“Lincoln” and “Django Unchained”: Two Films, One Unspeakable Word (?!) and the History of a Nation

Djano Unchained Review

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.[1]  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.[2]  The question is: which of these two films is really worth our critical attention?

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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?[3]

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.

Lincoln ReviewNow 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.” [4]

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.


[1] Weekly box office receipts are regularly compiled at www.boxofficemojo.com.

[2] This quote was taken specifically from www.movieguide.org.  But it should be noted that not a single major Christian film-review website has seen fit to recommend Django Unchained to its audience.

[3] 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?

[4] These words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln in a senatorial debate with Steven Douglas in 1858.

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23 Responses to “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained”: Two Films, One Unspeakable Word (?!) and the History of a Nation

  1. Mary DeVries Yager says:

    While I have no intention to see Django, I certainly agree with your assessment. I use the Lincoln quote (the longer version of this speech) in a Cultural Diversity class that I teach. I let students read the quote and see if they can guess the Author. Of course, they always say “Hitler” and then think that I am lying when I tell them the author. Then we go on to discuss how we tend to “White-wash” history in America (and I use the term white-wash in a literal and figurative metaphor for them). The encouraging part for me is that by the end of the 16 week class, most students can recognize this tendency and seem dedicated to truthfulness. However – the breakthrough is not usually when we discuss slavery related issues…the breakthroughs come when we discuss the annihilation of Native American culture (the boarding school era of “kill the savage, save the man” and the Christian attempt to witness with the underlying attempt to eradicate culture.) Anyway – I find that students are so detached from experiences with Native Americans that they can be more honest about the assessment of the wrongs. I can then use it to segue into a similar discussion about slavery and the whitewashing of this in our history. Your blog will be a great addition to this discussion – so thanks!!

    • Your comment just brought me back to the days when a few us would either guest lecture or sit in our your panel discussions at Wheaton. I remember looking at the faces of the students as we talked about life in the field. They seemed so stunned to learn that life was not as clean as they had been lead to believe. Enjoy these days, my friend. And thanks for stopping by.

  2. Pete says:

    I saw Django Unchained. If you leave the theater without having had your stomach turned by man’s inhumanity to man, you didn’t see the movie I saw. Yes, Tarantino has cartoon violence, but when the movie is over you realize that Tarantino just lectured a mostly white audience about racism in America for nearly three hours. And if you’re willing to extrapolate his intent a bit, which is always dangerous business, he might even be making comments about race and incarceration in modern America. Or maybe he’s just retelling the Siegfried story. Lincoln, which I’ve not seen, is probably just a whitewashing of someone who doesn’t deserve it.

    • Morning Pete. Thanks for stopping by the site. As to your comment, I’d be really curious to know the demographic breakdown for the viewing audience. When I saw Django, I made sure to look at the audience around me; and as you suggested, it was almost entirely white. This actually surprised me given the fact that Tarantino has long demonstrated an interest in the African-American community. I honestly expected to see more of a mixed audience there. Thanks again for stopping by.

      • Pete says:

        I’d also be curious about the national breakdown as well. From what I saw, which wasn’t exactly scientific, the audience was majority white.

  3. lamehousewife says:

    Do you think it would perhaps be more fair and honest if filmmakers were to do a film on someone like Frederick Douglass?
    And can you point me to the text of the entire senatorial debate so that I can read it in context, historical and otherwise? I’ll google it, but so far I have only been able to find a speech from June 16, 1858 (in Illinois) in which Lincoln was showing how ambiguous Senator Douglas was to opposing slavery.
    Thank you, and God bless…

    • I would love to see a film of the life of Douglass. But that is part of Tarantino’s point. Hollywood doesn’t make movies about black history. Case in point: George Lucas’ Red Tails. Here you have a film about the Tuskeegee airman and their contribution to the war effort against the Nazis; and the man who made Star Wars(!!) couldn’t find a single backer for his film because the industry thought its focus on black history was too narrow. So he had to fund the film himself. We may not like Django for many of the reasons that others have cited, but it is a valuable film in the sense that he is shining a light on what Hollywood and much of current culture refuses to discuss.

