labor of social organization in ways that Django and Lincoln are not.

But I am still begging the question I raised at the beginning of this post, what is the use of all this history? To say that historical movies educate — or even more complexly to say that we learn a lesson from the past about what we ought to do in the present — doesn’t explain why we enjoy them and doesn’t explain the necessary functions of simplification, anachronism, sentimentality, and fantasy. This should be obvious to anyone, and it should be especially obvious to those of us versed in the theories of Jacques Derrrida, Gilles Deleuze, Stuart Hall, Jacqueline Rose, etc. but most of the negative criticism has focused on the question of accuracy and representation, while the positive reviewers have responded that accuracy doesn’t matter. In fact, accuracy does matter, but neither simply for the sake of being accurate nor simply for the sake of fair representation to identifiable groups (blacks, whites, etc.) Rather, it is a question of our psychic relation to the past and how the past continues to function in our shared culture as a marker for who we are and who we want to be. The past is a screen that we project ourselves upon, where we imagine political agency and power, and in this sense, what is disturbing about Lincoln and Django is that the directors are projecting a profoundly anti-social vision of human agency that is both ruthless and divorced from broad-based cultural work.

One Response to “Django Unchained, Lincoln, and the Use of History”

  1. steventhomas February 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    By the way, a great conversation about this, including some mention of my blog, took place at Wagner College on Lincoln’s birthday. See here: http://wagner.edu/newsroom/spielbergs-lincoln-what-do-you-think/.

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