Race and slavery: A look at ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Django Unchained’

Because of Hollywood’s reach and potential impact, films on race are “bound to inform (or misinform) the world”.

Christoph Waltz Jamie Foxx
In 'Django Unchained', slavery and race are exhibited through the lens of violence, blood and death [AP]

As race and slavery, and their permanent counterparts, racism and enslavement take to the screens, two opposed views of American slavery, both emanating from Hollywood, have recently come to our cinemas. 

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is, predictably, a film about American President Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in 1865. Django Unchained, by Quentin Tarantino, represents the high levels of violence and racism, not to mention anguish, that millions of Africans and African descendants endured under slavery every day of their lives. They could not possibly be more different. 

Predictably, the debates about the pros and the cons of these films have flooded news outlets in recent weeks. Spike Lee has called Tarantino’s film disrespectful to his ancestors, even though by his own admission, he hasn’t seen it. Spielberg’s film hasn’t fared much better. Lincoln has come under fire from different quarters, from those who cannot understand – and count me among them – the total absence of Frederick Douglass in the film, to a number of Connecticut representatives who have complained of historical inaccuracies. 

Re-visiting slavery on the screen 

American slaves and ex-slaves are portrayed by Spielberg as a bunch of nicely dressed Black soldiers, who are nothing but secondary characters in the background of a much bigger stage and plot, where Lincoln, William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens and other white men define their futures without much input from them. The absence of Douglass, a consummate abolitionist whose opinions were always heard and on occasion supported by Lincoln is a historical calamity that excludes probably the most significant African-American protagonist altogether from a history he helped to write.

In Tarantino’s world, on the other hand, slavery and race are exhibited through the lens of violence, blood and death. Django is a slave with attitude and panache. While in Lincoln white men fight for and against slavery mostly in civilised manners and in sanitised quarters, here they are killed left, right and centre, and in true Tarantinesque style, their blood splatters everywhere. More importantly, much more importantly, this is the main difference between these two films. The protagonist of Tarantino’s film is a black man, a slave. 

Django Unchained has been criticised because of its violent content, especially considering the recent shootings that have taken place in the US. However, that should not take away credit from Tarantino who, in my opinion, chose an honest path when he decided to portray American slavery as it really was – a nasty, violent business. 

Those who find Mandingo fighting or a slave being killed by dogs revolting should know that violent instances like these were by no means extreme or extraordinary events. Across the Americas and on a daily basis, African slaves and their descendants were subject to punishments like these, and to some that were probably even worse. 

In the Danish West Indies, for example, runaway slaves suffered a wide variety of punishments that went from being tortured with red-hot iron pincers to the loss of limbs and ears. For those who attempted to poison their masters, the penalty was to be broken down on a wheel. 

In Brazil, the US and other parts of the New World, owners castigated disobedient slaves by dragging the claws of a cat across their backs. In Cuba, there were cases where slaves were thrown in the middle of swarms of excited deadly wasps. This list of horrors could go on forever. 

And what was all that for? To satisfy the needs of the white man. Their justification for slavery as an institution and for the daily tortures they inflicted upon their slaves, was almost universal that American slavery was a step forward in the evolution of an inferior race. 

 Spielberg’s film is about Lincoln and his struggle to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the US [EPA]

In other words, to this “civilised” group of people, slavery was an educating enterprise. In return for the gift of civilisation and, let’s not forget, Christianisation, slaves were expected to obey and to serve. Quite a simple and in many ways persuasive argument in 1861, just before the war started, and unfortunately, one that still resurfaces all too often nowadays, while co-existing with the need to access and control cheap or free labour. 

A racist tradition in sheep’s clothing 

Spielberg’s take on Lincoln reveals, perhaps better than Django, how long-existing assumptions about the superiority of the white race still prevail in the discourse about slavery presented to the world by the very powerful Hollywood studios. 

I was quite surprised, for example, with the familiarity with which Lincoln is depicted referring to the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, whom he alluded to as “Jeff”. And I was even more surprised with the way he is shown talking to the Confederates’ Vice President Alexander Stephens (“Alex” to Spielberg’s Lincoln).                                                        

Let’s not kid ourselves here. Better than anyone else both Davis and Stephens embodied the deeply racist ideas that led to the Secession War. In his infamous Cornerstone speech of 1861, “Alex” stated, among many other incredibly racist things that, “As a race, the African man is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition.” 

“Jeff” did not measure his words either when it came to stating the superiority of the white race. In a speech given in August 1854, he compared his American forefathers with those that had arrived, conquered and colonised Latin America, highlighting how they had “preferred to encounter toil, privation and carnage, rather than debase their lineage and race” as their Latin American counterparts had done. 

Additionally, in what I can only see as an unwarranted concession made by Spielberg to viewers who still perceive these men as heroes, he included a scene in which General Ulysses S Grant and his staff take their hats off as a mark of respect to a surrendering General Robert E Lee at Appomattox. I wonder, as a mark of respect to what? While this event actually seems to have taken place as shown in the screen, presenting northern officers offering their respects to the leader of an army that fought to keep in place the suffering of millions of Americans seems a bit awkward to say the least. 

Davis, Stephens and Lee were not soft-mannered baddies plotting their evil ways in a Walt Disney film. No, they were the wicked leaders of a breakaway movement whose main objective was to keep millions of men, women and children in chains. They were irredeemable racists who believed the natural state of the Africans and their descendants in America was slavery. 

Back to Django 

Honestly, it was about time someone made fun of these white Southern supremacist crowds and showed their callous side, as Tarantino has done. After all, throughout the 20th century, they were continuously let off the hook by Hollywood, from the once-celebrated The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Mandingo (1975), not forgetting the “classic” Gone with the Wind (1939). 

More recently, when racist views became frowned upon, the screen discourse changed to glorify whites who had sympathies for blacks, as if they were heroes for holding views that have been mainstream across the world for a long, long time. Black men and women, according to this new Hollywood narrative, could only achieve their potential with the helping hand of the white folk. Think of Amistad (1997), The Blind Side (2009) or The Help (2011), just to mention a few examples of this new wave. 

Because of the long arm of Hollywood and its potential impact all around the world, the ways in which both films represent race and slavery are bound to inform (or misinform) the world. People may feel repulsed by Tarantino’s take on slavery, but his vision is much closer to the reality of millions of men, women and children under slavery. 

Spielberg’s take, on the other hand, is more of the same melodramatic, patronising and historically distorting garbage we’ve been consistently getting from Hollywood; another attempt at bleaching the history of the African-Americans. The choice between an idealised world where whites magnanimously free their slaves, and a violent one full of torture, blood and deaths where a slave takes revenge on the white men is yours. 

Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.