I hope it is not being too melodramatic to state that slavery is a cancer on the history of the United States of America. (Just as it is on any nation that shipped in Africans, or other foreigners, to do their dirty work, pressing them into forced servitude.) That the descendents of those slaves had to wait until the year I was born before they achieved full voting rights is a further stain on a nation that loves to call itself “great.” I speak, of course, as an Englishman by birth – a native of a country that has plenty to be ashamed of in its history, and as a nation in the present day; I also speak as one of the gender which caused most of the trouble, so I speak of this issue objectively and without any sense of moral superiority.
As you may know, Roots, the 1977 TV miniseries that famously addressed the issue of slavery head-on, and it is said, changed attitudes across America, was my favourite programme as a schoolboy. I was so moved by and invested in the freeing of the black African slaves, thanks to Alex Haley’s book (which I chose to receive at a middle school prizegiving), that I wrote many diary entries of the time in phonetic Southern African-American; hence, the notoriously inept compliment from a besotted 12-year-old white English abolitionist, “Roots is mah favourite programme.” (This is all in my own memoir, whose roots have never been contested in court, as Alex Haley’s were.)
The issue of slavery was central to Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), although much of that film’s central story revolved around a Supreme Court ruling. It was however, unflinching in its portrayal of cruelty to African slaves. Its take-home message was: the only good white American is an abolitionist. Spielberg’s Lincoln, already Golden Globe-garlanded and likely to win Baftas and Oscars, is, by coincidence just one of two major motion pictures to address slavery this awards season. The other – quite, quite different in tone and effect – is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (honoured at the Globes for its screenplay, and for supporting actor Christoph Waltz). I saw both films last week – on the same day, believe it or not. And am moved to compare them.
Lincoln was initially conceived, with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), as a Presidential biopic, but in the event focuses on the knotty, nail-biting, filibustering progress through the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery for good. Taking place over a couple of months, it distils Lincoln’s presidency down to his most far-reaching achievement, which also marked the end of the Civil War, despite seemingly putting peace in jeopardy to many naysayers. The 16th President is brought back to life, with understated authority, by Daniel Day-Lewis, who resembles him physically (especially in great height), and sidesteps his usual showboating, which is apt, as, amid the eloquent barracking of 19th century politics, the President is mostly absent. We see him in back rooms, on the sidelines, manipulating and commentating.
Venerated by many as one of America’s greatest commanders in chief, he is cleverly lit and depicted in Lincoln as a kind of sepia deity. To many on the left, he was a hero, or a god, certainly a celeb. As he says, in one of his more animated moments, as the President he was “clothed in immense power”, and used it. And then he was shot dead. Revisionism has, naturally, taken place in the centuries since, and some historians enjoy calling him a “white supremacist” whose views on blacks were not entirely progressive. Such rewrites are not important to Spielberg’s black-and-white film. (Actually, even the most hardline Confederate in the Southern states today is probably beyond thinking slavery was a good thing. In that sense, it is a black-and-white issue.) At the time of the Civil War, many in the South felt that their economy would collapse if slavery was banned; perhaps it was less about race and human rights, and more about that age-old American concern of money.
Few black people appear in Lincoln. There are a couple of kindly servants at the White House (Gloria Reuben – Jeannie off of ER! – and Stephen Henderson), freed slaves of course but still essentially bowing and scraping to a white employer. But Lincoln is not about the plight of slaves, it is of their plight; although it does open on a rare action sequence (it’s mostly talking), in which black Union soldiers are attacked by white Confederates. A powerful case is then made, to Lincoln’s kindly face, by a Union soldier (our own David Oyelowo, off of Spooks) about the inequality of wages, and of the chances for promotion, in the US Army, at which even the Emancipation President is challenged about the woeful limits of his vision for equality, even after the Proclamation. Django Unchained, meanwhile, is full of black people. It takes place two years before the Civil War, and is, of course, a wholesale fantasy. It is probably unkind to compare it to Lincoln, but many will find it more palatable and entertaining, so it’s just as important.
