If you were in the mood to see an epic movie about slavery and America’s bloody past and thought you’d check out Spielberg’s highly anticipated Lincoln – stop right now, return to the ticket counter, and go instead to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest stylistic masterpiece Django Unchained. Not only is it a far more original exploration of Civil War-era-America, it is also far more entertaining. While Spielberg’s tale will have viewers exiting the cinema in a complete and total patriotic coma, Tarantino’s will have audiences walking out dripping in the blood, gore and guts of American history.
Both Django Unchained and Lincoln set out to tell the story of the period during which the Civil War took place and slavery was abolished. But whereas Spielberg uses his film to tell a digestible historical narrative in which US congressmen are heroes and Lincoln is the great saviour, Tarantino uses his movie to turn the traditional narrative on its head, hold the perpetrators of violence accountable, and confront the viewer with the immense barbarity of slavery and the laws that kept it in place.
From the outset, Spielberg makes every attempt to naturalise his setting, transforming the Lincoln world into ‘reality’, and it’s hard to deny that the film – with a Daniel Day Lewis that looks uncannily like the sixteenth president – is convincing at first. But Spielberg does so little in the way of character development, or with dialogue and plot, that the experience of watching the film is less akin to being transported through time, and more comparable to spending three hours staring at an exhibit in a history museum. (It doesn’t help that a high percentage of the film is spent with President Lincoln reciting rambling monologues. In one scene, Lincoln is about to give another drawn-out speech when one of the characters calls out ‘No! not another story!’. IMO, if your own characters are telling your other characters to shut up, the scene probably needs cutting.) Lincoln’s camerawork and music also attempt to naturalise the story unfolding on screen, but the music is so contrived that it at times feels like watching a movie-length episode of the West Wing.
Lincoln is presented as a credible telling of how events came to pass, while Django Unchained hints to the viewer throughout the film that this is but one representation of a much-represented history. The film opens with the familiar Western setting: a rocky desert plain with a line of cowboys on horses strutting across the horizon. And yet, Tarantino’s sets are so flat and stage-like that he makes clear this is not ‘history’, but rather a theatrical enterprise, which the viewer can interact with and interpret as they wish. Likewise, Tarantino’s camerawork and music montages, which brilliantly combine RnB, rap and classical music, don’t eliminate the barrier between viewer and film but actually serve to magnify it, jolting us out of the usual passive movie-going complacency.
Tarantino’s characters also function as tools to make us think long and hard about problems with the typical narrative of American history. Many of them bring to mind the familiar stereotypes of past films – yet, the cowboy hero in this western is not John Wayne but Django, the freed slave on a quest to save his ladylove, the German-speaking Brunhilda von Schaft. Although these characters are familiar, they are anything but predictable. They are interesting, multi-dimensional and likable and throughout the movie we watch them grow and develop and reveal depths.
Importantly, although Lincoln purports to be a movie about slavery and its abolition, the only people of color included in the movie are servants who do nothing much besides nod and smile, or soldiers who ‘proudly’ die for their country, or the hidden mistress who happily greets her Congressmen lover on his return from the chambers to say that the abolition of slavery (not universal enfranchisement) ‘is more than enough for now’.
That is what is most striking: the way slavery is positioned in these two films. In Lincoln, slavery is identified as something negative, though it doesn’t appear as something any of the film’s main actors are responsible for. It is not shown to be an institution enshrined in law by the forefathers of American democracy, nor as violence perpetrated by one group of Americans upon another; rather, it is a situation all Americans simply find themselves in, then must fight against together. What is made to seem extraordinary in Lincoln is not the fact that the brutal institution of slavery existed in America at all, but that Lincoln and his fellow Congressmen brought it to an end.
Django Unchained, on the other hand, makes America at the time seem unnatural – and completely and utterly absurd. It is no coincidence that for much of the movie the audience views the events unfolding through the eyes of a foreigner – the quirky German intellectual who makes it his duty to point out the hypocrisy of a country that claims to be at the forefront of democracy while enacting a practice as barbaric as slavery.
Moreover, in Django Unchained slavery is not something that exists without cause. It is, instead, something that all the white characters in the film are completely responsible for, from the ranch-hands who take any opportunity to whip, rape and torture those under their control to the powerful lawmakers and sheriffs, to the rich, educated, eloquent and ‘civilised’ plantation owners who force their slaves to beat each other to a pulp in their lounge rooms while they sip champagne.
Tarantino is frequently criticised for using an inappropriate amount of violence. But in this instance at least, the level of violence is necessary to portray the horrendous nature of slavery. Tarantino’s depictions of characters being beaten, raped, humiliated and torn apart are so stomach-churning that it’s impossible not to get a sense of the brutality that characterised the time.
In contrast, the violence in Lincoln occurs only outside the walls of the ‘civilised’ central characters. It is not the violence inherent in the master/slave relationship and it is not violence that anyone in the film actively participates in. The servants working inside the home of the main characters are treated only with kindness, and thus in response, they look on at their bosses with awe and admiration. In this way, all the main actors of this film are expunged of any of the responsibility for slavery and, by extension, the viewer can walk out of the film with a clean conscience and a feeling that all is well in America today.