There are no figures like Stevens willing to cut deals in the radical GOP House caucus of today. The good news about the newly rebooted Obama, as seen both in his tough dealings with the lame-duck Congress and his second inaugural address, is that he recognizes this reality. He at last seems to have learned his lesson about the futility of trying to broker a serious compromise with his current Republican adversaries. He held to his stated principles in both the “fiscal cliff” and debt-ceiling fights, and both times the GOP backed down. Nor is he deluding himself that his congressional opponents might embrace flexibility and compromise if they saw Lincoln—not least because he couldn’t even corral them to see the movie in his presence. The president did invite Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to his White House screening, and both said no.
When Spielberg delivered the Dedication Day address at Gettysburg last November, he crystallized the difference between the role of a historian bound by facts and that of a filmmaker who exercises the unlimited powers of the imagination: “One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that history must avoid.” The idealized, at times dreamlike Washington of Lincoln—where justice is advanced by lawmakers despite all obstacles, and John Williams’s music soars on the soundtrack—is what we all might wish Washington would be during any presidency. Django Unchained fulfills Spielberg’s mandate, too, but in reverse: Its reverie on the Civil War era, a crazy amalgam of the nightmarish and the comically surreal, dredges up the racial conflicts left unresolved by both Lincoln and Lincoln—and that even now present hurdles for the nation’s first African-American president.
Tarantino’s movie zips from one impossible place to the next, many of them blood-spattered, as it chronicles a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) traveling with a white bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) on a revenge mission against a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). In the past, Tarantino has talked of wanting to make a biopic of John Brown, the radical abolitionist who hoped to incite an armed slave rebellion with his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, and there’s more than a little of Brown’s animus in Django. The director is also out for some retribution of his own, most pointedly against those classic pillars of American film, Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, that so powerfully facilitated the sanitization of slavery and racism for white America during much of the twentieth century. Candie’s plantation, bearing the gross misnomer of Candyland, is a Tara where tomorrow is always another day of unspeakable cruelty. The dandified southern aristocrat Candie sees himself as a Francophile, with genteel tastes in furnishings, Champagne, and literature—all of which conspires to make the crimes he commits in plush surroundings seem even more horrific.
Tarantino has cited a pulpy Hollywood movie of 1975, Mandingo, as a favorite. That film, which improbably cast an aged James Mason as a sadistic plantation owner, was widely dismissed as a racist exploitation movie at the time of its release. Looking at it now, you can see what captivated Tarantino: For all its camp dialogue, racial stereotypes (white and black), and soft-core miscegenation porn, it actually showed the rape and genocide that were usually bowdlerized or kept offscreen by mainstream American movies depicting slavery up until then. (The phenomenally popular ABC mini-series Roots, which in watered-down network fashion tried to remedy that failing, didn’t appear until 1977.) In Django Unchained, some of the most savage incidents in Mandingo are ratcheted up to an excruciating pitch, which may be what it takes to discomfort a contemporary film audience inured to violence. The scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. believes that one scene, which literally puts the blood back into bloodhounds, is among the most “devastatingly effective” to be found “in any representation of the horrors of slavery.” That scene is unwatchable, which is the point. And the bad guys of Django aren’t only whites. Candie’s head house slave, a demonic Uncle Tom, has been accurately described by Samuel L. Jackson, the actor who plays him, as “the most despicable black motherfucker in the history of the world.” He is so politically incorrect and so repellent that Jackson seems to have frightened away Oscar and Golden Globe voters alike from giving his profusely shaded characterization of abject villainy, an Iago refracted through centuries of African-American history, the recognition it deserves. There’s nothing like it in American movies.
To what point does Tarantino rub our noses in this hideous ancient history, you might ask? Slavery is long gone in America, and so are Stepin Fetchit, Jim Crow, and the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan (which makes a cameo prewar appearance in Django even though it didn’t emerge until Reconstruction). We have elected a black president, after all. African-American history is now a staple in every (well, almost every) school. Tarantino gave his own answer recently. “Doing history with a capital H keeps the movie at an arm’s distance, puts it under glass a little,” he said. “The whole idea of doing a movie like this was to take a rock and throw it through the glass.” By using every imaginative strategy he can, he aspires to jolt us into looking with fresh eyes at a past we assume we know. He departs wildly from the facts to make an audience face the harshest truths. It’s gutsy, and arguably arrogant, for a white man to attempt this, and I feel strongly that Tarantino pulled it off. As Lincoln portrays the politics we wish we had, so Django forces you to think about the unfinished business that keeps us from getting there just yet.