12 Years a Slave is every bit as intense as one might imagine, though not completely depressing, whereas Django Unchained aestheticizes its extreme violence.
The films 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained made big waves in recent years. These two works mark a rare Hollywood foray into the dark heart of American history and slavery. It is surprising — and totally unsurprising — that so few films have tackled this topic, let alone as directly as these two. Slavery just hasn’t exactly attracted droves of movie investors or ticket buyers over the years. Yet, and while these films have drastically different approaches and goals, both have enjoyed significant critical and commercial success.
12 Years a Slave, directed by Englishman Steve McQueen (Hunger , Shame ), is a stark and often harrowing adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiographical memoir of the same name. The movie tells Northup’s story as a free black man living in the North in 1841, before being kidnapped and enslaved in the South. McQueen’s film is flawless, and though it certainly does not offer a classic, “Hollywood” ending, it may be the most powerful film of the year, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Quentin Tarantino’s (Reservoir Dogs , Pulp Fiction ) Django Unchained, is a highly-violent, buddy-pic and revenge fantasy, set in the same pre-Civil War era as 12 Years a Slave. Django Unchained, too, is unflinching and at times masterful, and had the far more box office success of the two. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, however, Django Unchained offers a more triumphant finalé, including virtual fireworks when a slave owner’s mansion is dynamited. What really drives the story, however, is a hyper-violence and sadism that ultimately drags the film down. Nonetheless, considered together, these two films mark a new era in Hollywood, and maybe for broader society, in how we view and deal with America’s legacy of slavery and ongoing race matters.
Both films have their critics, due largely to the use of severe violence and the overwhelmingly despairing depictions of slave life, in each. Some have complained that rehashing the past in such a way only serves to keep the African American story stuck in a victim narrative, or that it otherwise distracts from discussion of current racial injustices. (White, 2013) Others see the films as both unnecessarily antagonizing white people and preying on “white guilt”.
Yet both of these films are certainly based in fact, though Django Unchained takes an obviously fictionalized turn, and 12 Years a Slave was true to Northup’s book. Neither film seems particularly preoccupied with guilting anyone for what their ancestors did. In Django Unchained, Django’s partner is a white, German hero (and, somewhat sadly, the real focus of the film), thus Euro-white folks are not seen as inherently evil, while one of the worst of the bad guys is himself a slave.
In 12 Years a Slave, the North itself, as a place of freedom, and a heroic, white abolitionist character, fills a similar role. Further, the worst of the slave masters is not only horribly flawed, but he is fleshed out as a tortured human being, at the same time, a pretty crucial distinction.
So why did these two filmmakers decide to revisit slavery at this time and in the manner they did? Perhaps the better question is how well has America actually dealt with slavery to begin with? There has long been a gulf in understanding not that slavery happened, but in understanding its true impact on a more personal and even more visceral level. Tarantino has noted that slavery has usually only been been dealt with in TV movies and otherwise presented in films as “historical with a capital H”, meaning these personal stories are shown at “arms-length” and feel more like “history under glass”. (NPR, 2013) What has been lost is a deeper and more accurate appreciation for the real depth of not only suffering, but also of the bravery in these stories, as well. Presumably this would just be too heavy and too enraging for audiences to sit through.
There is a saying that, “Time does not heal all wounds, it is what you do with that time.” With that in mind, some historical context on America’s relationship with slavery is helpful. Author Toni Morrison, for example, observed that despite slavery being a defining story in America’s history, it has “no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby… park bench…” (Morrison, n.d.) Apparently, the avoidance of the ultimate social third rail eventually became a gaping void.
Consider that it took 91 years from the end of the Civil War before an authoritative treatise on slavery was written by someone other than a white supremacist southerner (until Kenneth Stampp’s, The Peculiar Institution, in 1956). U.B. Phillips, the son of southern slave owners, was the nation’s preeminent slavery historian from the 1910s until the early ’30s, and taught at Michigan and Yale. Phillips saw slavery as an economic-labor issue more than anything else. On a personal level, Phillips’ was of the belief that slaves “were by racial quality submissive rather than defiant, lighthearted instead of gloomy, ingratiated instead of sullen, and [their] very defects invited paternalism rather than of repression.” Thus, in Phillips’ world, the treatment of slaves by slave owners was, all-in-all, “excellent”.
