are both fine movies.
Two distinct commentaries on slavery. Each enormously entertaining. Each, due to the prominence of its director, slated for the mass American audience.
Lincoln dissects the political process by which the institution was finally undone, for once and for all, by the 13th Amendment. (Though, given the decades of horrible Jim Crow to come, and the current right-wing reaction to Obama, any damned fool can see that the struggle was/is not over yet.)
Lincoln is a movie of words–speeches and anecdotes and arguments and conversation–against the backdrop of an uncomfortable and disease-ridden DC. Daniel Day Lewis is Lincoln personified—almost everyone agrees on that. Tommy Lee Jones is irascible and irresistible as Thaddeus Stevens, lit up at story’s end by the love of his life, who just happens to be black. Sally Field is superb as Mrs. Lincoln. The couple’s argument about how husband could commit wife to a mental institution any time he wanted? One of the most chilling marital spats ever on the big screen.
The rough and tumble political process by which the Thirteenth Amendment was passed seemed true, even if, when one delves into the research,it turns out to be not precisely accurate. (Every time I look up a a film based on an historical event, I find that liberties have been taken with the facts.)
The scenes of the Lincoln boy playing with shadow puppets of slaves being tortured, along with the opening panorama of the face-to-face mud sling of a fight that was the Civil War, were effective reminders of how fundamentally unacceptable both phenomena—war and slavery—are. Even when one is necessary to end the other.
Did Lincoln have enough back story about the black people who waited on the Presidential family in the White House? No. Did it educate the viewer about the tenacity and importance of the black struggle to end slavery? No. Should it have included at least Frederick Douglass, whom Lincoln had actually met. Who, after all, per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln and his Team of Rivals, changed Lincoln’s view of black people? Yes.
Was Lincoln a fine movie anyhow, and one that will advance the American dialogue about racism? Yes.
Django Unchained presents an unflinching portrait of the evil that was slavery. This is the only movie ever made for a mass audience that depicts human beings actually forced to wear those actual awful instruments of torture–iron masks, spiked neck collars, and the like–used to punish slaves. The endless misery of it all–whipping and scars; being locked into a box underground; slaves set against one another to fight to the death; slaves being strung up, strung down, strung every which way—is now to be seen/grokked by Americans of all ages and persuasions, simply because this is Tarantino.
Were all the women, and especially the love of Django’s life, too passive? Yes (although my daughter pointed out that we were also enacting the maiden-rescue myth of Siegfried). Was Stephen the overseer a horrible Uncle Tom squared or quadrupled, and therefore worrisome? Yes (although I recently heard Ella Baker indict accommodationist Negroes in the 50’s South in a recorded speech on NPR).
Was Django a ridiculous character, too crazy/good to be believed? Were all the other blacks too passive in their wide-eyed fear and admiration? Was the compelling German bounty hunter the all-too-familiar Great White Hope who made it all possible? Yes and yes, and yes again.
Was this still a good movie? Yes. Entertaining and horribly violent and memorable all at once, Django Unchained finally kicks the ass of Gone With The Wind out the door and down the street and out of town, once and for all. This again is progress for America.
No movie can do everything. No one work of art can tell the whole tale. We need many more African American versions of every aspect of the American story. We need a cultural shift so that these versions would be just as popular and mainstream, these directors as celebrated as Spielberg and Tarantino. We don’t have that yet.
But Lincoln and Django Unchained are still very much worth seeing. Our reality is not Either/Or. In its crazy difficult fantastical complexity, this world is definitely Both/And.