Thursday February 21 2013

Tarantino and Spielberg reviews: Abolition and emancipation

Mike Belbin reviews: Steven Spielberg (director) Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino (director) Django unchained

Lincoln active, slaves passive

Here are two films set at the time of slavery in American history. How do they speak to us about that heritage? Which should we recommend: the one with the ‘fastest gun in the south’ superhero, who whips and shoots and blows up his opponents, white and black, or the one with the political elite working patiently but resolutely for the emancipation of a people?

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a biopic which covers only a small part of the president’s life: the passing of the 13th amendment to the US constitution, banning slavery and “involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime”. This concentration on the passing of the amendment, even as the war between the states continues, means that much of the film’s early dialogue is taken up with exposition - mostly by Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) about how he got to this point, often speaking uninterruptedly. In this way, we are left in no doubt as to his commitment to getting the thing done. This does though make for scenes without much tension. while we try to sort who is who in a forest of names.

Concentrating on an episode, though an important one to say the least, means other nuances are lost. We lose Lincoln, the compromiser with the confederacy early in his presidency, and the war leader set on conserving the union. The film therefore becomes effectively the portrait of one man, this single idea, what he said to his allies and how he handled his opponents - mainly within dark rooms against the sombre tones of a war long fought and not yet over.

The script by Tony Kushner gives us a president wearied by the struggle, but full of humour and committed to seeing it through, while Sally Field’s Mary Lincoln personalises things with her worries that their eldest son will die in the war before the job is done. This is not then the Abraham Lincoln who denied the confederate states the right to leave the union, while being willing to permit slavery in those states alone; who suspended habeas corpus, but freed the slaves when the war was being lost - so officially inventing ‘total war’, where every white southerner could be the enemy. In fact recent research shows that even during the famous destructive march of union general William Sherman, only two percent of slaves in Georgia and South Carolina were freed from the land.

Then again, even after Lincoln’s assassination - alluded to here - efforts were made to involve black people in southern politics. But ‘reconstruction’, as it was called, was short-lived and gave rise to a fear of black supremacy among most whites and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. The north and the ‘feds’, meanwhile, left those states to their own devices and concentrated on building capitalism with the ‘free labour’ of the urban poor and old-world immigrants.

All the characters so far mentioned are of course white. In Lincoln, black characters merely wait. They work as servants and wait, they wait in union uniform, they wait in the gallery of the House of Representatives while the vote is being taken.

This is historically accurate as far as it goes - no-one of colour in Congress then. There is not time though even to mention black activists, like Frederick Douglass, who was involved in abolitionism and the author of a mind-expanding narrative of his own slavery and escape. Of course, this invisibility or inactivity of black characters is very much in keeping with the tradition of US fiction, as pointed out by writers like Toni Morrison, where black people hardly do anything off their own backs. They exhibit a lack of human initiative you could call slavish.

In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the book from “all modern American literature comes”, according to Ernest Hemingway, Jim is a slave who is imprisoned after doing a runner. His young white friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, devise an elaborate scheme to free him, one inspired by European adventure books. Because of Tom’s interest in grand gestures and daring literary rescues, Jim suffers all kinds of unnecessary humiliations and delays. Eventually though, he is freed. Twain may well be sending up European books, but Jim is a character who goes along with the complications because, as narrator Huck says, “ he allowed we was white folks and knowed better than him” (chapter 36).

(Twain later redeemed himself by producing in 1894 an anti-racist novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, also set in the same pre-civil war period as Huckleberry Finn.)

In Lincoln, the ‘escape’ - the session when the vote is taken - is undoubtedly the best sequence, full of suspense after the ponderous manoeuvring of the build-up. Spielberg uses all his skill in close-up and climax to persuade us of the centrality of this question: which way will particular white men finally vote?

Day-Lewis gives Lincoln a firm but weary human presence, portraying a slow, moving dignity, but he can still play the Spielberg-approved father and occupy the time waiting for the vote with his younger son. The president also pulls strings, commands his subordinates to press on and tells them a big lie to reach the goal. He continues the war in order to win time for the amendment to pass.

The whole film may indeed be an attempt to show current Republicans that a president from their party can effect changes that improve people’s lives. But what if the Tea Party faction is not impressed by ‘big government’ under anyone’s control? The film-makers may also have thought that they could be giving advice to the current president. But what message would Barack Obama take from it? To stand firm in continuing a war until a principle is vindicated? How does that apply to ongoing interventions? Where is the movie that says Washington should not be sending soldiers to fight those classed as evil-doers?

Above all, perhaps the message is do things calmly, patiently. Obama himself has been told never to seem angry - the fear of black initiative is still there.


Individual emancipation

Django unchained is a different picture of history - not fact, but a challenging fiction; and not about anger either, but about purpose. Director-writer Quentin Tarantino is known for his fan-interest in all kinds of movies, and here, in its imagery and narrative, his latest work manages to contest many past views of race relations, especially as presented in the western.

To start with, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a shivering, back-scarred slave on his way to being sold in the deep south. He encounters a German bounty-hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who needs Django for his ability to identify particular quarry. They join up, like Huck and Jim, and in the course of a winter (buffaloes in the snow, courtesy of John Ford’s The searchers), Django helps Schultz in his business, while Schultz teaches the slave to be a confident shot. Humour and irony are everywhere. When Django rides into a small town with Schulz, the townsfolk are appalled: an American of African heritage on a horse. They would not have been more hostile if he had just made a heavy rap record.

In time, Schultz finds himself moved by Django’s story of a wife still being held in slavery. She (Kerry Washington) turns out to have a German name, Broomhilda, and speaks the language too. Schultz agrees to assist Django in emancipating Broomhilda from the plantation. Of course, democratic Germans must stick together against American bigots! No doubt the echoes are deliberate of Wagner’s Ring opera cycle, where the gods set over us are destroyed. The Brünnhilde in that, though, had a bigger role in the reckoning than here. Though the sun continues to beat down, the tone becomes grimmer. The plantation, with all its horrors, keeps the film from seeming over-long.

Unlike westerns such as The wild bunch, the shootout is not relentless. Django even has to surrender at one point. When it begins again, you can query the excess - it is Tarantino, after all - but not the guilt of those who get shot. There is other violent imagery in the film. At one point Django is hung upside down naked and threatened with castration.

Tarantino gives us pictures rarely if ever seen in America film. When Schultz and Django arrive at the centre of the plantation, they face a large white mansion with porticos and field hands all around. So far, so Gone with the wind. But on the lawn there is a cast-iron door in the ground, under which is a ‘hot box’ reserved for runaways. This is where Broomhilda is first seen, also naked. Django puts his hand on his gun, but pauses: he is not one to jump rashly into action. He and Schultz have an alliance and a plan.

Django unchained is Tarantino’s most considered and pointed film so far. Schulz, the German, uses intelligence and the law as well as a gun, and Django is a gunslinger who is not defending a town, but destroying a hellhole. Not all Germans-speakers are evil, or white; not all Americans are role-models or outlaws. This is the writer-director’s first film about a society, not just a shootout.

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