      As for the full context of the speech, you’d probably have to dig it out from a library archive somewhere. But here is an interesting link to an article that ran on cnn.com yesterday. Lincoln, while ultimately a “good” man, was not nearly so flawless as we often portray him to be. And in case your wondering, the PBS series that the article references is actually quite interesting. I watched the first installment last night and it’s well worth your time.

      http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/08/showbiz/slavery-pbs/index.html?hpt=hp_bn9

      Thanks for checking back in. It’s been a while since we’ve seen you around these parts. 🙂

      • lamehousewife says:

        Hi Scott! I just finished reading the first debate at http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/debate1.htm I have a far better understanding of what he was up against having read it. Lincoln tried to do things in degrees, as far as I can tell, and after having read Douglas’ first speech in this debate, I can see why. As for my absence, I have been going to graduate school since August ’12 to become a teacher, so it has kept me really busy. Right now, I am in a class about the history and the philosophy of “state” education, so it was worth my time to look into this topic because we inherited a really bad version of history in the 20th century. Thank you for initiating research into this part of history:)

        • Hmmm … I’m not sure that I could agree that the quotation cited above is evidence that he did things in “degrees.” I find it more likely that he had a change of heart over a period of time and came to disown some of his previous ideas.

          As for your absence, I say: “Time well spent away from the internet.” Blessings as you continue your studies.

          • lamehousewife says:

            Did you read the debate to get to the end of the paragraph in which that quote comes? I suggest also reading his June speech, too, if you haven’t yet. I think it would be erroneous to take a piece of his argument without knowing the whole story just as it would be erroneous to take a piece of Scripture to interpret the whole without knowing the context. Misunderstandings often occur. The Black Republicans had also made a statement that the South should be able to keep their slaves, but that they wouldn’t allow anymore states to become slave states. Does that make them racist toward themselves or were they aware of their audience? He says several times that getting rid of slavery would have to be “gradual” because Racism was such an uncontrollable beast in some places. I can’t for sure say I know what he meant or intended with the above quote after having read the debate.
            Taking something out of context is something that greatly concerns me, especially with the new, popular historical perspective. I just finished a class that is trying to create a historical perspective based on the theory that all white Christian people are subversive and unjust–all of them, so they are revising history to fit that theory. They are not worried about being comprehensive or setting things in their historical context–they are being condescending toward historical figures as if these historical figures had the knowledge we now have, and they are cherry-picking quotes to support their claims that something is inherently wrong with European Christians. In essence and in the end, they are being extremely judgmental toward anybody that is a descendant of Europe (except Spain right now) because they think that Europeans (and Christians) are the source of all social ills. Many adults who went through school in the 20th century are at a disadvantage because we don’t know any better, unless we start researching ourselves. We received a highly censored history, in order to separate church from state and to avoid hurting people’s feelings, which left us with little material to work with; now we are hearing about history as more original documents become available, but the perspective we are given may not be…accurate, especially if its motives are not about historical accuracy but about something else entirely.

  4. Doug Hutchcraft says:

    It seems to me that movies as purposefully unhinged as “Django” leave themselves open to be interpreted any number of ways by film buffs and critics. Is it possible “Django” is simply a fantasy revenge movie made by a creative man who loves blood?

    • Doug … Unless you want to do the digging yourself, you’re going to have to take me at my word on this. But sometime over the past few months, Tarantino went on record as saying that he made Django precisely because you never saw black men in Westerns, let alone black men who were angry at the state of slavery in the United States. Can’t say where I saw it because I honestly do not remember. But it is out there in an interview he did.

      Having said that, there is no question that Tarantino is interested in the concept of revenge and retaliation. Kill Bill (vol. 1 and 2), Deathproof, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained all bear witness to this. There is absolutely no argument to be made. But even that is worthy of discussion on some point. If Tarantino makes films about the movies we see, and Tarantino makes films about revenge, than is it not possible that he is offering commentary on much of what comes out of Hollywood these days. Take a look at the recent spat of superhero movies that are cleaning up the box office. Almost every single one of those films has revenge as a central motive that ignites the hero on his or her journey. Batman, Spiderman, etc… All of them glorify violence and revenge, but under the smooth patina of “entertainment.” In other words, the same messages are being sent by these films. They’re just not as over the top about it.