Phillips further wrote of the great racial harmony he saw in the Deep South, well after slavery was, on the books anyway, finally ended: “The negroes themselves show the same easy-going, amiable serio-comic obedience and the same personal attachments to white men, as well as the same sturdy light-heartedness and the same love of laughter and of rhythm which distinguished their forebears.” (Phillips, 1918) And this was one of the most celebrated minds on the subject! In sum, there has long been an enormous gulf in what black people really experienced under slavery (as well as in the Jim Crow South) and what white people assumed or wanted to believe that they experienced.
Consider the very current and significant neo-Confederate attempts to argue (erroneously) that the South did not fight for slavery, but for State’s rights, or the ongoing and heated debates concerning government sanctioned uses of the Confederate flag. And while it did not exactly come from a respected scholar or a statesman, it’s worth noting the words of entrepreneur and reality TV star, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, who echoed virtually the identical observations as Ulrich in a recent GQ interview. In referring back to pre-Civil Rights era Louisiana, Robertson observed:
They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues. (Magary, 2014)
The pronounced lack of slavery-related films is noteworthy. As McQueen said, he wanted 12 Years a Slave to help fill “a huge hole in the canon of cinema.” (NPR, 2012) Some of the most well-known, slavery-related films, e.g., Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), for example, demonstrated zero and little awareness of the personal plight of slaves. Mandingo (1975) is more associated with the blaxploitation era it sprung from than actual black history. The Africans in Amistad (1997) were never actually enslaved in the US. Other films have focused on more palatable topics of the era, like Abraham Lincoln (e.g., Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Lincoln(2013)), or even the Civil War (Glory (1989). Yes, the Civil War was horrendous, but at least for filmgoers they know going in that the war will end soon enough and that the good guys win in the end.
Slavery just kept going.
The 1998 film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved, though a bold effort, is really a tough look at the immediate emotional after-effects of slavery. Further, and surprisingly but sadly not surprisingly, even given the pedigree of a novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author, the boasting of a top director in Jonathan Demme, and starring no less than Oprah Winfrey herself, hardly anybody went to see it.
The cultural high-point regarding slavery-awareness may be the epic, 1977 TV mini-series, Roots. Roots was a true national event (and the first hugely successful TV miniseries), though it was maybe not the visceral approach that Tarantino and others might have liked. Plus, 1977 was a long time ago. To many young people today, “The Roots” refers not to a ground-breaking historical program, but to the popular hip-hop band.
Thus, the enormous challenge for McQueen and Tarantino was to depict these often depressing and disturbing events in a way that was palatable to viewers, yet that still did justice to the slavery story. This is something few have even attempted until 2012.
12 Years a Slave
The title of 12 Years a Slave, too, offers some advance relief to viewers, clueing them in that the protagonist’s entire life is not going to be devastated by slavery, just 12 years of it. Otherwise, McQueen does not soften Northup’s story, at all. If anything, Northup’s often hellish experiences feel overly-condensed into the film’s 134 minutes. Yes, the story is every bit as intense as one might imagine, though McQueen does, somehow, keep it from being completely depressing. 12 Years a Slave is obviously challenging, undeniably powerful, and ultimately cathartic in its own the-truth-will-set-you-free kind of way.
The film begins in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1841. Northup (the Oscar-nominated, Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free and prosperous family man employed as a carpenter and as a professional fiddle player. Northup takes a high-paying music job that brings him to Washington D.C., just outside the bounds of southern slavery. There, he is drugged and kidnapped into Louisiana, all but disappearing into the world of slavery for the next dozen years. McQueen then depicts Northup as he struggles to maintain his dignity and hope as he is literally and figuratively broken down, day-by-day.
