Not long after President Obama delivers his State of the Union address this month, Hollywood will offer its own annual summation of the national Zeitgeist, the Oscars. They’ve lately been an irrelevancy: Best Pictures like The King’s Speech and The Artist have been footnotes, nostalgic European footnotes at that, to America’s kinetic pop culture in the day of Homeland. Not this year. Whatever the explanation—and little in show business happens by design—the movie industry has reconnected with the country. It has produced no fewer than four movies that have provoked animated, often rancorous public debate: Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, and Django Unchained, a film that pushes so many hot buttons you can’t quite believe it was made. All are nominated for Best Picture. All toy with American history. Though none can muster the commercial might of superhero franchises like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, all are box-office as well as critical hits. And all are worth seeing, whatever their failings.
To some observers, those failings include the many factual liberties the films take with real-life events, from the breathless, utterly invented Tehran-airport finale that delivers American hostages to safety in Argo to the manufactured suspense grafted onto the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in Lincoln. But none of these movies purports to be a documentary, and in Django, Quentin Tarantino mocks any pretense to factual fidelity with his first, erroneous title card declaring that 1858 is “two years before the Civil War.” However inaccurate these films may be about the history they dramatize, both they and the arguments surrounding them add up to an accurate picture of our own divided America as it stands at the dawn of Obama’s second term. And though Obama appears in only one of the four—in a bit of archival 60 Minutes video in the background of a shot in Zero Dark Thirty—the political context and climate of his presidency are present in them all. These movies may or may not be for the ages, but future viewers looking back to see what our age was like may find them invaluable.
Sometimes by happenstance, though usually by design, these films have waded into both the domestic and foreign conflicts that roil Americans: gun violence, government dysfunction, and the dark side of the national-security state, along with the hardy perennial of race. Second Amendment enthusiasts who blame Newtown and Aurora on Hollywood are surely delighted to discover that they can accuse all four movies of inciting future bloodbaths. (Pardon the spoiler alert: The hero of one film, Abraham Lincoln, and the villain of another, Osama bin Laden, are assassinated.) Lincoln and Django, wildly different takes on America’s original sin of slavery, have each ruffled racial sensibilities. Critics and historians have faulted Lincoln for sins of omission (where are the African-Americans, slave and free, and abolitionists who prodded a tardy Lincoln to embrace their cause?) and for shortchanging its few black characters in contrast to the vividly drawn white men making legislative history. As for Django, Spike Lee set off a Twitter tempest when he slammed Tarantino for vandalizing African-American history with spaghetti-Western gags and a profuse use of the word nigger. Lee has refused to see Django, though Lincoln, which also uses the N-word, if more sparingly, has escaped his censure.
Of the four films, Zero Dark Thirty has by far aroused the most noise—at least in the press. In a show of bipartisan movie criticism, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee from John McCain to Dianne Feinstein publicly faulted the film for portraying “coercive interrogation” as playing a role in tracking down bin Laden. Journalists like Jane Mayer and Steve Coll, who covered the Bush-Cheney axis of evil after 9/11, have criticized the movie for rationalizing, minimizing, or implicitly endorsing torture. “Zero Dark Thirty Is Osama bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America” was the headline on Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone blog.
Conservatives have praised the film for the same reasons liberals attack it, though what liberals (myself among them) consider torture they categorize as effective and legal intelligence-gathering. Some on the right have also rallied around Argo, a slick, apolitical thriller set amid the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979–81. With Benghazi boiling last fall, the National Review argued that Argo was an “October surprise” poised to hurt Obama’s reelection chances by reminding voters of a previous Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) flummoxed by terrorism. When Academy voters denied Best Director nominations to Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck, the directors of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, the right saw a Swift Boating. “Make a movie in which Americans act heroically against Islamic enemies of the United States, and you lose” was how John Podhoretz summed up the directors’ plight in the New York Post.
My own issues with Zero Dark Thirty (a slack second hour, a two-dimensional heroine) have nothing to do with its opaque position (if any) on the usefulness (or not) of torture in pursuing leads to bin Laden. Where the film really stands on that point may never be conclusively adjudicated. But its success does resolve the far more serious question of where most Americans stand on torture four years after George W. Bush disappeared into the witness-protection program: They don’t mind it. The anguish Zero Dark Thirty has aroused on op-ed pages simply has not spread to the broader public. Moviegoers cheer bin Laden’s death (who wouldn’t?) without asking too many questions about how we got there. This is hardly the movie’s fault. The public reaction to Zero Dark Thirty is consistent with the quiet acquiescence of most Americans, Democrats included, to the Obama administration’s embrace of drone warfare (civilian casualties notwithstanding) and domestic surveillance. John Brennan—the chief of staff to Bush’s Central Intelligence director, George Tenet, in the era of torture dramatized in Zero Dark Thirty—is the president’s nominee to be the next CIA director. Glenn Greenwald, a tireless critic of both Bush and Obama on post-9/11 security abuses, may be overstating the case but is more right than wrong when he writes that Zero Dark Thirty is not “being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture” but “because of this.” The movie’s popularity offers confirmation, if any is needed, that, for the first time since the Vietnam War, it’s a Democratic president who is presiding over—and countenancing—a national shift to the right on national security.