      • Doug Hutchcraft says:

        Thanks Scott. I hadn’t read that from Tarantino, that’s interesting. I just think sometimes we make talented filmmakers into something more than they are by ascribing our own deep meanings to their projects, meanings that they did not originally have in mind when making the film. I don’t think this about all directors that are lauded, but Tarantino, for me, lands in the realm of not being as deep as many think he is. While I think he has a terrific cinematic eye and is brilliant at casting his films (particularly Inglorious-I can’t believe I hadn’t seen Christoph Waltz in anything before that), I don’t fine much depth beyond creative ways to display violence and revenge. I’m probably on the minority in those feelings though!

        As a side note, I don’t think the current Batman movies are ultimately about revenge, but rather the willingness to sacrifice one’s good for the good of many. I think Bruce Wayne actually makes a point of saying in one of the films that revenge for his parent’s death can’t be his motivation anymore. So, while his journey starts there, it doesn’t end there.

        • Have you seen Pulp Fiction? Without question, one of the strongest “theistic” movies I have seen. And no, I’m not joking. 🙂

          P.S. Don’t get me wrong, Doug. I love the Batman mythology. And Nolan’s take actually elevated the source material in many ways. If you couldn’t see allusions to the Gospel in this final flick, I don’t know what you were watching. But having said that, Batman’s core motivation was to avenge his parents’ death. And if he does finally move beyond that, it doesn’t change the fact that revenge was there from the very beginning.

          • Doug Hutchcraft says:

            One thing’s for sure – I hope you do more reviews with commentary! Yours are head and shoulders above the typical piffle (yes, I just wrote that word).

  5. Doug Hutchcraft says:

    Also Scott – is it possible “Lincoln” isn’t a film that propagates the “American myth” but rather simply tells a story about someone who actually WAS a “heroic white man” fighting on behalf of the black man against the evil few? I appreciate such a thought-invoking post by the way. I just am not as willing to ascribe such brilliance to Tarantino, and think it’s a stretch to call the “Lincoln” film one that propagates the so-called “American myth”. (For the record, I have not seen “Django” for personal reasons, though I have read extensively about it. I have watched “Lincoln”.) Keep up the movie posts! Very interesting reads!

    • Hey Doug … Just to be clear, I’m not actually arguing with you on these issues. I appreciate the conversation, and for me, it’s a chance to stretch my thinking. If you remember from the post above, I am not a Tarantino-apologist. He has made some bad films. No arguments. No defense. But, with this film, I think he aimed for something that touched a nerve in our culture. And when you thinking about it, we have a three-hundred year history of doing violence to Africans and Native Americans, and yet we have almost no films covering the subject. As for the few that do cover it … they almost always cover it from a certain perspective, which includes the white heroic male rescuing the people.

      For me, Lincoln would have been a far stronger film if it had actually charted his moral progression from the Douglas debate through to the second inaugural speech. For there was clearly growth in the man and he came to fight for equality before God. But by electing to white-wash the presentation of the facts, it creates a false image of the man that denies the history of this nation.

      Thanks for chiming in.

      • Doug Hutchcraft says:

        A little off topic, but…I’m not sure it’s ever possible to really “know” history. Were Native Americans brutalized and treated unfairly? Yes. But, as someone who loves Native Americans and counts many as friends, many of them would tell you our history books look the other way when it comes to how many Native tribes were brutalizing one another with the same “manifest destiny” ideal that our Pilgrim’s ancestors ended up having. EVERYONE white-washes the facts to make their people look better – exactly one reason why I trust the Bible – no white-washing going on of the Biblical “heroes” when they’d have every reason to if they were trying to “start a religion”.

        • I don’t think it’s “off topic” at all. If Hollywood has barely addressed the issue of slavery, how much less has it done regarding the issue of forced relocation, etc… Your wife’s people were brutalized by a wicked ideology (e.g. “Manifest Destiny); and while they may not have been “innocent” with regards to their treatment of one another, that it no way addresses the fact that the white settlers treated them as sub-human.

