The Slavery Double
Slavery is the biggest blight on American history. There are other big blights, such as the fate of the Native Americans and The Great Depression, but let’s be honest – the brutality inherent in slavery is pretty much the same kind of brutality that went into say, Nazsim. It’s the same racist trope. Living it down is not an option, so America lurches from one moment of racist diatribe to the next, forever trying to extinguish the evil fire of racism that launched and managed slavery in America.
It’s not a popular topic, and in most part Hollywood has stayed right clear of wanting to talk about it. Certainly up until the 1960s when the civil rights movement came of age, Hollywood didn’t exactly examine this part of American cultural history too closely. Judging from these two films, you get the feeling that maybe Hollywood can finally try and get at this vexing topic. Both ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Lincoln’ are attempts to frame slavery in the centre of the American picture.
The N-Word Goes To Work
Quentin Tarantino loves to use the n-word in his films. He’s come under a lot of criticism for that, but in ‘Django Unchained’, he’s devised a film where he’s allowed to have the word repeated over and over and over without having to answer to the brigade of people who would level these accusations at his films. It’s almost as if he’s gone and devised this film so he can stick it up the brigade’s collective noses. ‘Django Unchained’ relishes in the use of the n-word. Freed from contemporary nuance, the cast freely toss the word around like it is going out of fashion, because in a very real way, it has. Even the main character Django played by Jaime Foxx seems to relish the use of the word.
The effect is a perverse affirmation of the word in isolation to its more recent-historic baggage. The white Americans in this film are so repugnant (now, there‘s a word Samuel L. Jackson has patented for himself), the generous doses of the n-word bandied about becomes a cloud of bad faith and bad will.
In contrast ‘Lincoln’ uses the word as well, but you get the feeling that everybody’s forgotten the actual invective invested in the word; That not only is a black man born inferior, doomed and forsaken, that they should wear the dishonour like a manacle.
When you watch the two films back to back, you get the feeling Spielberg is trying to skirt the word because he doesn’t want to end up in front of the critical brigade that usually rounds in on Quentin Tarantino. The avoidance is palpable. There is a lot of talk about the immorality of slavery and a lot of characters seem to need convincing of this in ‘Lincoln’, which I suppose is meant to highlight the context of the struggle, but you get the feeling the film’s words slip by you because there’s this strong urge to be polite about something that is fundamentally impolite – and therefore impolitic.
White Guilt On Parade?
Quentin Tarantino is probably a little bit more radical than Steven Spielberg in making his movie the way that he has. He has essentially reached into the racist slavery-ridden past of the South and packaged up what is ostensibly a spaghetti western entertainment that’s loaded with the squirm-worthy pungent past of the South. Spielberg on the other hand has delivered a kind of history lesson about just how great Abraham Lincoln was – just in case we missed that at school. Abraham Lincoln is of course trying to bring an end to slavery in his film, but because the film is sanitised, it doesn’t really show the brutality of slavery. Instead it shows the brutality of the Civil War, which, while being brutal is not really the central problem.
Spielberg’s film is even more curious as it trundles to the end, where Lincoln is shot off-camera and dies in bed on camera, but then we’re left with him making yet another important speech and fading to black. It’s pretty clear that Spielberg doesn’t want to go warts and all into his subject, but rather deliver a kind of secular hagiography of one of the more respectable Presidents of the USA. While this might be perfectly sensible for the film (it is more than a little tedious to watch), when compared to Tarantino’s film, it is obvious just how much Spielberg would not want to tangle with the banal brutality that was slavery in the USA. Tarantino wants to embrace the shame and try and make the entire audience share in the shame, and make sure it becomes part of the lore. Where Spielberg trembles with white guilt, Tarantino enforces in us the shame.
Recoiling At The Horror Of Equality
Both films naturally get to feature characters who laugh at the thought that a black man could be the equal of the white man. This is probably one of those types that have to turn up in movies about racism. In ‘Lincoln’ we see straight-faced arguments why slaves should not be free, including the fearful notion that if black men were equal, then maybe women might be as well. ‘Django Unchained’ is also shot through with the discourse about equality, though it is also undercut with significant irony as white people make quite a bit of fools of themselves in Tarantino’s film.
It’s interesting how both films clutch at the notion of equality as the rallying point but both films deflect themselves away from how such equality can be delivered. In other words, the seemingly finished conflict is actually very much alive, just off screen. Spielberg’s film in one sense argues that legal equality is all there is, and once this is established, then all things will lead to equality. You sort of wonder if he really lived through the 1960s at all. Tarantino’s film says that equality comes from the muzzle of the gun; that violence is the great leveler – not the law.
Tarantino’s film is a proper film masquerading as a B-movie. Spielberg’s film is an ordinary tele-movie masquerading as an A movie.