Segment from Real to Reel

History Guys Unchained

The hosts discuss which is a more useful film: Lincoln or Django Unchained.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
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BRIAN: This is BackStory. And today we’re talking about American history in the movies.

ED: hosts, you’ll have noticed that two of the biggest names in American film, Spielberg and Tarantino, have movies out sort of walking all over history. And I have to say, they’re 19th century.

BRIAN: What a surprise, Ed.

ED: I know. Django Unchained is a Quentin Tarantino movie that’s a fantasy about revenge of an enslaved man who gets a chance to overthrow the entire system of slavery with dynamite and revolvers. Lincoln is the story of how the 13th Amendment comes at the end of this horrible Civil War and sort of redeems the nation from slavery.

And you read the press about these things as I have, and people are arguing about which of these movies is a better representation of slavery. So let’s start with Django. What do we make of that?

PETER: Well, I call it a kind of cartoon, a pornographic cartoon. The violence is over-the-top. It’s highly stylized. I don’t think it tells us anything really about slavery.

Yeah, slavery’s terrible. It’s based on force. But does this give us any sense of the lived experience of slavery? I think this movie’s problem is that it’s too easy to like. It’s pushing all of our buttons now.

BRIAN: Peter, you call it pornographic. I do think it’s graphic. And the visceral nature of Django really conveyed to me– and granted, I’m not an expert in this field– but it conveyed to me both the totality of slavery and just how ingrained it was in the tiniest movements of life. And I think about that enslaved man who is cowering in a tree because he’s refusing to fight other African-Americans for the profit of slave owners. And he finally comes down from that tree and is ripped apart by dogs.

I think about the woman who has run away. Her punishment Is to be literally almost baked to death in a hot box.

ED: And Brian, does it matter to you that both of those would never have happened in those ways?

BRIAN: It doesn’t, Ed. Because to be reminded, yes, albeit in cartoon-like fashion, that this is a system of human labor that rests on violence 24/7, I thought, was a really useful corrective too– let’s think about the other films, after all, we have to think about film history– a corrective to Gone with the Wind, or a corrective to the oeuvre movie, not about slavery about post-slavery, Birth of a Nation. And I think, look, we talk about revisionist history. Well, this is revisionist history of film.

ED: I think, Brian, you’re right that he does pillage all the other movies of the past just like he does in every other movie he makes. And it is winking. And it is funny.

And he has himself blown up with dynamite. It’s all hilarious. But I would say Tarantino does not actually respect history. He does not actually respect the resistance of actual human [INAUDIBLE].

PETER: Yes, yes.

ED: If it had been possible to blow slavery up, it would have been blown up. There’s a reason that this injustice went on for generation after generation after generation. And you would know less about it after watching this movie than you would have before it.

BRIAN: Ed, Peter I can’t argue about the historical reality. And in fact, I have read at least some of the same books about slavery that you have. But here’s the thing, none of them evokes the kind of emotional response that Django evoked for me.

Now, Peter, you call that pornography. I call that accessing an emotional place that only art can access. And I do want to remind you these are films. This is art. This is not history.

ED: But, Brian, it’s what emotions do we want to access? And what Peter is saying, these are cheap emotions.

PETER: Too easy. That’s what I’m telling you.

BRIAN: I’ve always been called a cheap date. This is true.

ED: This is the flip-side of a sentimental movie. What you don’t see is the ingrained violence that does not actually require the infliction of violence.

PETER: I think it’s the violence that is built into slavery. And if it’s this kind of violence, this Tarantino violence, then it’s not only too easy to like, it’s also too easily resolved. Because all you have to do is kill the people, and plenty of people get killed. In fact, I wondered where all those white folks were coming from in that plantation to get slaughtered. How many white people are there on a plantation?

BRIAN: OK, Peter. We got it. But guys, I am curious to know whether you think that Lincoln, the film, is a more useful portrayal of the problem of slavery.


ED: I’m sorry. Here is a case where slavery is entirely offstage. You have a chamber drama in which the great evil is never seen, which is the evil of slavery. And the drama of the story is can these white guys find a way to change the fundamental law of the land.

PETER: And they have similar logic, Ed. That is, you kill people in Tarantino, and then we can move into post-slavery. You pass the 13th Amendment, then we can move into post-slavery. It’s as if, whoa, isn’t this wonderful? It’s a Hollywood ending, isn’t it?

BRIAN: You leave the movie feeling, hey, it’s fixed.

ED: And this is where Lincoln could use some more Tarantino in it. The violence that you see in Django Unchained is far more characteristic of the period after the 13th Amendment than it would have been under slavery, where it simply would have been impossible. But after slavery’s end, you have guerrilla warfare breaking out in the South.

You really would have had gangs of whites and blacks fighting each other like this. You would have had the Ku Klux Klan, basically terrorists, trying to break the political will of black people. And you would have had black men with guns resisting this. And I’m with you, Brian, why can’t we imagine, rather than Lincoln going off into a vapor into eternity, the chaos that’s unleashed as America tries to fight through the violence at the heart of slavery?

BRIAN: Well, and perhaps the deepest irony is that near century of violence that you refer to, Ed, is brought to an end through non-violent resistance used by civil rights protesters at lunch counters around the South, for instance.

ED: And one of their most powerful weapons are the very amendments that we see Abraham Lincoln and his colleagues instituting after the Civil War.