          As for the Bible … I’m with you brother. Just a long hard look into a crystal clear mirror.

  6. Richard Armour says:

    I have seen neither film yet but I get the point you are striving to make. What I’m fairly positive though is that Lincoln will be a film that will have a positive influence on the culture as did the man himself, and Django will have a negative influence on the culture that is already overly obsessed with violence and “dumbed down” with Hollywood’s version of history. Yes, Lincoln was flawed man of his time, but also a man who remarkably transcended his time more so than just about any historical figure. Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address captures the time and the man perfectly without glossing over the horror. His presidency backed up the words. That’s why he deserves to be celebrated in history and in film. Django is fictional but his message is violence and revenge and seems to say damn if it don’t feel good. The fact is that we will all have to stand before God for the words we speak, and the actions we inspire others to take. On this count I would rather be Spielberg than Tarantino. You state: Could it be that we are afraid of how the current black culture might latch on to such stories? It’s a fair question, even rhetorical. But the answer is that we don’t want anyone to latch onto such stories. It will take them nowhere but down. Slavery was a national horror and stain on this country but if we are comparing how these two movies address it, there is no comparison at all.

    • Morning Richard … While I appreciate what you are saying about the positive and negative effects of each of these respective films, I’m not sure that I agree with you. I don’t think either film will have much of a lasting impact, because I don’t think that any film is really powerful enough to shift the culture. But I do believe that films in conjunction with one another can begin to move the national discussion. And in that sense, I think that both films could lead to positive change (e.g. society asking questions about why we whitewash history) just as they could lead to negative change (e.g. why do we glorify violence in film as both Lincoln and Django did in their own respective ways?)

      As for your comments about revenge, I suspect I will be tackling this issue again in a few short days after I have seen another film. Hopefully, we can talk more about it then.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Richard Armour says:

    Of course the wider conversation about race in an open and honest way is impossible at least on a national level. Normal people are ready to move on. For instance, does anyone even take a second look at a mixed race couple anymore? A big part of the problem is that the political class on the left controls the conversation and constantly uses the issue to obtain, and stay in power. They never address forgiveness and moving on which is the only path designed and provided by our Creator. The media loves the issue but only to stir up controversy and “sell papers”. Hence you get this kind of conversation: Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Clarence Thomas are “house Negroes” and sell outs, but Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are “down for the struggle”. Then the wider media seeing what passes for dialog stokes the fire and picks up the conversation with: RG III is not really a brother, he’s a cornball brother, and rumor has it he’s a Republican. Oh yeah, and he’s not down for the struggle either. Then you have the ever lovely Karen Lewis head of the CPS teachers union seemingly ok with killing a bunch of rich white guys to sort of level the playing field. This without any repercussions for her words. Who in their right mind wants to stick their head up and speak into that kind of conversation? I am assuming that this is the conversation you want beyond being a movie critic so sorry about questioning your sanity. We can’t change the past and certainly should not whitewash over our sins. The only way to address this is a two track process. First we need recognize our moral failures, repent, and then codify the solutions into law. This for the most part is already accomplished with some work yet to do. The second part involves the human heart which must extend forgiveness, not forgetting the past, nor embracing it for political advantage, but moving away from it for the sake of healing, and for the good of us all.

    • Richard … You raise some excellent points – points that I would agree with on many levels. The discrepancy between how someone like Powell is portrayed and someone like Jackson is portrayed is appalling. As for RG III, I hadn’t heard those criticisms, but then again, I’m a Cowboys’ fan, so I dislike RG III for my own personal reasons. 🙂

      I think my largest concern in raising this issue is ongoing perpetuation of the myth that America is/was a “Christian nation.” Given the many horrific incidents that scar our nation’s history (of which our treatment of slaves is just one example), this is a troubling myth for me. Why people want to look back to the “good old days” and equate them with Christianity is utterly beyond me. Was there a Christian influence in the formation of this nation? Absolutely. But this nation is marked far more heavily by the influence of the Enlightenment (e.g. the elevation of personal autonomy, the elevation of reason, the myth of progress, etc…) than it is by the Christian faith. And so here, in these two movies, I saw a means of pointing that out.

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