Movies and History: Lincoln vs. Django

I must admit that the thought of somebody learning their history from movies makes me despair for the future of the human race. Imagine learning about World War 2 (or even just about spelling) from “Inglorious Basterds,” about U.S. Reconstruction from “Birth of a Nation,” or the American revolution from Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” just to take American history.  When it comes to world history United States produced films are even worse.  I am sure that there are people who learn history that way and please excuse me but I am not talking to you. The simple truth is that movies, whatever their historical setting, are about contemporary concerns and not the historical one they portray. This is not necessarily a bad thing.  If history is (as the ancient Greek father of history Thucydides told us long ago) about teaching moral lessons, the cinematic use of history to teach contemporary “lessons” is not too far out of bounds. If historians want to call the filmmakers out for distorting history they are certainly doing a public service and being true to their profession. They are also being beside the point. Movies doubtless distort history but so does historians’ history. The historians are supposedly kept in check by their colleagues who not only fact check and revise history they subscribe to an orthodoxy of method as well as a code of ethics.  Yet the best selling histories on the New York Times list are written by Bill O’Reilly. To be fair Mr. O’Reilly doesn’t have the opportunity to teach in college classrooms but only a minority of people learn their history there. The majority of people learn history from ideologues like Mr. O’Reilly or popular culture including the movies. These usually get the history wrong intentionally or unintentionally, in the interests of simplifying it or making a point.

All of this brings us to two current movies that purport to deal with race in the United States: Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Both historians and African American scholars of the historical or other persuasions have weighed in on the merits or shortcomings of each of these movies. As an example one of my colleagues has done so (http://www.bowdoin.edu/faculty/p/prael/django-unchained) and although he probably couldn’t go toe to toe with a film historian (or even Tarantino,) his nineteenth century African American history chops are excellent.  His take on these films is measured, well researched and interesting. I on the other hand am now retired and so I don’t have to be any of those things in my public writing. I can just write about my thoughts and  feelings after having seen both movies.

I would put “Lincoln” in the category of “my, wasn’t slavery hard on white people” as was Spielberg’s earlier movie about slavery “Amistad.” In fact his Schindler’s List was as much about a guilty accomplice to the Nazi atrocities as it was about the Jews or victims of those atrocities. Applying our principle of contemporaneous real themes, “Lincoln” was a message to elected officials to hold firm to principle while doing whatever it takes to get the job done. If that is change, publicly lying about your principles,  making political deals, buying votes etc, so be it. Are you listening President Obama? I must add that Spielberg is an accomplished film maker (so was D.W. Griffith the director of birth of a Nation) and “Lincoln” is a well made movie.  I was especially impressed by the art direction which made mid-nineteenth century Washington and surrounding areas look sufficiently raw and primitive. The acting by Daniel Day-Lewis was superb and the rest of the acting ensemble was adequate to good. Many have complained that it could have told us more about history by taking a wider swath both in time and by including more actors or having more for them to do. That’s a fair criticism but not my major objection to the movie.  The movie is built to appeal to the liberal white viewer and only has a role for blacks as noble victims in it.  By now Hollywood should be beyond this underestimation of its audience. The movie’s thrust therefore seems to me outdated.  Yes these are the people who vote for the Academy Awards and such, but they are not the real America that is coming into being. The movie and at least the audience I saw it with therefore skews old.

“Django Unchained” however doesn’t have that problem. Although it uses the form of the “spaghetti western” from the sixties and seventies it has just as much kinship with the first person shooter video games of the last few years.  The progression of the musical score from spaghetti western music to Tupac provides some evidence for this. Tarantino movies have a commonality (he’s really a one trick pony when it comes to themes):  righteous anger which explodes into violence e.g. Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds. This is the contemporary theme in Django. Its naturalistic (not necessarily realistic)  portrayals of the atrocities inherent in slavery (when something gives absolute legal power over others for as long as slavery did, there are few atrocities that did not occur) make the violence which Django perpetrates completely righteous and justified. The cheers and the verbal approval given these acts of violence (oh and I must say that Django is very, very violent) by my audience, testify to the acceptance of this theme. Its climactic, over the top bloodbath was hard for an old fuddy duddy like myself to watch.

Critics have pointed to the violence in movies like Django and video games as a cause of the violence we see in America.  They blame the tragedies in Colorado and Connecticut on the glorification of violence in our popular culture.  I wonder whether the causal arrow actually  goes the other way.  These games and movies are popular because of the violence in some ways inherent in our culture. I would much rather see that violence expressed virtually in video games or subliminally in movies than acted out in elementary or other schools and theaters. How many real atrocities have been averted rather than caused because of these outlets. Tarantino is not as accomplished a film maker as Spielberg and the films show that.  I also must admit that there was more levity in Django than Lincoln which drowns in its own earnestness. At the same time there is a generational difference between the two directors, the audiences they aim at and consequently the movies they have produced. Tarantino’s movie is directed at the underdog while Spielberg’s is directed at those in power. Spielberg’s movie ignores black agency and Tarentino’s reduces it to a revenge fantasy. Neither tells the real story of slavery but each is in its own way a contemporary fable with a moral to make. Hollywood will probably never make a movie that tells the truth about slavery and its abolition.  That won’t be its goal and probably not its job.  It can however tell better moral fables than these. I just won’t hold my breath.

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