Django vs Lincoln: clash of the slave films

Tarantino stands accused of blaxploitation, but does his movie tell a greater truth than Spielberg’s?

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
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For the video-shop employee turned geek god of cinema, Quentin Tarantino, dealing with outrage upon the release of his latest film has become a recurrent formality – another stop on the interminable press junket.

From the ear-slicing Reservoir Dogs to the Nazi-scalping Inglorious Basterds, he has always met suggestions that his films glorify violence with his characteristic, entertaining petulance. When asked by a critic in a 2003 interview why he is so enamoured with gruesome violence, Tarantino responded with gruff exasperation: ‘BECAUSE IT’S SO MUCH FUN, JAN! GET IT!’

Quite right. It’s certainly refreshing to see a director refusing to justify himself to squeamish, offence-seeking worry warts. But his latest addition to his genre flick odyssey, a blaxploitation spaghetti western, has attracted far weightier – if no less shrill – criticism.

Django Unchained is a slave revenge fantasy set two years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, complete with a fearsome body-count and more ‘n words’ than Eazy E’s entire back catalogue. The titular slave (Jamie Foxx) is freed by a verbose, German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), who, after enlisting Django’s help in wasting a few outlaws, decides to help him rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from effete plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Wary leftists from the African-American community joined an expected showing from the wrong-headed right in a fountain of blood-spitting. Cherished Malcolm X director Spike Lee has boycotted the film, taking to Twitter to declare: ‘American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honour Them.’ Meanwhile, Washington Times columnist Jeffrey T Kuhner denounced the film and Jamie Foxx’s recent Saturday Night Live monologue – in which he plugged Django and joked about how fun it was getting to kill so many white people – as blithely promoting Black Nationalism. This, Kuhner theorises, has the potential to plunge the nation into race war.

To make matters worse, mere weeks separated the release of Django Unchained and another film that deals with this tumultuous period in American history, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Dripping with Oscar-friendly worthiness, the script, flowing in time with the saccharine strings of John Williams’ score, enacts Honest Abe’s efforts to beg and bribe the Democrat opposition into voting through the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the dying days of the Civil War. A well-wrought study in portentous biopic blandness, it makes Django look all the more cavalier and needlessly provocative by comparison.

Nonetheless, no amount of blood-spatter and racial slurs changes the fact that Lincoln is by far the more offensive film.

For one thing, Tarantino doesn’t take nearly as much license with history as his bespectacled contemporary. Sure, Tarantino’s story is genre-based fiction and stylised to within an inch of its life – complete with quick zooms and a blustery theme tune for our heroic gunslinger – but its broad strokes don’t obscure the horrors of its subject matter. The most brutal scenes are not of slickly choreographed shoot-outs but of slaves being made to fight to the death for the entertainment of their master, or being set upon by dogs when they try to escape – the latter image haunting Waltz’s character until the bitter end.

Stevie, on the other hand, fudges his facts left and right. Reluctant to scupper the Lincoln mythos, he presents the sixteenth president as a life-long despiser of slavery who is prepared to risk ongoing war to rid the US of this ‘sickness’. This is tosh; for Lincoln the Thirteenth Amendment was a pragmatic move aimed at crippling the southern rebels, not a lifelong moral crusade. It wasn’t until years later that he was fully won over by such abolitionist firebrands as former slave, writer and lecturer Frederick Douglass, whose huge contribution to the movement, alongside the petitioning Women’s National Loyal League (who presented a 400,000-name petition to the US Congress in support of the amendment), is completely overlooked here.

In fact, the only prominent African-American characters are those of Lincoln’s servants, who seem to bask in his egalitarian glory, helping him with his coat and looking-on gooey-eyed as he heads off to change the world. Lincoln should by all means be celebrated, but papering over the cracks of his presidency does his legacy a disservice. While Django has been painted as bloody and exploitative, Lincoln’s inaccuracies render it deeply patronising.

Tarantino – in his own clumsy way – negotiates racial politics with nuance, producing some beguiling characters in the process. Waltz’s Dr King Schultz is a mass of contradictions – a gun-for-hire who is horrified by the slavers’ disregard for human life. Candie’s house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson, irresistibly evil) is another highlight – despising the field workers with the same spite as his silk-shirted owner, to whom he has become a surrogate father.

The stern, largely silent Django emerges from behind these more blustery, screen-stealing figures to exact his bloody revenge in the final act. Where Spielberg’s story ends with a whimper, Tarantino’s closes in the most thrilling, bullet-ridden piece of white apology you’re ever likely to see.

But is it liable to spark a race war? Pah! The only fracas you’re likely to see erupting at your local multiplex is between bored-to-blows patrons lashing out at the person who suggested seeing Lincoln instead of Django Unchained.

To them, show no mercy.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Django Unchained here:

See the trailer for Lincoln here:

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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