Northup has some enormous advantages over his fellow slaves, though. To begin with, he has far more spirit to break than those born into the institution and that have never experienced anything else. Northup further has the enormous reassurance of knowing that at least the slaves being brutalized around him are not his wife nor his kids, as they are living their lives worlds away in the North, and a life he could conceivably get back to.
Right after Northup is enslaved, he is brutally beaten simply to make sure he knows the score. On a riverboat, a fellow male slave’s attempt to stop a slave trader from raping a slave woman quickly results in a knife in the gut and an unceremonious dumping of his body into the Mississippi River. Even a relatively mundane act like bathing becomes the degradation of men, women, and children, as they are stripped down together in front of the male slave masters. Slaves are paraded in front of prospective buyers like cattle. They endure devastating whippings. Slave men are separated from their partners and young children are separated from their mothers. When Northup defends himself against a physical attack, and even strikes back, he is nearly lynched and then subjected to a day-long torture. A Christian God is introduced to slaves as a hateful white supremacist being that justifies such brutality. One slave comments after the burial at sea that the deceased was “(b)etter off. Better than us,” and it is a little bit hard to argue, at that point.
Despite Northup’s personal strength and his hopes of regaining his former life, slavery inevitably reduces him to his core-being. In a later scene, Northup does finally succumb, but not to a hopeless plight or to the will of a slave master. Instead, and though Northup does not identify as Christian, he surrenders to the Negro spirituals being sung all around him and he finally joins in. Those songs, with their melodies, their soulfulness, and their communal call-and-response, provide a very real salve in a world seemingly devoid of any comfort. In those spirituals, the slaves find peace in a place so deep within that even slave masters cannot take it away.
Capturing this moment of musical conversion, if you will, might be one of the great expressions of American history ever put to film. Along with the spiritual connection for Northup, in that scene you can hear the blues, jazz, Mahalia Jackson, Little Richard, the Beatles — and virtually all of popular music since. This is quite a spiritual legacy for America.
When Northup is finally freed, there is still no easy ending. As he leaves the plantation for good (and his story as a freed slave is a complete anomaly), one of the slaves he leaves behind is Patsey (the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o). Patsey’s life to that point has consisted of exemplary and back-breaking cotton-picking, for no reward, and being savagely beaten and repeatedly raped by her slave master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who himself is deeply-disturbed, and obsessed with Patsey. Due to the latter, Patsey is targeted for even further abuse by the slave master’s jealous wife. By the end of the film, Patsey is physically and psychologically nearly broken. With Northup leaving, the last person in Patsey’s life that she can count on is gone forever. Showing Patsey crumble as Northup leaves is nearly unbearable.
When Northup returns home to New York, his small children are now fully grown; his wife is remarried. He’s presented with an infant grandchild: Solomon Northup Staunton. As the on-screen epilogue explains, Northup’s memoirs were published and widely-read, while he himself became a prominent speaker for the abolitionist cause. Throughout it all, Northup maintained his dignity, clearly a heroic act in-and-of-itself.
Django Unchained is a multi-racial, bloody, buddy-western, with an additional goal of, in Tarantino’s words, “to give African American males a Western hero, [to] give them a cool folkloric hero that could actually be empowering and pay back, blood-for-blood.” (Channel 4 News, 2013). It begins with the title character being freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is a retired dentist, as evidenced by the oversized tooth bobbing along on a spring on top of his wagon. Schultz has bounties on Django’s former slave masters and he frees Django so that he can help him locate them.
Django then gets Schultz to help him rescue his still enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), in Mississippi. It turns out that Broomhilda was raised by German slave owners and speaks German, as well. It’s an odd plot device, but nonetheless one that could help Django and Schultz in “acquiring” his wife from her owners, who are planning to prostitute her.
