When I was a child, my mother told me the only reason my brother kept calling me names was because he could get a rise out of me. “If you ignore him,” she said, “he’ll stop.” She was right. So I learned it’s what I answer to that matters more than what you call me.
I may not have seen Django Unchained if the movie had not generated such controversy. There was angry talk about the number of times “nigger” was used--somebody counted and said it was more than a hundred. Spike Lee said he wouldn’t see it because it would offend his ancestors. Others were outraged that Brunhilde (Kerry Washington’s character) was a “helpless female” needing rescue. (If she had been the proverbial “strong black woman” fighting to get her husband back, we would have complained about that as well.)
I thought Django Unchained was fun and funny.
When I heard the contemporary music playing, I knew it was not a serious movie, so I relaxed. I’ve seen a couple of Quentin Tarantino movies and I was more disturbed by the prospect of his signature mayhem than I was about how many times “nigger” would be uttered.
This movie is an ironic spoof of slavery. Beloved (1998) was a serious film treatment of slavery and nobody saw it. Tarantino knows what kind of movie puts butts in the seats: lots of big blasting guns, explosions, blood flowing freely, a damsel in distress, an invincible hero who has close calls, but whom we know will triumph in the end; and, with tongue firmly in cheek, anachronisms all over the place. In other words, Tarantino made a typical Hollywood adventure film. What was atypical is that it was set within slavery and the last man standing was black.
Yes, Tarantino mocked the travesty that was slavery, but he also showed the cruelty and absurdity of it. I much prefer that to having slavery being denied or lied about. And there were several moments of hilarity. The night riders who couldn’t see through their ineptly made hoods was a scream. The sadistic slaver who “owned” Brunhilde called his plantation “Candyland;” a silly parody of the pastoral names given to the estates of traders in human flesh. I hooted when, after all the whites around him were dead, Samuel Jackson’s character dropped his cane, straightened his back and stopped acting servile. I also laughed when Tarantino’s own character wound up as a hole in the ground, victim of one of the explosions. It was escapist, cathartic entertainment.
The film Lincoln, on the other hand, is serious and can be faulted for ignoring important aspects of history pertinent to the story. I believe the movie has resonated with so many, as it did with me, because nearly 150 years ago the U.S. Congress was as sharply polarized as it is today, and along nearly the same lines. This is a movie for those who love the gamesmanship of politics. Unfortunately, by focusing solely on the white male elected officials who finally managed to make traffic in human lives illegal in the United States, Spielberg has denied agency to the many others who forced this political battle. This is particularly obvious and painful because those who are ignored, not even given the courtesy of a line of conversation, are those who are historically marginalized in this society that reserves power for wealthy white males.
Briefly, these people are Quakers who were resisting slavery in the seventeenth century; abolitionists who labored for decades to change public opinion from acceptance of slavery to abhorrence for it. One of the most eloquent abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, met with President Lincoln to convince him to allow blacks to fight in the Union Army. Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University, said, “The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” To not even mention Douglass or the Women’s National Loyal League in this movie is inexcusable.
However, I am pleased to see a serious, major American movie admit that the Civil War, this country’s most pivotal event, was fought over whether or not the U.S. would continue to hold other humans in bondage. For a very long time the country has been in denial about that.
The capture, enslavement of, and commerce in the bodies of people of African descent went on for hundreds of years, and the fallout from that trauma continues to the present day. It will hound us and haunt us until we face it, talk about it and accept it as a tragic part of our history. Despite their flaws, these two popular movies, the latest of several Hollywood attempts to present that brutal experience on film, at least have the country talking about an enormous and critical subject that we usually avoid.