“In Lincoln, the abolition of slavery is the goal of the narrative; the closing scenes are intended to confirm our notion of a historical trajectory that moves from injustice to justice. In Django Unchained, the narrative is simpler, but the notions of justice and history are more complex. The story gives no hint that slavery will ever be abolished. It presents an America that has yet to escape its foundational sin, and may never be able to.”
It is a truism too often forgotten that what begins as movie can end up as history. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Oliver Sacks reminds us that Ronald Reagan was fond of telling a story on the campaign trail about a heroic WWII bomber pilot going down with his plane; it later came out that this was not a historical event at all, but a scene from a the movie A Wing and a Prayer. In the aftermath of 9/11, initiating the manhunt for Bin Laden, George Bush memorably declared that “There’s an old poster out West that I recall that said, ‘Wanted — Dead or Alive.'” This is a phrase far more common in cinema than it ever was in real life. In neither case was the politician lying, or probably even aware that his memories of movies had become so mingled with his memories of history that the two could not be separated. They were simply employing for rhetorical purposes what they believed to be truths about American history.
There is such strangeness in this alchemy — Hollywood dreams up stories and puts them on the screen and they come to be seen as historical truth — that it’s worth noting the rare moment when different versions of these stories appear side by side. This past winter, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, was paired in theaters with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, about a freed slave’s quest to rescue his wife from slavery. The films gave us two narratives on the same topic — slavery — made by two directors standing at antipodes of the film world. Spielberg is America’s director, a craftsman who makes expertly told, traditionally structured, and emotionally driven narratives. Tarantino is boisterous and schlocky, a provocateur at heart, who believes in the high virtue of referentiality. The contrast between these directors’ visions is illuminating not only in terms of our relationship with the legacy of slavery — it also offers an object lesson in the creation of our national myth.
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The narrative Lincoln places before us is the more familiar of the two. The plot focuses on the struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, and the film takes as its stage the halls of political power. It gives us some good guys (uncompromising abolitionists), some bad guys (those who wouldn’t end slavery, or would argue for compromises with the South), a few loveable rogues, and a protagonist, in President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is battered by his responsibilities and by the complications of the debate, but sees his way through to do the right thing.
The film uses a common storytelling device to frame this narrative. It opens with a confrontation between Lincoln and two African American soldiers. Standing in the rain, before they depart to battle, these men recite to the President the words of his own Gettysburg Address. They are asking him, in essence, to make good on the pledge he has made. In the closing of the film, we are given a bookend to this scene. During the final debate over the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives, a group of African American spectators is let into the gallery to watch the proceedings. After a vigorous debate, the Amendment passes, and they weep in gratitude. The effect of this framing device is to cast Lincoln’s journey through the film as that of a hero attempting to live up to his own promise. In this, it is also an enactment of a common reading of American history: we are descended from a series of benevolent and wise founders, who struggled against one malignant force after another to bring to fruition their noble ideas.
But Spielberg’s film is not simply about the American myth — it is about the specific question of the role of the institution of slavery in American history. The vision promoted by Lincoln in this regard might best be described as a sort of triumphalism. The film plays as a battle against a great, historical evil, which is almost abstract in nature. We do not see slaves, or slave life. We see very little violence of any sort. The film takes for granted our assent in its vision: it does not show us the effects of slavery, because it knows that we already know slavery is evil. What the film is interested in, and what it believes we are interested in, are the mechanics of the vanquishing of this evil. In this sense, it plays like a war movie conducted in the style of a courtroom drama: we get discussions of strategy and scenes of decision makers agonizing over decisions that will cost the lives of soldiers, but the action plays out through dialogue and argument, sweeping rhetorical set pieces. It is not a story of pain but a story of triumph. Thus, it does not close with the vote to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, or even with Lincoln’s death. Instead, it closes with a dissolve to a shot of Lincoln delivering the final paragraph of his Second Inaugural address, declaiming that it is time “to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
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The vision of Django Unchained is much different. The film opens in Texas, with the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) being freed by a white bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), who needs his help to identify several wanted men. Django ends up partnering with Shultz, becoming a gunfighter and collecting bounty money all over the West; eventually they venture to one of the most notorious plantations in Mississippi to free Django’s wife. To pull this off, Django must disguise himself as a black slaver. He is forced to observe, and pretend complicity with, acts of terrible violence against slaves. In the mayhem that closes the movie, the bounty hunter Shultz is killed, the plantation is annihilated, and Django and his wife escape.
This narrative does not approach slavery as the story of victor (us) and vanquished (our evil past), nor does it pivot on our contemporary feelings of pride over the abolition of the institution. Instead, it treats slavery as a still enraging and continually present aspect of American life: it assumes an audience that feels a deep and abiding anger about slavery, so much so that it can draw its emotional energy from graphic violence delivered onto the practitioners of the institution. In Lincoln, the abolition of slavery is the goal of the narrative; the closing scenes are intended to confirm our notion of a historical trajectory that moves from injustice to justice. In Django Unchained, the narrative is simpler, but the notions of justice and history are more complex. The story gives no hint that slavery will ever be abolished. It presents an America that has yet to escape its foundational sin, and may never be able to. The protagonist cannot dream of ending the institution or even, really, battling it; the most he can do is get his wife back.