Schultz and Django bond and become a profitable team collecting bounties together as they trek across the Southwest and toward Mississippi. Through the first three-fourths of the film or so, Django Unchained is a completely fresh take on a previously taboo topic, as well as an engaging and stylish Western. Waltz’s performance as a dignified but violent man, and both pragmatic but heroic, is note-perfect (and earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor).
Foxx doesn’t have a lot of lines in the film, considering he is the star, but he does not necessarily need them, either. He owns the role of a heroic Django, but also a character new to freedom and understandably tentative in many ways. After all, for a slave, everything from a cold beer on tap to riding a horse, let alone speaking to white people, is utterly foreign (and thus he starts out necessarily dependent on the well-traveled Schultz). Yet Foxx still exudes the requisite courage and steely resolve of a man on a rather fantastic mission.
Another Tarantino trademark is his ability to utilize popular music in his films. For Django Unchained, Tarantino uses a mix of existing songs and original scores from no less than spaghetti Western legend, Ennio Morricone, and rap legend, RZA (of Wu Tang Clan fame, among others), who provides rap for the later scenes, along with other songs, some period and some modern. Tarantino thus ties Django Unchained directly in with not only Westerns made in the ’60s and ’70s, but he connects it forward to modern black and hip hop audiences, as well.
A surprising highlight, and maybe one of Tarantino’s best scenes ever, comes shortly after Django is freed. Django is seen sporting his own slick new clothes and even his own reclaimed name with his initial monogrammed on his saddle. As Django and Schultz begin their quest together, they progress through some brilliant and classic cowboy shots, including snowy mountain passes and river crossings. The soundtrack is Jim Croce’s, “I Got a Name”, an affecting country-ish/soft rock song from the early-’70s. The performer, a folkie singer-songwriter, is all wrong, the timeframe is completely off, and the style of music is a total mismatch for the African American and über-cool Foxx. Yet it completely works. The lyrics reference both having pride in a family name to carry on:
I got a name, I got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I’m living the dream that he kept hid
…as well as the freedom and promise of the open road:
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by
In the context of centuries of slavery and destroyed families, the song is almost unbearably sad. But the entire sequence also speaks to the reclaiming of an identity and the universal feelings of having pride and hope, even in the face of mind- and soul-numbing adversity. As foreign and distant as slavery may seem to viewers today, and especially to white viewers, here Tarantino creates a very real emotional connection with Django.
Django and Schultz hatch a plan to get Broomhilda back under a guise of looking to purchase male slaves from her slave owner for a (fictitious) sport of “Mandingo” fighting — essentially human cock fighting. The film’s heavy is plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). To demonstrate Candie’s dark soul, he is shown sicking dogs on a runaway slave, who shred him to pieces, and then staging (and thoroughly enjoying) a particularly gruesome Mandingo fight. Both scenes are about as nasty as they come.
The Mandingo fight is MMA-like, but with no rules, far bloodier, and to the death. The fight ends with one fighter gouging out the eyeballs of the loser, at which time the rules, for whatever reason, require the winner to bash in his opponent’s skull with a hammer. Tarantino spares viewers little and whatever he does not show directly he accentuates through sound effects.
In addition to the violence, there’s quite a bit of Tarantino-humor in Django Unchained, as well. Sometimes it’s more comic relief and at other times it’s pretty incisive. In one of the funniest scenes, Don Johnson and Jonah Hill spoof an early incarnation of the KKK. The gang normally depicted as so menacing and seemingly unstoppable in film are here shown as infinitely human and comically inept, as they squabble about the botched eye holes in their hoods that prevent them from seeing properly.
Tarantino eventually sets up one of his classic climaxes, that is: a sadistic, vengeance-fueled, extended shootout-of-a-bloodbath in Candie’s mansion. Another Tarantino theme at work here is that often bad guys do not simply die, but they are methodically maimed and tortured for maximum suffering. In Django Unchained, bad guys get shot in painful places (e.g., a naked bad guy is seen shot in the groin), but often not immediately lethal places (such as knee caps or other extremities), and they are then left to scream long, agonized screams until the hero decides to finally kill them.
