Beware. This article contains spoilers.
Let’s start with a self-evident affirmation. Movies, or more precisely Hollywood, is the ultimate contraption of hegemonic ideological diffusion. The prophetic dystopias in which secret police would place the mechanisms of control inside the private realm of people, fall way short of the intrusive violence of today’s reality. Now we pay for movie tickets and plasma TVs to get the prescribed indoctrination. Through creating the very seed of popular culture, the United States has produced a colossal apparatus of historical cleansing, a form of re-writing of their long dark shadow over the world. John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is a beautifully crafted example of establishing mythical origins that function as the basis of reality. Today’s wizard of such ideological enterprise is Steven Spielberg. Of course, we always have our set of outsiders, always sliding through the interstices of the machine, Malick, Anger, Cassavetes, Ford-Copolla, Stone and surely Quentin Tarantino.
Spielberg is a great storyteller, a master of the simple symbolism that is able to seize the bulk of our senses and discharge upon them sheer cinematic ecstasy. He knows all the tricks of the trade, humor, brow-raising speeches, the triumph of the human spirit and endings that bring you to tears. After the dust settles we can pierce inside his latest fairytale Lincoln and turn it on its head through Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Lincoln is nostalgic in the same way The Inside Job offers a remedy for the madness of Wall street: a return to a farcical “paradise lost” of capitalism, where people produced real things; and like a scene from the Andy Griffith Show, a kind bank manager would offer the Opie’s of the world some cookies while smirking mildly. But the world is not Mayberry and the majority of the Opie’s of the world are poor and not white. Lincoln offers a certain return to the basics of politics. To reinforce this, Daniel Day-Lewis offers an outstanding portrait of the simple puritan, enlightened and mild-mannered, steering away from the vultures, austere and sincere. You can almost smell the mothballs in his clothes and the rasping of his beard as he holds you like a loving father. Nevertheless, there is no return, as there never was this “basics” of politics, at least not in the United States.
In Spielberg’s Lincoln, black people appear like a still life, a decorative background, against which liberation is handed to them by wise white people. The story of the Afro-American struggle, uprisings, and self-empowerment is neatly bottled inside legal refinements, sharp-edged constitutional debates and rationality. Detractors of the 13th Amendment are taken care of by lobbyist sell-offs—led by a debauched Bilbo (Spader)—who are depicted by a skillful Spielberg as a clever sort of political “three stooges”, and as such are not merely a gadget of comic relief, but a way to sweeten and inject corruption into the viewer; even worse, a way to let the world know corruption is alright for North Americans (anything is alright) since they always pursue honorable goals, such as the end of slavery.
But what is really ludicrous about the film is the fact that the real agenda of Lincoln and his gang is not even mentioned throughout the whole two and a half hours. What was historically at stake was the mortal duel of two means of production: the South’s archaic and preposterous slave-agricultural scheme against the North pushing the envelope towards full steam industrialization. Surely Spielberg would be dead right that in the debates in the “House” this would never have be mentioned, although everyone knew what the bottom-line was. But he misses a golden opportunity, as he willingly, of course, fails to penetrate the privacy of Lincoln’s internal circle. This is where the beast of real politics roams free, so it becomes more than comical listening to Lincoln talk to his Secretary of State (Strathairn) or his wife (Field) about the Amendment as if he was talking in the public square or convincing a voter. Here is where we are forced to bitterly laugh in dismay at the cynicism of Spielberg as he tries to shove down our throats the idea that the mortal duel of production never took place and, what’s worse, that the politics that occurs behind closed doors is a straightforward arcadia of speeches that never overlap with true motivations. The movie flops in placing the Afro-American struggle in the background and in naïvely recounting the motives of the protagonist. Freedom and equality become the “sublime object” of the abolition of slavery.
The only thing that binds Django Unchained and Lincoln is the common platform of slavery in the United States, but Tarantino offers a counter-narrative to Spielberg’s ideological furnishing of history. This is what Tarantino has to say about it:
I’m here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened. When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arm’s-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.1The Guardian, December 7, 2012
And shatters the glass he does. There is no indulgent account of slavery, no sugarcoating of cruelty and he certainly offers no highway to redemption for the perpetrators of this dire history. Tarantino names the unnamable in every cut, so its shameful forms don’t crawl back to the sanctuary of silence, of the politically correct. Many have accused Tarantino of trivializing slavery through his fantastical bloodbaths, by his over the top depictions of violence and by turning it into a Spaghetti western, when the true trivialization is Spielberg’s. Over the top violence and bloodbaths occurred in a reality missed by Lincoln, and not in Tarantino’s “twisted” mind just for the heck of it. Tarantino did a Spaghetti “Southern”, but he might as well have done a sitcom or a film noir, his point was really to instill the brutality of slavery into popular culture, to smear it on your face, like the blood Monsieur Candie (Di Caprio) smears on Broomhilda’s face. In contrast, Spielberg turns slavery into a solemn and sophisticated court drama.
Black people in Lincoln are liberated by white men; but in Django Unchained, here is the turn of the screw concerning both liberation and vengeance: he is at first freed by an enlightened white man, Dr Schultz (Waltz), and indeed the first attempt to free his loved one does correspond to Dr Schultz’s elaborate plot. But the stratagem fails due to the wit of another black man, Stephen. From here on Django (Foxx) is forced back into hideous slavery, where through his audacity and ingenuity he escapes and liberates Broomhilda (Washington) with unfettered violence as true retribution. He does it alone, occupying his real place in history as a black person. He cannot speak to the “house” so he just blows it up into tiny bits. Revenge, on the other hand, in Lincoln is exercised by the North to the South in the most devastating form of all: the irresistible violence of law.
Regarding the liberators there is also a profound difference between Abe and Dr Schultz. For Schultz, bounty hunting and slavery are, at first, simply a legal form of “flesh for cash” business. But as he sinks deeper into the inferno of slavery, he sees not only its horrors, but something equally macabre: the suave and civilized ways of avoiding any sense of atrocity. It gets to the point where Schultz, himself a cold-blooded murderer, is morally sickened and awakened. His humanity is brought to the fore, he cannot stomach the horror, and instead of shaking the hand of Candie, he kills him not caring anymore, as he knows he himself will die in the process. Here the moral victory is not like in Lincoln, an epopee of legal reasoning, but what is basic to human beings: moral repulsion.
Stephen, played majestically by Samuel L. Jackson, is the ultimate top of the pops Uncle Tom. But in global terms, for the world’s periphery, for the wretched and enslaved of the global South, could it not be said that Obama is our contemporary Stephen? The great hope of transformation felt in the States with Obama’s election was mirrored by a shockwave of optimism in the global South, for we have been truly the “subjects” of an Empire that some thought could be fractured in some way by Obama’s arrival. Obama comes from one of the richest racial heritages of resistance, political struggle and emancipation but he does not seem to see that his brothers and sisters across the borders share the same heritage. Sadly, what was expected has been fulfilled; Obama is simply the manager of Empire, Wall Street’s ventriloquist dummy as Stephen is to Monsieur Candie, who in turn is the true “big Other”. Isn’t the world fighting Mandingo fights just for the benefit of the intervention of the powerful? Isn’t Guantanamo the “hot box” of modern times? Obama has become an unlikely creature, a gimp of history, a severed dream for all who are powerless, and definitive proof that life does go on and it’s business as usual.
Can Obama turn from Stephen to Django? Is he playing the black slaver? Most unlikely. Maybe we should shout in his ear what Woody Allen says in Deconstructing Harry, “They are all your people”.
Ricardo Sanín Restrepo is Professor of legal and political theory at Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá Colombia.