This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which most of us might vaguely remember as the thing that freed the slaves. But the thing that freed the slaves was in fact the passage of the 13th Amendment, two years later.
The often-dirty, passionate, behind-the-scenes machinations over the passing of that Amendment -- which outlawed slavery all over the country and hastened the end of the Civil War -- is the subject of “Lincoln,” Spielberg’s smart, respectful movie.
At the end of December, there was a special screening of "Lincoln" in D.C. for members of the Senate. The bipartisan audience ate it up. It offered all the self-justification they could ever need for their abysmal behaviors: The movie showed that 150 years ago, politicians played far dirtier pool.
And then along comes “Django Unchained,” another movie covering roughly the same period of time. But as opposed to the encyclopedic, presidents-with-golden-top-hats primer provided by “Lincoln,” this is a brutal, head-down-in-the-dirt version of slavery set in Texas and the South, two years before the Civil War.
Suffice it to say that “Django” (“the D is silent”) will never be shown in the Senate. As with all of Quentin Tarantino’s work, the movie is also a ferocious mix of his obsessions with black culture, B movies, '70s television, 1960s spaghetti westerns and theme songs, violence, vengeance, blood, his previous movies, and the n-word.
A Blaxsploitgettiwestern? Call it whatever you want, but the mushed-together-genre film provoked a media firestorm even before it was released.
Most prominently, director Spike Lee announced that he would not see it because it disrespects his ancestors: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them,” he tweeted.
Indeed, I can understand that for African-Americans, the fact that this out-there white guy thinks he’s a bona fide brother who can really get down with the language and culture is infuriating.
I felt the same way when I heard about “Inglorious Basterds.” I couldn’t stomach the idea of “lightening up” the Holocaust. For sure, the treatment was made-up, a-historical -- and, I had to admit in the end, brilliant.
“Django” is a harder pill to swallow. Of course it’s offensive and immoral to think of slavery as the subject of an exciting new action-entertainment genre for Tarantino to use for fun and profit.
But the ironic thing is that unlike the very respectful and respectable “Lincoln,” “Django” has really gotten audiences talking about the onerous subject of slavery. Perhaps because of -- rather than despite -- all of its anachronistic pop cultural add-ons, the film becomes more accessible to audiences, and provides a violent, oddball, bloody -- and at times, yes, funny -- context through which the misery and brutality of slavery becomes clearer. It offers much to chew over and fight about.
Of course, you have to get used to the lightning-quick switch between horror and hilarity. Like after the sadness of seeing a chain gang of slaves transported, you watch the introduction of Christoph Waltz as a German dentist turned bounty hunter. We know this fancy-spoken and beautifully dressed character used to be a dentist because he has a giant tooth bobbling on top of his wagon.
The character of Dr. King Schultz, however, allows Tarantino to set up a moral equivalent between bounty hunting -- getting paid for human flesh -- and slavery. And Schultz proposes to free Django so that he can teach him to become his assistant. He explains it this way, and I couldn’t help hearing the director’s own guilt in there: "On one hand, I despise slavery. On the other, I need your help, and if you're in no position to say no, all the better. I'm going to take advantage of the situation. But I feel guilty."
Eventually, Jamie Foxx, who does a great job going from abused slave to gunslinger, says: "Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What's not to like?" The second sentence especially is one of the contemporary phrases that Tarantino puts in his mouth that never would have been said in the 1860s. But it also sets up the whole mythic vengeance ending.
The film contains no delicate nuances in character. In two of the most horrific scenes, Tarantino shows that in Django’s quest to find and free his slave wife (Broomhilda von Shaft -- that name might be a little much) he can become as cruel and inhuman as the white overseers. And there’s Stephen, the head house Negro, in what might be Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance ever, as a snobby, diabolical, purely self-interested Uncle Tom.
The point is that the movie attacks and deconstructs from all sides, and takes on topics that you’d never dream of as comical.
One scene in the beginning is closer to Mel Brooks than QT -- and literally rips the lid off the idea of fierce Ku Klux Klansmen. It shows a proto-white-supremacist group going out for a lynching ride. The joke is that their hoods are so ill-fitting that most of them are riding blind. And when they pull those incredibly scary things off their heads, they are mostly sweaty young idiots (like Jonah Hill) with hat-hair underneath. Still on horseback, the group dissolves into fights about how badly one of the wives sewed the headgear, and her husband takes umbrage. Talk about deconstructing the face of evil!
The movie does go on too long, and could have had three good endings before the final frame. (Some say that’s because Tarantino’s longtime editor died suddenly before he started shooting.)
It might be taught in school that “Lincoln freed the slaves.” But what struck me from watching both “Lincoln” and “Django” was that emancipation is a process that took an impossibly long time, and is not finished. It was another hundred years of strife before President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which integrated public accommodations, like hotels, restaurants and water fountains -- was passed. And obviously, the stain of slavery affects us to this day.
In the end, “Django” provides a lens (and a distorted one, surely) through which to view a very tough subject and talk about it. Everyone from Matt Drudge to Louis Farrakhan has weighed in so far. Amazingly, both said the same thing: that the movie will foster a race war.
Bringing together the far right and the far left over their mutual hatred of your work is an accomplishment. Props to you, Quentin Tarantino.