Ann Hornaday is The Washington Post’s film critic.
In “Lincoln,” director Steven Spielberg delivers all the necessary elements of a film that could fend off “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” and win the Oscar for best picture on Feb. 24. A surprisingly lively portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln and the legislative sausage-making he instigated to pass the 13th Amendment, the movie displays historical gravitas, burnished production values and a galvanizing performance from its lead actor.
What “Lincoln” doesn’t deliver, however, is a depiction of the very institution the 13th Amendment was adopted to eradicate. Enslaved people and the terror they endured in the 19th-century South are never portrayed. Instead, Spielberg confines his epic almost entirely to the close environs of 1865 Washington and its rambunctious halls of power.
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.
Just as Tarantino ingeniously compares slavery to bounty hunting — both of which commodify the human body — “Vampire Hunter,” based on a book by Seth Grahame-Smith, draws a crafty parallel between slave owners and their vampire allies, themselves in need of human bodies for sanguinary nourishment. Much as 1950s science fiction addressed Cold War anxieties and “The Twilight Zone” obliquely confronted the social issues roiling the 1960s, “Django” and “Vampire Hunter” use exploitation and pulp-horror films to simultaneously critique and deflate the racist pathologies they portray.
As oh-so-very-wrong as it is to see Lincoln, Joshua Speed and Jefferson Davis cavort like so many comic-book figures, there’s something very right about Harriet Tubman showing up in “Vampire Hunter’s” climactic scene as the savior of Gettysburg. That image is disorienting and a gross distortion — but also a potent way to convey the mythic stature she deserves to young audiences raised on the visual grammar of graphic novels and video games.
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.
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