Tarantino and Spielberg reviews: Abolition and emancipation
Mike Belbin reviews: Steven Spielberg (director) Lincoln,
Quentin Tarantino (director) Django unchained
Lincoln active, slaves passive
are two films set at the time of slavery in American history. How do
they speak to us about that heritage? Which should we recommend: the
one with the ‘fastest gun in the south’ superhero, who whips and
shoots and blows up his opponents, white and black, or the one with
the political elite working patiently but resolutely for the
emancipation of a people?
directed by Steven Spielberg, is a biopic which covers only a small
part of the president’s life: the passing of the 13th amendment to
the US constitution, banning slavery and “involuntary servitude,
except as a punishment for crime”. This concentration on the
passing of the amendment, even as the war between the states
continues, means that much of the film’s early dialogue is taken up
with exposition - mostly by Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) about
how he got to this point, often speaking uninterruptedly. In this
way, we are left in no doubt as to his commitment to getting the
thing done. This does though make for scenes without much tension.
while we try to sort who is who in a forest of names.
on an episode, though an important one to say the least, means other
nuances are lost. We lose Lincoln, the compromiser with the
confederacy early in his presidency, and the war leader set on
conserving the union. The film therefore becomes effectively the
portrait of one man, this single idea, what he said to his allies and
how he handled his opponents - mainly within dark rooms against the
sombre tones of a war long fought and not yet over.
script by Tony Kushner gives us a president wearied by the struggle,
but full of humour and committed to seeing it through, while Sally
Field’s Mary Lincoln personalises things with her worries that
their eldest son will die in the war before the job is done. This is
not then the Abraham Lincoln who denied the confederate states the
right to leave the union, while being willing to permit slavery in
those states alone; who suspended habeas corpus, but freed the
slaves when the war was being lost - so officially inventing ‘total
war’, where every white southerner could be the enemy. In fact
recent research shows that even during the famous destructive march
of union general William Sherman, only two percent of slaves in
Georgia and South Carolina were freed from the land.
again, even after Lincoln’s assassination - alluded to here -
efforts were made to involve black people in southern politics. But
‘reconstruction’, as it was called, was short-lived and gave rise
to a fear of black supremacy among most whites and the formation of
the Ku Klux Klan. The north and the ‘feds’, meanwhile, left those
states to their own devices and concentrated on building capitalism
with the ‘free labour’ of the urban poor and old-world
the characters so far mentioned are of course white. In Lincoln,
black characters merely wait. They work as servants and wait, they
wait in union uniform, they wait in the gallery of the House of
Representatives while the vote is being taken.
is historically accurate as far as it goes - no-one of colour in
Congress then. There is not time though even to mention black
activists, like Frederick Douglass, who was involved in abolitionism
and the author of a mind-expanding narrative of his own slavery and
escape. Of course, this invisibility or inactivity of black
characters is very much in keeping with the tradition of US fiction,
as pointed out by writers like Toni Morrison, where black people
hardly do anything off their own backs. They exhibit a lack of human
initiative you could call slavish.
Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the book
from “all modern American literature comes”, according to Ernest
Hemingway, Jim is a slave who is imprisoned after doing a runner. His
young white friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, devise an elaborate
scheme to free him, one inspired by European adventure books. Because
of Tom’s interest in grand gestures and daring literary rescues,
Jim suffers all kinds of unnecessary humiliations and delays.
Eventually though, he is freed. Twain may well be sending up European
books, but Jim is a character who goes along with the complications
because, as narrator Huck says, “ he allowed we was white folks and
knowed better than him” (chapter 36).
later redeemed himself by producing in 1894 an anti-racist novel,
Pudd’nhead Wilson, also set in the same pre-civil war period
as Huckleberry Finn.)
Lincoln, the ‘escape’ - the session when the vote is taken
- is undoubtedly the best sequence, full of suspense after the
ponderous manoeuvring of the build-up. Spielberg uses all his skill
in close-up and climax to persuade us of the centrality of this
question: which way will particular white men finally vote?
gives Lincoln a firm but weary human presence, portraying a slow,
moving dignity, but he can still play the Spielberg-approved father
and occupy the time waiting for the vote with his younger son. The
president also pulls strings, commands his subordinates to press on
and tells them a big lie to reach the goal. He continues the war in
order to win time for the amendment to pass.
whole film may indeed be an attempt to show current Republicans that
a president from their party can effect changes that improve people’s
lives. But what if the Tea Party faction is not impressed by ‘big
government’ under anyone’s control? The film-makers may also have
thought that they could be giving advice to the current president.
But what message would Barack Obama take from it? To stand firm in
continuing a war until a principle is vindicated? How does that apply
to ongoing interventions? Where is the movie that says Washington
should not be sending soldiers to fight those classed as evil-doers?
all, perhaps the message is do things calmly, patiently. Obama
himself has been told never to seem angry - the fear of black
initiative is still there.
unchained is a different picture of history - not fact, but a
challenging fiction; and not about anger either, but about purpose.
Director-writer Quentin Tarantino is known for his fan-interest in
all kinds of movies, and here, in its imagery and narrative, his
latest work manages to contest many past views of race relations,
especially as presented in the western.
start with, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a shivering, back-scarred slave on
his way to being sold in the deep south. He encounters a German
bounty-hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who needs Django
for his ability to identify particular quarry. They join up, like
Huck and Jim, and in the course of a winter (buffaloes in the snow,
courtesy of John Ford’s The searchers), Django helps Schultz
in his business, while Schultz teaches the slave to be a confident
shot. Humour and irony are everywhere. When Django rides into a small
town with Schulz, the townsfolk are appalled: an American of African
heritage on a horse. They would not have been more hostile if he had
just made a heavy rap record.
time, Schultz finds himself moved by Django’s story of a wife still
being held in slavery. She (Kerry Washington) turns out to have a
German name, Broomhilda, and speaks the language too. Schultz agrees
to assist Django in emancipating Broomhilda from the plantation. Of
course, democratic Germans must stick together against American
bigots! No doubt the echoes are deliberate of Wagner’s Ring
opera cycle, where the gods set over us are destroyed. The Brünnhilde
in that, though, had a bigger role in the reckoning than here. Though
the sun continues to beat down, the tone becomes grimmer. The
plantation, with all its horrors, keeps the film from seeming
westerns such as The wild bunch, the shootout is not
relentless. Django even has to surrender at one point. When it begins
again, you can query the excess - it is Tarantino, after all - but
not the guilt of those who get shot. There is other violent imagery
in the film. At one point Django is hung upside down naked and
threatened with castration.
gives us pictures rarely if ever seen in America film. When Schultz
and Django arrive at the centre of the plantation, they face a large
white mansion with porticos and field hands all around. So far, so
Gone with the wind. But on the lawn there is a cast-iron door
in the ground, under which is a ‘hot box’ reserved for runaways.
This is where Broomhilda is first seen, also naked. Django puts his
hand on his gun, but pauses: he is not one to jump rashly into
action. He and Schultz have an alliance and a plan.
unchained is Tarantino’s most considered and pointed film so
far. Schulz, the German, uses intelligence and the law as well as a
gun, and Django is a gunslinger who is not defending a town, but
destroying a hellhole. Not all Germans-speakers are evil, or white;
not all Americans are role-models or outlaws. This is the
writer-director’s first film about a society, not just a