Two films were recently released dealing with the subject of slavery in the history of the United States. The first was made by a Steven Spielberg; and as expected, it has performed very well. After nine weeks in wide release, it has brought in just under $150 million dollars in its domestic distribution, even as it continues to garner nominations for prestigious awards. The second film, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, has also been a solid box office hit, earning just over $100 million in two weeks time. One film has been widely embraced and praised by Evangelical Christians, while the other film has been roundly condemned as “too offensive, disgusting and demeaning” to even consider. The question is: which of these two films is really worth our critical attention?
Before going any further, I need to make two things very clear. First, I am neither a Tarantino-apologist nor a Tarantino-hater. In my opinion, Tarantino is a fascinating writer-director, who has made some tremendous films that rank amongst my personal favorites (e.g. Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds), just as he has made some films that are very poor (e.g. Kill Bill (vol. 1) and Deathproof). So this is not the review of a man who is committed to all-things Quentin. Secondly, and rather importantly, you need to know that I am neither recommending that you see Django Unchained nor that you avoid it. Ultimately, as I will argue below, one can – and indeed, should! – understand the cultural significance of Django without ever stepping into a theater to see it.
Having said all of that, it’s time for me to let you in on a little discovery I made while watching Inglorious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t make films about reality. He makes films about the films we, as a society, both make and see. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are not movies rooted in actual history, like Goodfellas or Casino. They’re gangster films that explore the way we, as a movie-going culture, are infatuated with criminals and violence. Kill Bill (volumes 1 and 2) and Deathproof are about Asian cinema and the grindhouse films of the early-to-mid 70s. And as for Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained? Well, nowhere is this “little discovery” of mine more clear than in these two films, both of which eschew realism in favor of cinematic exploration.
So what is it that Tarantino is saying through his latest work? In short, he’s saying that there are not nearly enough films about slavery, even as he is saying that there are far too many films like Lincoln. Stop and ask yourself this question. How many films can you name that deal exclusively with the subject of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade? Roots? Maybe Amistad, or Amazing Grace? Seriously, beyond those three, how many films can you name?
Now stop and consider this. The scholarly consensus on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade suggests that 12 million Africans were removed from their homeland over a period of approximately three centuries. During this time, millions died in what amounted to a legally sanctioned “Holocaust” that was used to build the economic foundation of the United States in an era when agriculture reigned supreme and the need for cheap labor was high.
So what you have is an ugly, morally reprehensible history built on the backs of the broken; and you have maybe a half dozen notable films that address the stories of this generation. What’s more, you need to think about the nature of the stories that we are telling. In each of these films, with the sole exception of Roots, the central character is a white man, burdened with the task of fighting for justice, fighting for freedom. And how do these films all end? With the grateful, tear-stained cheeks of black men and women joyfully celebrating their white liberators.
What these films do is actually quite remarkable. By telling the stories in the way that they do, the films subtly suggest that while there was a dirty time in our nation’s history that was marred by the evil actions of the few (who are rarely portrayed with any great detail), the dominate culture – the good culture! – was a culture in which white men fought for freedom and progress, the very cornerstones of the myth of the American story.
Now enter Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained. One film uses the Presidency of Lincoln – one of our nation’s most treasured Presidencies and perhaps even one of our nation’s most vibrant symbols – and it once again retells the story of the heroic white man freeing the black man from the evil actions of the unseen few. By contrast, Django doesn’t give us a central hero who is white; and it doesn’t give us a hero who will patiently wait. Django isn’t interested in retelling the American myth. Instead, it cartoonishly exaggerates the violence of that era and repeatedly throws it into our faces, until we are forced to cringe in our seats. Likewise, it takes words like “nigger” and puts them in the mouths of every single character, time and time and time again, until its clear what Tarantino is doing. Django is politically incorrect satire that is asking subversive questions of the dominant culture. Why do we hide from our history? Why do we not tell the stories that have shaped our national character? Why do we not let black men speak for themselves on this subject? Why do we fashion them as passive and submissive? Could it be that we are afraid of their stories? Could it be that we are afraid of how the current black culture might latch on to such stories?
Now please, do not get me wrong. This review is not meant to be read as an unabashed endorsement of Django Unchained. Indeed, as I said earlier, I can neither fully recommend the film, nor truly advise you to avoid it. Django giddily swims in a violence so exteme that the line between commentary and exultation becomes blurry to say the least. But what Django does is bear witness to is the subtle ways in which the dominant American culture continues to advance a national mythology. And as Christians, this ought to concern us greatly. For both here in the States and elsewhere overseas, America is still portrayed (in some circles at least) as a “Christian nation.” Sadly, films like Spielberg’s Lincoln allow us to continue to propagate that myth, even as films like Tarantino’s Django dare us to speak it with a straight face.
Does this mean that a film like Lincoln has no value? Absolutely not. It simply means that Lincoln is the “safer” of these two films – a film that isn’t going to challenge the status quo. And while it may be fair to say that Lincoln also pales in comparison to some of Spielberg’s own work (e.g. Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, etc…), it would be unfair to say that it is not a worthwhile movie. For in an era where the anti-hero reigns supreme (e.g. Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, etc…), films such as Lincoln serve to remind us of our nobler purpose as creatures endowed with the imago dei – creatures tasked with speaking for truth. Could Lincoln have been a great film? Perhaps. But for it to be great, it had to strive to be something more than a vehicle for propagating the American myth. It needed to acknowledge that history was not nearly so clean. It needed to acknowledge that even a man as great as Lincoln was a man who could speak these very words:
“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. There must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” 
So where does that leave us? Well, I suspect that it leaves us with this rather postmodern conclusion. As a society, we need films such as Lincoln because they remind us of what is possible when the good of humanity is pursued. But at the same time, we need movies like Django Unchained, movies that remind us that film itself is a powerful medium that isn’t always committed to the complete truth, no matter how “historical” and “true” a film may claim to be.
 Some other notable films on this subject include: Glory, Gone With the Wind, The Color Purple and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Interestingly enough, Lincoln, Amistad, and The Color Purple were all filmed by Spielberg, raising the question: where would the culture of film be without him?
 These words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln in a senatorial debate with Steven Douglas in 1858.