Soon we will learn the Oscar nominees for 2012. For history buffs, it's been a fabulous year, with so many great pictures to choose from. Here in Los Angeles, I've heard some friends debate whether Django Unchained or Lincoln deserves to win the Best Picture Academy Award, knowing for certain that both will be nominated.
Here's my verdict: Django Unchained is probably the best movie about slavery, ever.
I write this having enjoyed Steven Spielberg's Lincoln much more, and knowing that its screenwriter, Tony Kushner, tried to be faithful to the historiography in its broad strokes and the details. I write this having read Sean Wilentz's review of Lincoln in The New Republic, where he rightfully places the film high in the pantheon of portrayals of the Civil War. The Civil War was about slavery, and nothing else, really, and so if you want to understand why war of all things was the consequence of mere politics, you need to step outside of Washington, D.C and away from political debates.
Django takes place two years before the war began, or so we are informed.
It may be the best work of art of any form about America's original sin. Quentin Tarantino's trademark style ensures that every historical point he wants the viewer to get is gotten, even to the point of ridiculous. And it is a ridiculous film. It is funny. The dialogue is spare and modern, the Southern accents not very well rendered, the visual effects hematologically generous, the soundtrack absurdist and raw. But this allows the director to show the viewer — well, force into the viewer's eyes and ears — the epic tale of slavery. It is precisely because the plot is so absurd and some of the characters so imaginatively drawn that the stuff that fascinated Tarantino about the subject is intelligible. When off-the-hook characters do something, you notice. So if you allow yourself to enjoy the movie as a movie, you'll wind up learning a lot about history, too.
Here are a few things that the movie gets really right:
(a) the centrality of white supremacy, or and not just a simple disregard for the humanity of black people, to the practice of American slavery. Tarantino's American whites believe that blacks haven't revolted because their brains evolved differently; black people are by their very nature passive and plaint and submissive. At the same time, whites kept their guns away from their allegedly servile slaves at all costs; it was not just illegal for slaves to own weapons and free black men to carry them, it also illegal in some cases for black men to ride on horses, to ride next to white people on horses, to step forward before white people: to do anything that put them in a position where they might be tempted to revolt or protest or fight back. We see this vividly.
(b) the white sexualization of black slaves; the homoeroticism of Mandingo fighting; the extreme levels of "protection" that white men forced upon white southern women of privilege lest they be contaminated.
(c) the way that the rule of law was intimately tied to a frontier concept of justice, one that used loose concepts like "honor" to justify revenge killings. (There is a scene where newly annointed bounty hunter Django does not want to shoot a man in front of his son. It is perhaps the movie's only acknowledgement of our rights-based procedural justice culture, where everyone, even bad people, ought to be treated with a modicum of decency.
(d) the internalization of the slave trade, which included Europeans and South Africans and all manner of foreigners. Including some American and foreign black "slavers," involved in all manner of commerce.
(e) the intricate social strata among black slaves on plantations, including the special contempt that slaves held for the exalted head house slave, who was also often allotted the extraordinary but tenuous privilege of being able to talk back to his master
Django's plot is totally implausible, unlike Lincoln, which pretty much happened the way Kushner described. But I think Django conveys a better gut sense of what slavery, and by proxy, the Civil War, was all about. Both movies are great. One makes you cry; the white men did something right; the country realized its mistake and began atone for it with Constitutional amendments.
The other makes your innards turn: You'll know how utterly evil, insane, and unique the practice of American slavery was and why political and legal transformations are still, today, not enough to expiate our shame.