The mansion shootout scene is over-the-top gore and while supremely graphic, it’s also intentionally unrealistic. After killing Candie, Django single-handedly shoots down wave-upon-wave of the slave owner’s men, as he is apparently the fastest, most accurate, and luckiest gun in the West, by far (and no doubt acting out the wildest fantasy of many an actual slave). The use of buckets of blood in Django Unchained (yes, another Tarantino trademark) is so over-the-top that the bad guys may as well be walking bags of blood. Django uses the bodies of his white oppressors, whether dead or still alive, as human shields from oncoming fire; as their bodies take bullet after bullet, blood sloshes, splatters, and sprays everything in sight. The slave handlers scream in agony, throughout. “Wet porn” is the term of this kind of art.
Tarantino is clear, however, that his trademark use of this hyper-violence is not actually meant to represent real violence, but it’s instead Tarantino’s version of film world violence. This style has been described as an “aestheticization of violence”, with Tarantino being the most well-known purveyor. One writer described the style in another Tarantino film, but just as apropos for Django Unchained, in which Tarantino’s female lead was “using [the over-the-top violence] as a kind of canvas for her expression of revenge…[,]…like an artist who expresses herself through brush and paint, … [she] …expresses herself through sword and blood.” (Morales, 2003).
Through this imagery, Tarantino fully utilizes the suspension of disbelief and pure fantasy afforded by movies. That is, when the good guys are killed in Django Unchained, the violence is as vicious and as real as possible, so as to shock and fully impress upon the viewers that this level of cruelty actually took place. When the bad guys die, however, the violence is so highly-stylized and so unnatural that it is obviously fake and it can more clearly be seen as movie stunts and special effects. The stylized carnage is, according to Tarantino, merely a symbolic expression of the deep hatred, rage and vengeance of slaves, and not the depiction of real-world violence. Finally, a crucial underpinning of Tarantino’s film world logic is essentially that both the number of gallons of blood spilled, as well as the length and the intensity of the screams, is meant to directly equate to the amount of revenge being gained back.
Tarantino often overtly signals to viewers when this perspective is shifting. For example, twice sudden bursts of violence from Django are met with comical, wide-eyed looks of shock by slave women, looks more reminiscent of I Love Lucy than Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (1974). Indeed, Tarantino’s extreme and sadistic movie violence is meant to be, in his words, “cathartic”, and even a type of violence “that’s fun and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable and kind of what you’re waiting for.” (NPR, 2013) The director has further said that hyper-violence is to his films what Fred Astaire’s dancing is to his; it is just another “color” for his palette as a filmmaker. To Tarantino, such make-believe violence “doesn’t mean anything.” (Hari, 2009) As one approving reviewer wrote of the director’s work: “It’s a fool’s errand to criticize Quentin Tarantino for historical inaccuracy or chronic amorality. Everybody knows his movies are inspired by and respond to other movies, not real life.” (Fox, 2009)
The final act in Django Unchained sees Django confronting all of the remaining plantation crew, including Candie’s top house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Stephen has risen as far as a slave could ever rise in the twisted system, and not merely by sucking up to Candie, but by hating his fellow black people even more than the white folks do.
Django first lets two other house slaves leave the mansion before he brutally guns down the rest of the staff, including Candie’s relatively unassuming, but complicit, sister. Django then confronts Stephen and reads him the riot act for turning on other black people, before shooting him in both kneecaps. Django leaves Stephen screaming in pain but alive in the dynamite-rigged mansion. Stephen yells obscenities at Django, but he is helpless. Django laughs and as he exits the mansion he lights the dynamite with his cigarette. The tone shifts back to comic surreality as the mansion is blown to bits in an exaggerated and almost cartoonish manner. Django coolly walks away from the fiery wreckage behind him as he goes to get his waiting girl; Broomhilda swoons. The couple trade some quips and Django gets on his horse, he does some cute Gene Autry-and-Trigger-type tricks, and he and his wife ride off together.
