For a horrifying and heightened depiction of slavery and its predations, viewers are better served by Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,”
a best-picture nomineealong with “Lincoln” and one that does a better job at marrying medium to message in a direct, startling and meaningful way.
What’s wrong with this picture? Spielberg, arguably America’s premier narrative filmmaker, studiously avoids the central question around which his story revolves, while Tarantino — an artist of diametrically opposed, gleefully down-market sensibilities — takes it on with exploitative excess, through the brazenly anachronistic visual style and promiscuous violence of a B-class spaghetti Western.
It could be that to capture the perversity of a system of kidnapped human beings who were routinely bought, sold, raped, maimed and murdered, it takes genre filmmaking at its most graphic and hyperbolic. How else can movies make proper symbolic sense of America’s bloodiest, most shameful chapter?
Indeed, the genre Tarantino reinvigorates in “Django Unchained” is spectacularly well-suited to convey what was once called our “peculiar institution.” The story of an escaped slave (played by Jamie Foxx) and a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) going on a killing spree in the name of love and retribution might strike some as perverse. But if the scenes Tarantino stages — of a man being torn apart by dogs, another being castrated and a woman emerging half-dead from captivity in a metal “hot” box — are cruel and extreme, how better to capture the physical and psychic wounds suffered by generations of enslaved people?
Tarantino does not play those sequences for laughs, although he takes wicked delight in skewering the Ku Klux Klan and mocking a collaborationist house servant (Samuel L. Jackson). But even at its most lurid, preposterous and ahistorical, “Django Unchained” communicates truths that more solemn, self-serious treatises might miss.
In that unlikely success, Tarantino’s genre exercise has some company: Last summer’s campy comedy “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” did something similar, when the “Railsplitter” burst forth as an ax-wielding superhero who vanquished a Confederate States of America that turned out to be populated by voracious, bloodsucking freaks of nature. Peculiar, indeed.