Two films about slavery in the United States have been released barely a year apart. One is by a renegade American auteur starring American actors; the other, based on a memoir, brought to the screen by a British video artist and a cast led by Brits playing American. Despite their similar subject matter, they are so vastly different in every other way that they barely deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence. However, their production, consumption by audiences, and subsequent responses raise important questions regarding contemporary society’s relationship to history.
The films in question are Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western revenge epic Django Unchained, which sees the titular slave join forces with a German bounty hunter to rescue Django’s wife from an evil plantation owner, and Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the Solomon Northup memoir 12 Years a Slave, which recounts the trials faced by a free black man after the abduction that led to his being sold as a slave in the South.
Tarantino’s film follows in a similar vein as his 2009 historical revisionist hit Inglourious Basterds, replete with snappy dialogue, meta homages to films the director loves, costumes and sets that resemble kooky spin offs of their real-life inspirations and, of course, plenty of cartoonishly garish violence. By placing the story within the constraints of specific genre conventions, Tarantino is able to take on what remains an extremely delicate subject and deliver comeuppance, not just to the villainous characters but also to real-life racist bigots. (That delicious KKK sequence sticks it to D.W. Griffith in a way anyone who’s sat through The Birth of a Nation will appreciate.) It’s tongue-in-cheek, clever, and no doubt highly entertaining, but save for a few details, such as the mandingo fights and the slave hierarchy on the plantation, makes no pretenses about being an accurate depiction.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this method of appropriating history to tell a story, but when it begins to obscure viewers’ perceptions of the truth and what did or did not happen in real life, we have a problem. In a recent interview with Indiewire’s The Playlist, director Cary Fukunaga, who also happens to be a Civil War scholar, voiced his concerns regarding Django.
I couldn’t figure out if the irreverence for history, was it to be controversial and because he wants to have fun or is it just really poor research? Even from the very first title [in ‘Django Unchained’] the title card says ‘1859, 3 years before the Civil War.’ He even gets that wrong…[The danger is] there’s a lot of people out there who don’t bother to learn history, and will believe [this stuff] no matter how ridiculous it is.
A personal anecdote: I brought along a grad-level film scholar friend of mine to a recent screening of 12 Years a Slave, and afterwards, when I put forth some ideas for this article, he recounted what happened both times he saw Django Unchained with two different groups of people; the credits rolled and someone exclaimed, “Wow, I had no idea slavery was that bad!”
In 12 Years, the protagonist Northup is an educated violinist living in New York, whose wife and children leave him to his own devices for a couple weeks. He accepts what seems to be a good offer to make some extra money playing music, yet one night, his newfound partners get him drunk, and the next morning, he wakes up chained in a dark basement. Now that well over a century has passed since the end of slavery in this country (yet still not enough time for all the wounds it inflicted upon society to completely heal), all that we have left to remember by are books, grainy photos, and the legacies of those involved. We can never know exactly what it was like, but McQueen’s film creates something so starkly visceral and emotionally resonant that many are lauding it as one of the most clear-cut portrayals of slavery in the history of cinema.
Given McQueen’s background, it’s unsurprising that the majority of what stands out in the film are particularly haunting images: the human Tetris in the back of a cart as the slaves are taken to their next destination in the night, the way the camera tends to linger in medium close-up on the slaves’ faces as they’re beaten, foregrounding their response rather than the act of violence itself as is more common in these types of scenes.
There are photos in textbooks of slaves whose entire backs were transformed by cruel masters into dense, criss-crossing networks of raised scars, but they are still doomed to stay silent forever in the pages of books as emblems of a terrible time in history. With McQueen’s approach, you see each thrash registering greater pain than the last. It’s not real, but it feels real, and as a viewer, you’re relieved when the whipping ceases. But then there’s the reverse shot of the blood running from the gaping wounds; the howls of pain as the other slaves clean the gashes; the little things that a less rigorous director might feel compelled not to show. By the end, it’s not surprising that, at its festival premieres, some audience members walked out.
Tarantino’s so-called irreverence for history should not be equated with making light of the subject matter, but there is a tangible aspect of spectacle throughout Django Unchained. Perhaps, however, there are certain things a director can get away with more easily using an irreverent approach rather than a factual one. By creating a caricature of the fawning Uncle Tom stereotype in his film, Tarantino and actor Samuel L. Jackson, who calls his character Stephen “the most despicable Negro in cinematic history,” evoked powerful commentary on the social strata within the plantation house. The analogous figure in 12 Years a Slave is Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a house slave whose sleeping with the master is rewarded with special privileges. Her conversation with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave from a neighboring plantation caught between the rape-y advances of her master and his cold, jealous wife, reveals some of the complex social dynamics at play but with a lot more nuance.
Consider the argument some people make about Schindler’s List. These people would argue passionately that it was irresponsible of Steven Spielberg, as a filmmaker, to physically recreate a death camp after being forbidden to film at Auschwitz and filling the set with hundreds of extras of Jewish descent. In watching Django and 12 Years a Slave, it’s hard not to wonder how the actors and extras felt about the production because, although Tarantino’s work is fiction and McQueen’s is ostensibly true*, there is a level of reenactment inherent to any historical drama. Tarantino, for that very reason, briefly considered shooting Django abroad.
There isn’t yet enough in the world of academia to counter these concerned claims, but there is plenty of criticism of Schindler’s List regarding Spielberg being heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative, as well as a definite backlash against it for becoming the definitive Holocaust film despite its shortcomings. At last year’s writer’s roundtable put on by The Hollywood Reporter, Michael Haneke had plenty to say on the subject of dealing with history in cinema.
Your responsibility entails enabling your audience to remain independent and free of manipulation. The question is, how seriously do I take my viewer and to what extent do I provide him with the opportunity of creating his own opinion? Am I trying to force my opinion on the spectator?
While Tarantino spells it out with archetypal heroes and villains, McQueen’s telling of Northup’s story features characters so complex that navigating its murky moral waters will undoubtedly fuel countless discussions. The one point in the film that threatens to tip 12 Years a Slave into Spielberg territory is when a Canadian carpenter, played by Brad Pitt with a Southern accent ironically similar to that of his character in Inglourious Basterds, has a tense exchange with Northup’s master and predicts that karma (or God, rather, given the setting) will eventually punish him for what he’s done to his slaves.
We may leave the theater feeling subdued, but in many ways, 12 Years a Slave is a triumph, a subtle account of a bleak era in a man’s life that epitomizes the sociopolitical issues of the time, while steering clear of the judgment and melodrama that plague historical dramas without holding the audience at arm’s length like a documentary. In a case such as this, the filmmaker has a responsibility to the subject and the audience; to entertain without trivializing, to educate without being didactic, and to encourage continued learning. For a topic as complex as slavery there is no singular narrative, and so bringing to light a story that might otherwise have remained in relative obscurity to the masses is a great service for audiences, scholars, and filmmakers alike.
*As the professor of a class titled “Adaptation” once said, “What does [based on a true story] even mean?” The term “true story” itself is an implicit abstraction of veracity.
— Misa Shikuma