For a major motion picture to put a former slave in the driver’s seat of this incredibly popular, violent action genre is indeed a landmark. Tarantino created the hero he set out to make.
Tarantino and Catharsis: It’s Only a Movie
The fantasy of Django Unchained, of course, is that slaves were never able to make this story happen in the real world. Indeed, the most heralded slave uprising, the Nat Turner Rebellion, was quashed in less than 48 hours, and was followed by brutal, outsized retribution, as well as the implementation of even more oppressive controls over slaves. (PBS, 2003) The “aestheticization of violence” in Django Unchained is thus meant to be the visual expression of that rage, frustration, and as an outlet of some sort where there was otherwise powerlessness.
To be clear, Django Unchained is at its heart a pure, sadistic revenge fantasy. Django is certainly motivated by his love for his wife, and at times that storyline is moving, but the bloodlust and pure hate, eclipses all else. After all, there is non-stop bloodletting but for all but a couple of quick flashbacks to Django and Broomhilda when they were together, and even then few lines were exchanged between the two.
One argument is that such sadistic tendencies are justified in the case of slavery where there can never be enough justice to make-up for the scope and magnitude of the injustice. During press for Django Unchained, Tarantino stopped answering questions challenging his use of violence, although he did answer similar questions for his previous film, Inglorious Basterds (2009). That film completely parallels Django Unchained as a sadistic revenge fantasy, but it is set in World War II and in the context of Jews and Nazis. One highlight is a Jewish soldier whose special talent is savagely and graphically beating Nazi prisoners to death with a baseball bat. The climax has the good guy American G.I.s vividly scalping a Nazi, and then slowly carving a swastika into another screaming Nazi’s forehead. When Tarantino was asked whether he was worried about backlash for depicting Jews acting not with the solemn dignity of, “Never again”, but animalistic retaliation, Tarantino responded, ‘“Why would they condemn me? I was too brutal to the Nazis?” (Bernstein, 2009).
So what harm then in some fantasy-sadism when it is, ostensibly, justified or done in the name of catharsis? How else to deal with and accept a history that is utterly unacceptable? There is no easy answer to any of it, of course. Still, the ultimate purpose of fantasy/fiction is to help bring clarity or otherwise increase appreciation of our own non-fiction, real lives. Yet Tarantino is more concerned with vengeance and inflicting extreme suffering than in obtaining mere justice, nor does he offer any other alternative. The message in Django Unchained seems to be, Yes, sadistic violence is really, really ugly but, hey, that’s just life, and if that lack of morality doesn’t work for you, then, well, It’s just a movie.
This is intellectually and morally inconsistent, however. You cannot claim that this sadism is your fantasy, but then disclaim it in the same breath, because you don’t really mean it, because it is just a movie. Which is it? If there is no difference in relishing sadistic revenge, versus relishing the fantasy of sadistic revenge, either way, these are both dark and nihilistic places to be. As Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker, the problem is that: “Tarantino is dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool—not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache.” (Lane, 2013)
There is no moving on from the past through the depiction of sadism and torture in film. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to a process where “hate destructs the personality of the hater.” (King, 1957) Real closure is often a long process of soul-searching, grieving — and finding productive and sane outlets for pent-up rage. There is nothing fair12 Years a Slave, had their own roads to hoe. Recall that Epps was a truly miserable man with no peace within himself, whatsoever, and certainly he had no peace with his own conception of a Christian God.
There may be some vicarious thrill in seeing the good guys wiping out deeply-rooted, complex problems with some swift brute force, as if that were possible. Still, even that is not the same as cheering sadistic behavior, and for much the same reason that the Gettysburg Address is a hallowed moment in American history, while Sherman’s March is not.
A flashier and tidier ending can offer some thrills and may well do better at the box office, but it is not the truth. Given the enormous legacy of slavery in America, being truthful seems awfully important. After all, films matter. They impact people and that is why people love them. Moving forward, hopefully filmmakers and audiences will continue to draw from the very best aspects of both of these bold and overdue films.