To grasp slav­ery’s hor­ror, see ‘Django,’ not ‘Lin­coln’

Post film critic Ann Hor­na­day says his­tor­i­cal epics can feel less real

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - hor­na­daya@wash­ Ann Hor­na­day is The Washington Post’s chief film critic.

In “Lin­coln,” di­rec­tor Steven Spiel­berg de­liv­ers all the nec­es­sary el­e­ments of a film that could fend off “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” and win the Os­car for best pic­ture on Feb. 24. A sur­pris­ingly lively por­trayal of Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln and the leg­isla­tive sausage-mak­ing he in­sti­gated to pass the 13th Amend­ment, the movie dis­plays his­tor­i­cal gravitas, bur­nished pro­duc­tion val­ues and a gal­va­niz­ing per­for­mance from its lead ac­tor.

What “Lin­coln” doesn’t de­liver, how­ever, is a de­pic­tion of the very in­sti­tu­tion the 13th Amend­ment was adopted to erad­i­cate. En­slaved peo­ple and the ter­ror they en­dured in the 19th-cen­tury South are never por­trayed. In­stead, Spiel­berg con­fines his epic al­most en­tirely to the close en­vi­rons of 1865 Washington and its ram­bunc­tious halls of power.

For a hor­ri­fy­ing and height­ened de­pic­tion of slav­ery and its pre­da­tions, view­ers are bet­ter served by Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Un­chained,” a best-pic­ture nom­i­nee along with “Lin­coln” and one that does a bet­ter job at mar­ry­ing medium to mes­sage in a di­rect, star­tling and mean­ing­ful way.

What’s wrong with this pic­ture? Spiel­berg, ar­guably Ameri-

ca’s pre­mier nar­ra­tive film­maker, stu­diously avoids the cen­tral ques­tion around which his story re­volves, while Tarantino — an artist of di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed, glee­fully down-mar­ket sen­si­bil­i­ties — takes it on with ex­ploita­tive ex­cess, through the brazenly anachro­nis­tic vis­ual style and pro­mis­cu­ous vi­o­lence of a B-class spaghetti West­ern.

It could be that to cap­ture the per­ver­sity of a sys­tem of kid­napped hu­man be­ings who were rou­tinely bought, sold, raped, maimed and mur­dered, it takes genre film­mak­ing at its most graphic and hy­per­bolic. How else can movies make proper sym­bolic sense of Amer­ica’s blood­i­est, most shame­ful chap­ter?

In­deed, the genre Tarantino rein­vig­o­rates in “Django Un­chained” is spec­tac­u­larly well-suited to con­vey what was once called our “pe­cu­liar in­sti­tu­tion.” The story of an es­caped slave (played by Jamie Foxx) and a Ger­man bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) go­ing on a killing spree in the name of love and retri­bu­tion might strike some as per­verse. But if the scenes Tarantino stages — of a man be­ing torn apart by dogs, an­other be­ing cas­trated and a woman emerg­ing halfdead from cap­tiv­ity in a metal “hot” box — are cruel and ex­treme, how bet­ter to cap­ture the phys­i­cal and psy­chic wounds suf­fered by gen­er­a­tions of en­slaved peo­ple?

Tarantino does not play those se­quences for laughs, although he takes wicked de­light in skew­er­ing the Ku Klux Klan and mock­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tionist house ser­vant (Sa­muel L. Jack­son). But even at its most lurid, pre­pos­ter­ous and ahis­tor­i­cal, “Django Un­chained” com­mu­ni­cates truths that more solemn, self-se­ri­ous trea­tises might miss.

In that un­likely success, Tarantino’s genre ex­er­cise has some com­pany: Last sum­mer’s campy com­edy “Abra­ham Lin­coln: Vam­pire Hunter” did some­thing sim­i­lar, when the “Rail­split­ter” burst forth as an ax-wield­ing su­per­hero who van­quished a Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica that turned out to be pop­u­lated by vo­ra­cious, blood­suck­ing freaks of na­ture. Pe­cu­liar, in­deed.