The rousing reception that has greeted Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in Establishment Washington—an enclave not generally known for its cinema connoisseurship—tells another story, about the state of play of domestic politics in the Obama years. Tony Kushner’s screenplay and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance depict a president who, during the movie’s monthlong time frame of January 1865, is unyielding in his zeal to win ratification of the constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Yet the Washington punditocracy’s praise distorts Lincoln, selling short the movie and its hero to draw another moral entirely: The only way good can happen in the nation’s capital is if you strike a bipartisan compromise. This supercilious veneration of bipartisanship is the Beltway Kool-Aid that Obama drank during his first term, much to his own grief, given that the Party of No was abstaining from it altogether. Those in Washington who are now repackaging it under the brand of Lincoln are the same claque that tirelessly preaches that the after-hours nightcaps shared by Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, or commissions like Simpson-Bowles, are the paradigms for getting things done.
The Beltway cheerleading for Lincoln as a parable of bipartisanship makes much of the fact that Obama screened it at the White House for a small invited group of congressional leaders. That one screening wasn’t enough for Ruth Marcus, a columnist at the Washington Post, who urged the president to have screenings “again and again” and “invite every member of Congress.” Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter who also columnizes for the Post, concurred: “The union will be well-served today by herding all 535 of its legislators into a darkened theater for a screening of Lincoln.” Why? It will give them “a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise.” Such is the boilerplate of every talking head who has endorsed Lincoln. The film demonstrates “the nobility of politics” (in David Brooks’s phrase) by depicting a president who would strike any bargain he could, however ugly, to snare the votes he needed to free the slaves. Lincoln’s political dealmaking with a deadlocked, lame-duck House just after his reelection is, ipso facto, the Ur-text of Obama’s push to make a deal with Congress in the postelection “fiscal cliff” standoff of 2012.
Leaving aside the moral obtuseness of equating the imperative of abolishing slavery in the nineteenth century with reducing budget deficits in our own, there are other fallacies in this supposed historical parallel. If any of today’s apostles of bipartisan compromise had bothered to read the five pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals that are the springboard for Kushner’s screenplay, they would have learned that Lincoln not for one second compromised his stand on the abolition of slavery while rounding up congressional votes for the Thirteenth Amendment. (He doesn’t in the film either.) Lincoln’s compromises were not of principle but of process. He secured votes with the mercenary favors catalogued by Goodwin—“plum assignments, pardons, campaign contributions, and government jobs for relatives and friends of faithful members.” Few, if any, of these bargaining chips are available to Obama or any modern president who doesn’t want to risk impeachment. If the present-day Democrats tried to buy a Republican vote by trading it for a sinecure like a local postmastership—as Lincoln’s Republican White House does with a freshman Democrat from Ohio in Lincoln—Darrell Issa would be holding investigative hearings for the rest of Obama’s time in office. The one significant ideological compromise in the movie is that made by the Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who tables his insistence on full equality for African-Americans to hasten the slavery-ending amendment’s passage.
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.
Let us not forget: Hardly had Obama been elected for the first time than the apartheid political philosophy of John C. Calhoun started making an unlikely comeback and talk of secession bubbled up from Rick Perry’s Texas through Dixie. The “dark vein of intolerance” that Colin Powell saw in his political party during the 2012 campaign is for real. A large national majority, 61 percent, in a Pew survey last spring disagreed with the statement that “discrimination against blacks is rare today.” Obama’s reelection was soiled by the spectacle of long lines of black Americans waiting hours to vote in Florida and Ohio, just two of the several states that have been engaging in voter suppression. On Election Night, anti-Obama riots broke out at Ole Miss, some 130 miles from Greenville, Mississippi, the site of Tarantino’s Candyland. The specter of the Old South rising again also haunted inauguration weekend: State legislators in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, took advantage of an African-American colleague’s decision to attend the festivities in D.C. by passing a racially gerrymandered redistricting plan that the absent senator’s vote would have otherwise defeated. No less an authority than the executive producer of the Fox Cable Networks adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln told television reporters last month that John Wilkes Booth couldn’t “easily be dismissed as a psychopath” because he “believed what still probably 20 percent of this country still believes.”
However much it may resonate, Django Unchained, to put it mildly, has about as much chance of winning Best Picture as Mel Gibson does winning the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The Vegas oddsmakers are probably right when they calculate that the Oscar will go to either Argo or Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth and the Ayatollah Khomeini aside, they both provide the kind of uplift the voters of the Academy have always favored. But it’s worth noting that of all the American films that have made moviegoing seem more vital this year, Django is the only one to demonstrate unequivocal “crossover” appeal—“crossover” being the entertainment industry’s undying euphemism for movies that draw large black and white audiences alike. That moviegoers of both races are willing to check out a white filmmaker’s profane, impolitic riff on the most sacred African-American history says something hopeful about America. Should the president keep on his present course of bringing a little more of the unchained Django into his second-term battles in Washington, we may yet see more change there as well.