These complications in Tarantino’s vision are worth pausing on for a moment. As with all of his work, the essence of the film emerges out of what we might call the “cool.” This sense of cool (it is a word that pops up often Tarantino’s dialogues: “I need you cool! Are you cool?”) emerges from his distinct imagining of style, or élan: the characters are unflappable, the soundtracks have a greatest-song-you’ve-never-heard quality, the verbal sparring is impossibly clever, and the image world is heightened and luminous. Django Unchained, in this sense, is one of Tarantino’s coolest films. It is filled with clever references to the history of cinema; the film’s villain, Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio), is magnificently and evilly articulate; hip-hop pops up on the soundtrack; and there is the requisite montage to a ’70s song. Perhaps the finest shot in the film is of two beers being poured in a Western saloon: it is a small, tight filmic lesson on how to take an ordinary action and elevate it to something mythic. At the same time, Django Unchained is also the story of the character Django learning the cool. In the beginning, as a recently freed slave, he has no sense of style: when Shultz offers to buy him a suit of clothes, Django chooses a suit so ostentatious that we are invited to laugh at him. By the end, however, he has emerged into his own and is the coolest cat there is, a black gunfighter in sunglasses, dealing death and spouting brilliant dialogue.
This evolution in the film touches on a significant fact: Tarantino’s vision of the cool has, since the beginning, had a racial element. Race has always been a controversial aspect of his movies, particularly his continued and heavy use of the word “nigger” in his dialogues. Less noted has been the degree to which his films participate in a long tradition of assigning an existential coolness to African American culture. Perhaps the best example of this tradition is Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro,” in which Mailer argues on behalf of an existential state that he calls the “Hip,” for which the model is the African American. “It is no accident that the source of the Hip is the Negro,” Mailer writes, “for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.” This leads to a specifically existential worldview, because “any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.”
This white fascination with qualities ascribed to black culture is a common theme in the last century of our history. It is explored (from the other side) in the work of authors like Ralph Ellison and James Alan McPherson; it played a much-debated role in the white suburban embrace of gangsta rap. It is also embodied in many of Tarantino’s films. These are a catalog of characters living amongst the particular dangers presented by their fellow human beings, living with violence and the possibility of persecution, and reacting through a kind of existential embrace of the implications of this situation. This narrative has other cultural precursors, of course: noir literature and film, the jazz scene of the ’50s and ’60s, the Beats, and the sulking duck-tailed urban dropout embodied by James Dean or the Jets and the Sharks. But in Tarantino, blackness has always been equated with hipness, with the cool: witness Samuel Jackson’s existential journey in Pulp Fiction, or the entire thematic structure of Jackie Brown. In this sense, a neglected element of the conversation about Tarantino’s continual usage of the word “nigger” is precisely that he uses it as a talisman to evoke white conceptions of African American cool, in nearly exactly the terms laid out by Mailer. Django Unchained constitutes the furthest extension of this approach. Its view of the circumstances of African American life is not unproblematic, and is in some obvious ways fetishistic; at the same time, however, it takes the most iconic and existentialist figure in American cinema — the gunfighter — and turns him into a black man.
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Violence is the other element that undergirds Django Unchained. For Tarantino, violence is never casual. It is always in response to a breach of code, and it nearly always serves as a tool of reawakening. He explains this method in the opening dialogue in his first film, Reservoir Dogs, which takes place among a group of criminals sitting around a table in a diner. Tarantino, playing one of the criminals, delivers a riff on Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin.” The song is definitely not, he explains, about a woman who is discovering love again and thus feeling as if she is again, in a romantic way, a virgin. The song is about a promiscuous woman who, from being with a well-endowed man, is again discovering the pain of losing her virginity. It is a classic Tarantino bit, combining a blank-faced vulgarity, a phenomenal ear for spoken language, and the ability to find powerful symbolic resonance in pop culture. Beyond this, it provides a thematic encapsulation of the movie that follows: Reservoir Dogs is the story of what happens to this group of hardened criminals, men accustomed to violence, when they are pushed into a situation that forces them to discover anew the pain of violence itself. Through confusion, betrayal, and psychopathy, they themselves become the reawakened “virgins” that Tarantino’s reading of the Madonna song presages.
Tarantino’s subsequent films follow directly from this. In Reservoir Dogs, the criminals are betrayed in their code of conduct; all of the violence of the film is a consequence of these betrayals. Similarly, Pulp Fiction is centered on a number of breached ethical codes, from the prizefighter who welches on his promise to throw a fight to the kids who have stolen from a crime boss, and the entire structure of Kill Bill revolves around a character revenging a betrayal and thus reawakening to her lost life. Django Unchained (like Inglourious Basterds) takes this thematic obsession and projects it onto a historical stage. On the historical level, the violence results from the existence of slavery; on the personal level, it results from the destruction of Django’s marriage and the treatment of his wife. Much ink has been spilled over the moment in the film in which Shultz proposes a partnership, and Django proclaims, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?” This line has also been stretched into the claim that all of the white people in the film get killed. This is neither literally nor thematically true. The only whites killed during the course of the movie are those that are guilty of crimes themselves, including the crime of slavery. Early in the film Django and Shultz pass through a western town made up exclusively of white people; the only person they kill is the man wanted dead or alive by the law.
