Lest we forget, D.W. Griffith helped codify the elements of cinematic style in the toxic, racist imagery of his 1915 silent film, “The Birth of a Nation,” which in its depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction introduced shot structure, camera movements and editing techniques that would become accepted narrative conventions. There’s something slyly corrective about modern filmmakers processing America’s primal wound by way of tropes perfected by Sergio Leone and blaxploitation auteur Melvin Van Peebles.
What “Django Unchained” and “Vampire Hunter” have accomplished is akin to what linguists call “code switching,” or fluidly shifting from one dialect to another. If staid, punctilious costume dramas are the equivalent of the King’s English, then “Django” and “Vampire Hunter” are cinema’s version of street slang.
And their most serious messages are all the more accessible for it. Perhaps it takes the inaccurate insanity of “Django” and “Vampire Hunter” to account for the insanity of a country that became a global power on the backs of chattel.
In both cases, the symbolism these films use to tell their stories — the stylized genre conventions they obey and that audiences instantly recognize — serve to draw viewers into the harsh truths they tell, rather than keeping them at a safe, tasteful remove.
And this is why Spielberg was right to focus laser-like on the inner workings of Washington; cutaway scenes of enslavement in “Lincoln” would have felt perfunctory and patronizing. To bring slavery to the screen by way of historical realism often has the effect of minimizing it, placing it in a gauzy world of that-was-then. From the galvanizing 1977 miniseries “Roots” to Steven Spielberg’s painterly portrayal of the Middle Passage in “Amistad” and the magical realism of Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved,” even the best-intentioned attempts have been too careful by half, creating emotional distance rather than visceral outrage.
As “Django Unchained” producer Reginald Hudlintold Ebony magazine: “I had no interest in seeing yet another movie about noble suffering. I wanted to see foot to ass.”
That aggressive impulse ultimately undermines “Django Unchained,” which loses momentum and moral force in its hysterically pitched, sophomorically ballistic final half-hour. But there’s no denying the gut-level power of what’s gone before, even if it’s couched in the subversive language of escapist pleasure rather than earnest uplift.
Neither “Django Unchained” nor “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” may be destined to win big on Oscar night (“Vampire Hunter,” it bears noting, isn’t nominated for any awards). But each deserves credit for demonstrating how a history once grievously distorted by cinematic language can be improbably well-served by its most florid, outlandish vernacular.
Read more Outlook essays by Ann Hornaday:
America loves a vigilante. Until we meet one.
Going to the movies is a break from reality. Until reality starts shooting.
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