Just as Tarantino in­ge­niously com­pares slav­ery to bounty hunt­ing — both of which com­mod­ify the hu­man body — “Vam­pire Hunter,” based on a book by Seth Gra­hame-Smith, draws a crafty par­al­lel be­tween slave own­ers and their vam­pire al­lies, them­selves in need of hu­man bod­ies for san­guinary nour­ish­ment. Much as 1950s sci­ence fic­tion ad­dressed Cold War anx­i­eties and “The Twi­light Zone” obliquely con­fronted the so­cial is­sues roil­ing the 1960s, “Django” and “Vam­pire Hunter” use ex­ploita­tion and pulp-hor­ror films to si­mul­ta­ne­ously cri­tique and de­flate the racist patholo­gies they por­tray.

As oh-so-very-wrong as it is to see Lin­coln, Joshua Speed and Jef­fer­son Davis ca­vort like so many comic-book fig­ures, there’s some­thing very right about Har­riet Tub­man show­ing up in “Vam­pire Hunter’s” cli­mac­tic scene as the sav­ior of Get­tys­burg. That im­age is dis­ori­ent­ing and a gross dis­tor­tion — but also a po­tent way to con­vey the mythic stature she de­serves to young au­di­ences raised on the vis­ual gram­mar of graphic nov­els and video games.

Lest we for­get, D.W. Grif­fith helped cod­ify the el­e­ments of cin­e­matic style in the toxic, racist im­agery of his 1915 silent film, “The Birth of a Na­tion,” which in its de­pic­tion of the Civil War and Re­con­struc­tion in­tro­duced shot struc­ture, cam­era move­ments and edit­ing tech­niques that would be­come ac­cepted nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions. There’s some­thing slyly cor­rec­tive about mod­ern film­mak­ers pro­cess­ing Amer­ica’s pri­mal wound by way of tropes per­fected by Ser­gio Leone and blax­ploita­tion au­teur Melvin Van Pee­bles.

What “Django Un­chained” and “Vam­pire Hunter” have ac­com­plished is akin to what lin­guists call “code switch­ing,” or flu­idly shift­ing from one di­alect to an­other. If staid, punc­til­ious cos­tume dra­mas are the equiv­a­lent of the King’s English, then “Django” and “Vam­pire Hunter” are cin­ema’s ver­sion of street slang.

And their most se­ri­ous mes­sages are all the more ac­ces­si­ble for it. Per­haps it takes the in­ac­cu­rate in­san­ity of “Django” and “Vam­pire Hunter” to ac­count for the in­san­ity of a coun­try that be­came a global power on the backs of chat­tel.

In both cases, the sym­bol­ism th­ese films use to tell their sto­ries — the styl­ized genre con­ven­tions they obey and that au­di­ences in­stantly rec­og­nize — serve to draw view­ers into the harsh truths they tell, rather than keep­ing them at a safe, taste­ful re­move.

And this is why Spiel­berg was right to fo­cus laser-like on the in­ner work­ings of Washington; cut­away scenes of enslave­ment in “Lin­coln” would have felt per­func­tory and pa­tron­iz­ing. To bring slav­ery to the screen by way of his­tor­i­cal re­al­ism of­ten has the ef­fect of min­i­miz­ing it, plac­ing it in a gauzy world of that-was-then. From the gal­va­niz­ing 1977 minis­eries “Roots” to Steven Spiel­berg’s painterly por­trayal of the Mid­dle Pas­sage in “Amis­tad” and the mag­i­cal re­al­ism of Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved,” even the best-in­ten­tioned at­tempts have been too care­ful by half, cre­at­ing emo­tional dis­tance rather than vis­ceral out­rage.

As “Django Un­chained” pro­ducer Regi­nald Hudlin told Ebony mag­a­zine: “I had no in­ter­est in see­ing yet an­other movie about no­ble suf­fer­ing. I wanted to see foot to ass.”

That ag­gres­sive im­pulse ul­ti­mately un­der­mines “Django Un­chained,” which loses mo­men­tum and mo­ral force in its hys­ter­i­cally pitched, sopho­mor­i­cally bal­lis­tic fi­nal half-hour. But there’s no deny­ing the gut-level power of what’s gone be­fore, even if it’s couched in the sub­ver­sive lan­guage of es­capist plea­sure rather than earnest up­lift.

Nei­ther “Django Un­chained” nor “Abra­ham Lin­coln: Vam­pire Hunter” may be des­tined to win big on Os­car night (“Vam­pire Hunter,” it bears not­ing, isn’t nom­i­nated for any awards). But each de­serves credit for demon­strat­ing how a his­tory once griev­ously dis­torted by cin­e­matic lan­guage can be im­prob­a­bly well-served by its most florid, out­landish ver­nac­u­lar.

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