As most films are products of the particular times in which they are written and produced, the late 2012 release of Django Unchained and Lincoln gives us much to ponder. What strange confluence of events saw two large budget American films both set against the background of slavery around the time of the Civil War? While Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln uses the debate over the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (abolishing slavery, a follow up to the better known “Emancipation Proclamation”) as a dramatic instigator coinciding with the final months of that bloody war, Quentin Tarantino’s Django presents as a “revenge fantasy” against all of those nasty and brutal white slave owners.
In some very odd way, both of these films are products of the Obama era of American political life. In fact, it’s possible to see Lincoln as a lengthy parable for the current deadlock in Washington: a liberal President (Obama) whose policies are frustrated by backwards conservatives. The year 1865 was different (the Republicans were, more or less, the party of progressivism at the time – although American politics has rarely been as easily categorised as it is now). And Abraham Lincoln, at least according to Spielberg’s interpretation, working from a script by Tony Kushner, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s massive (916 page) book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, despite his enormous popularity, was having his will frustrated by a “do nothing” House of Representatives. Like Obama’s experience, the Senators were not the issue at the time. And somewhere in their film, Spielberg/Kushner seem to be saying that if only Obama were a bit more wiley, a bit more willing to “kick heads”, he might be able to pass his progressive slate of legislation.
Conservative columnist Mona Charen makes the Obama-Lincoln point very explicitly (albeit with a heavy tinge of criticism and negativity):
He swore his oath of office on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. He has asked to give the State of the Union address on Lincoln’s birthday. He rode to Washington in 2009 on a train route similar to Lincoln’s in 1861. He has compared his critics to Lincoln’s critics. He confides to admirers that he likes to read the handwritten Gettysburg Address that hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom…. Obama’s second inaugural poached lines from Lincoln’s speeches.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is, at heart, a two and a half hour film about passing a piece of legislation. It may have been awfully important at the time, but I doubt that prior to this film’s release more than a small percentage of Americans would have actually recognised what the Thirteenth Amendment actually was (is). A parable for “Obamacare” perhaps, or maybe gun control legislation or the prevention of climate change? (Click here for Henrik Hertzberg’s New Yorker article of December 17, 2012 where he details all of the historical inaccuracies of Lincoln.)
By contrast, Django Unchained – running almost a full three hours – makes no pretence to actual history (its historical inaccuracies easily outnumber its accuracies, so it’s strange that one Australian film critic recently wrote that he finally “understood” slavery after watching this film), and sets up a virtual fantasy of “blacks fighting back”. Or at least one does (Django, played by Jamie Foxx). Here Tarantino “does” slavery in the same way that his Inglourious Bastards (2009) “did” the Holocaust. But what actually is the point of Django? Setting aside the entertainment value – and the film is genuinely entertaining in a really messy, over-long, funny but bloody way – what exactly is Tarantino trying to say? Unlike Spielberg, who takes his cue from a 900+ page biography (and the talky screenplay had a hard time cutting out words), Tarantino appears to be more influenced by Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Tarantino’s first scene is close to a re-make of Brooks’ first scene, and a scene near the end when Quentin Tarantino inexplicably plays a dumb Australian cowboy could also have been taken directly from Brooks.
Four of the top films up for “Best Film” in this year’s Oscars are based on American history: Django Unchained, Argo – which won the Golden Globe for drama, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. I suspect that the Academy, being what they are (a group of mostly American, mostly 65+, mostly male) will choose one of these. If so, it will be a shame, because Life of Pi is the year’s most extraordinary film, one unbound by having its feet firmly planted in messy and argumentative history.