Column: Keeley's Corner
Freedom, Through Law And Vengeance
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 17, 2013 20:01
How do you make entertainment out of a subject as loaded as American slavery? It’s a question that has haunted cinema since its very beginnings. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is widely acknowledged as one of the most technically innovative movies ever made, with its epic scale and thrilling use of intercutting forever changing the nature of narrative filmmaking. It is also notoriously racist, with a portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force uniting the nation against belligerent, sexually predatory blacks. Even in the less-enlightened times of 1915, the movie proved so controversial that Griffith spent the rest of his career atoning for it with liberal-minded films like Intolerance, the inter-racial romance Broken Blossoms and an Abraham Lincoln biopic.
Nearly a century later, the debate about how to treat the subject seems no less settled than it was in Griffith’s day. Lincoln and Django Unchained have both garnered substantial critical praise and Oscar nominations, but they’ve also drawn the ire of a vocal minority for inappropriately dealing with the subject. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has been accused of being a mythic simplification of history, a hero-worshipping portrait of Lincoln that has little sense of the black experience or the realities of war. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s provocative slavery revenge fantasy, has drawn far more controversy with accusations of irreverence, immaturity, and racism. The director Spike Lee, who has scuffled with Tarantino in the past, passed judgment on Twitter, saying “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.”
Lee is right, of course—but that doesn’t make Django Unchained an illegitimate way of treating the subject. If Lee actually bothered to see the movie, he might be surprised to find that amid all the gleeful carnage and genre movie references is a pretty serious movie about the injustice of slavery. But I wouldn’t count on it. Like so many other critics of Django and Lincoln, Lee sees the movie through a politically correct filter that allows him to criticize it for what it isn’t rather than appreciating it for what it is.
What, then, do these movies have to offer? To my eyes, they are two seriously shrewd, diametrically opposed but weirdly complementary movies about America’s most horrific legacy. How do you confront the evils of slavery? In Lincoln, the answer is through legal procedures, political arm-twisting, and above all, compromise. In Django Unchained, compromise is rejected: as so often in Tarantino’s movies, justice must ultimately come through bloodletting.
Of course, slavery was ultimately abolished through a combination of these two factors: the 13th Amendment made it official, but only after the deaths of 750,000 Americans. Lincoln dramatizes the first half of this equation, and what impresses me above all about the movie is its singular focus. Despite all appearances, Lincoln is not your typical bloated biopic: it is tightly confined, in subject and mood. It rarely leaves the claustrophobic, musty setting of the 1865 White House, and what emerges from the movie’s exquisitely written and acted scenes of political maneuvering is a great movie about the political process—about achieving a noble end through decidedly imperfect means. Yet, toward the end, Spielberg reminds us of the larger picture. For a movie dominated by talk, Lincoln’s most haunting scene is a silent one, as Lincoln sadly tours the carnage of a battlefield, surveying the tragic human cost needed to make the legislation a reality.
Django Unchained is about vigorously rejecting compromise: its climax turns on the refusal to shake hands with an evil slaver, initiating a massive bloodbath. The last half hour of the movie, in which Django enacts his revenge, showcases Tarantino’s penchant for comically over-the-top violence, and it’s as hilariously campy and ridiculous as anything he’s done. But crucially, Django never trivializes the violence doled out to slaves. Those moments are deadly serious and repulsive, and the movie has a strong empathy for the slave characters. The movie’s final shootout is so wonderfully cathartic because it’s been built upon such horrific images, so that every killing seems justified. The movie is like a hallucinatory trip into Tarantino’s mind, in which moral outrage is channeled into merciless revenge, western-style. Or, to borrow from Tarantino’s own oeuvre, the movie is the ultimate embodiment of that fake Ezekiel quote from Pulp Fiction, showing that the only response to the greatest evils are great vengeance and furious anger.
Spielberg has made a respectable, Oscar-friendly movie—Tarantino, not so much. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lincoln wins Best Picture, nor would I be disappointed. But in the spirit of compromise, I propose a new category. If ever there were a Best Double Feature of 2012, this is surely it.