Django is an African slave, chained and en route through Texas, who is effectively stolen by a foppish German bounty hunter Schultz (Christoph Waltz) at the beginning of the film; he is a prize because of information he has about certain slave owners with a bounty on their heads. The two hit it off, and after offering freedom to Django in exchange for his assistance, Schultz eventually takes him on as an “associate”, an equal. (When Django rides into town, the very idea of a “nigger” on horseback is enough to rile the locals.)
This against-the-grain, black-and-white merger is symbolic of Tarantino’s liberal wish-fulfillment: a white European and a black African taking revenge on evil white plantation owners, riding side by side as compatriots. When Django takes up the whip against one of his former masters, the poetic revenge is literal. The pair are initially driven by money (Django is promised a horse and $75 as well as his freedom), but their combined cause takes on a less mercenary, more ideological and political hue, as they home in on Leonardo Di Caprio’s arch-villain Calvin Candie, not just a sadistic slave-owner, but one who wheels and deals in the gentleman’s sport of “Mandingo fighting”, where black slaves are set upon each other like dogs, or cocks. He is a bad man. Schultz, who elevates Django to the status of the noble hero Siegfried in German mythology, is a good man, but rare among whites in being so.
Django Unchained might once, in the 70s, have been made by a black director, of whom there were very few, but it would have been for the midnight-movie circuit only. Today, thanks to the mainstream profile of Tarantino – Hollywood’s pet cult director, its “house rebel” – it is a major movie, taken seriously by critics and peers alike, and already stamped with award glory (including a Globe for Tarantino’s screenplay). As such, it sends out a powerful message. Equally, it preaches to the choir. If a single member of Hollywood’s royalty did not stand for Bill Clinton at the Golden Globes, he or she was not caught on camera.
Spike Lee has said he refuses to watch it, as for him, the issue is not suitable for entertainment, which this film surely is. It’s up to him, of course, but you might accuse Roots of being simplistic, or melodramatic, or even sentimental, about a serious issue, but it stirred the soul of at least one 12-year-old in England in 1977, and thousands more elsewhere, I suspect. Django Unchained strives for no such educational nobility or legitimacy; it is violent cartoon schlock, whose mischievous humour at one point strays into pure Mel Brooks territory, and in fact, by fantasising a black rebellion against the white oppressor in spaghetti western style, you could argue that it makes a mockery of the true violence done before emancipation.
You could also argue that sending a group of Jewish Americans out into a fantasy Nazi-occupied Europe to kill them (and carve swastikas into their foreheads), as Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds, mocks the memory of the millions who died in World War II. But it’s hard not to think of Nazis or cruel white slave-owners as “the baddies”, so who’s to dictate whether it’s in good or bad taste?
On points, I’d say that Lincoln is by far a better film than Django. It may be “boring” to some, but I lapped up its constitutional detail. It may iron out some of the inconsistencies that get in the way of Abe’s deification (ooh, his wife, Mary, came from a slave-holding family – that’s because there was slavery), but I still found it compelling. Tarantino’s film is uneven. It starts well, but descends into a relentless bloodbath; and even though it’s over two-and-a-half hours long, Django’s “journey” seems to jump-cut from character development to comic-book hero-avenger without a great deal of grey area in between. (Oh, and Waltz dominates for two thirds, and then sort of fades into the sidelines. Bad decision.)
That Tarantino wishes he’d been born black seems no longer in doubt. He’s been in trouble before for metronomic use of the n-word, although his previous films – including Jackie Brown, which drew a lot of heat – have been set post-reclamation of the word. Django is set at a time when “nigger” was a word filled exclusively with hate and oppression, and when Samuel L Jackson’s cowed, Uncle Tom-style butler uses it, we’re in very uncomfortable territory. This n-word is not spelled N-I-G-G-A. Perhaps it’s Quentin’s first truly responsible use of the epithet.
I realise I’ve just written an essay. Sorry about that. If I had been writing it for a magazine that was paying me to write it, I would have gone back and edited it.