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In these lineaments — the cool and the violent — the differences between Tarantino’s Spielberg’s visions come most clearly into focus. One of the notable things about Lincoln is its bloodlessness: the defenders of the institution of slavery, from soldiers to politicians, are presented as rational (if bigoted) men attempting to preserve an abstract historical institution. The battle is conducted through oratory, and the whole reads at times like no more than an extended example of the knotty problems of governing, comparable to our contemporary Congressional squabbles. Neither the characters nor the events are, in Tarantino’s terms, cool or violent. They are stodgy and dull and sentimental. This is American history as a long series of arguments, a vision in which our current circumstances have been reached by a succession of victories of morality and idea.
In Django, our history, and the centrality of slavery in it, is nothing if not violent and existential. Django, the ex-slave, has to learn to shoot, and he has to learn how to dress. He is an agent of retributive justice, and he wears a pair of round, John Lennon-style sunglasses. The villain (it is worth noting that Lincoln has no villain) is the slaveholder Calvin Candy. He is evil, and as loquacious as anyone in Spielberg’s film; he is suave, and he dispatches his slaves casually and horrifically. At the center point of the movie, he delivers a long, intimidating speech on phrenology. The difference between the races, he explains, is physiological: the construction of the African American skull reveals the construction of their brains, and it is this construction that makes them inferior. (It is a scene that resonates creepily with the writings of Jason Richwine, recently in the news, who has devoted a great deal of time arguing that immigrants have lower IQs that “white natives.”) Here, we are at the epicenter of Tarantino’s vision: the villain is exactly as cool and violent as the hero. Given this tenuous balance, morality becomes a matter of keeping, and defending, a code. This is American history as a story in which the qualities of greatness are also the qualities of terror; it is a vision that understands the double-edged nature of our proclivity for violence and our existential belief in the individual.
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Finally, there is the matter of the films’ view of the role of race in our history. Lincoln’s America is a country founded on promises made by the white founding fathers; other races, cultures, and sexes achieved these promises because the white men fought on their behalf. One could watch the film and come away with the notion that it was primarily Abraham Lincoln himself who was responsible for freeing the slaves. One could also come away feeling that the primary response that African Americans ought to have toward slavery is to thank white people for freeing them from it. Numerous historians have, of course, pointed out that in historical terms, this aspect of the film is deeply flawed. It was not Lincoln, or even white politicians, who ended the institution of slavery; rather it was ended by a broad coalition of people, including slaves and freed slaves acting through uprising and social insurrection. To present things otherwise, historians point out, is to perpetuate a notion of white power and black dependency that has pernicious implications.
It’s true that Tarantino’s telling is in some ways even less historically accurate. He references the Ku Klux Klan decades before they came into being (this is a shot at John Ford, he has explained, who was a Klansman extra in The Birth of a Nation.) He invents a bloodsport called “Mandingo Fighting” in which slave owners force their slaves to fight to the death, for which there seems to be no historical precedent (though there is a cinematic precedent in Richard Fleischer’s 1968 Mandingo). Nor is his treatment of race unproblematic.
Having said this, it is important to remember how unusual Django Unchained is in terms of its racial depictions. The film closes with Django walking away from the flames of Calvin Candy’s plantation to meet his wife, who is waiting with their horses. He climbs onto his horse and, in an expression of his cool, marked with a playful edge, performs a little riding show for his wife — he dances the horse, makes it walk in a comical, stiff-legged, show gait. They ride off into the night. We do not imagine that they are riding off to free all of the slaves in the world, but are instead riding off, as they would in a Western, into the metaphorical sunset of their own dreams and happiness.
This last is significant. Like all of the white screen cowboys before him, Django is not asked to bear any societal weight; he is free from any responsibilities except for those he has chosen. He is not tied to the responsibilities of racial identity, but is a broadly representative type of American: free, master of his destiny. It is exactly this freedom that, for nearly the entire history of Hollywood, has been the province of white characters. In the jaunty dance steps that Django has his horse perform, in the laughing showmanship of it, we find a stinging rebuttal to the roles afforded the African American characters in Lincoln: Django is powerful, graceful, and has a sense of humor; he has pulled himself up from the lowest imaginable societal position to establish his independence. And this is not just any independence, but that of the cowboy, perhaps the most central mythic archetype in American history.
When some future politician is reaching for rhetorical flourish, will he or she alight on Lincoln’s vision of slavery as a great, abstract historical evil over which the nation triumphed? Or will the vision be Django‘s, one of slavery as a strain of racial violence, perpetuated by monstrous people backed by false science, an issue unsettled enough to still be enraging today? We will not know until it happens, but it’s entertaining to think of a future Texas politician explaining how he remembers the old western story of a slave who broke free — because he had the spirit of a cowboy, a rugged individualist, a true American — and then risked his life to go back and rescue his wife.