Lincoln, Django Unchained, and the Civil War

Ultimately slavery denied human beings the capability of being human. Walton Goggins

As an aside, I am not a Civil War buff, per se, but I am a admirer of General U. S. Grant – that may be an understatement, OK, that is an understatement – and, because I have a pretty good idea of Grant’s journey through life, especially the years when he went from disgraced Army captain to Commanding General of the largest military in the world, I have a middling knowledge of the Civil War and the despicable sin of slavery so I have eagerly awaited both Lincoln and Django Unchained. End aside.

Michele and I saw Lincoln about a couple of weeks ago and then we saw Django Unchained about a week ago (and then I saw Django again with Malcolm Pearson). Lincoln and Django Unchained seem so different but ultimately they are similar in that they are both radical takes on the Civil War. Radical in that they expose the Civil War as being about slavery. Up until now, the Civil War of the Hollywood collective memory presented each side as being equal in honor. These movies say No, the Civil War was about slavery (and Django actually says No! NO! the Civil War was about slavery. SLAVERY!). It shouldn’t have been so hard or taken so long, after all, the founding documents of the Confederacy start out with We . . . [are] dissolving a union with non-slaveholding confederates and seeking a confederation with slaveholding states, but, under the guise of fairness, the Hollywood Civil War has been presented as a sort of misunderstanding between brothers.

That has changed with both these movies. and it is more than about time. But, putting aside their common radicalness, they are very different movies. Lincoln is a small movie with almost an indie vibe – it could have been a stage-play made into a movie – pretending to be a big movie and Django Unchained is a big movie pretending to be B movie. To my sensibility  Django is the richer, more complicated, movie.

(Spoiler alert, if you have no idea who won the Civil War or have no idea of the theme of Django Unchained – and the title does, sort of, give it away – you might want to skip this.)

In the story arc of the movie, Lincoln doesn’t really change, he starts out as the Great Emancipator and ends as the Great Emancipator. Way before the war, Lincoln made it clear that he detested slavery, saying – among lots of similar statements – I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any abolitionist. But it was not as simple as that and, as he also said, My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. By concentrating on a couple months towards the end of the war, the movie clouds that issue and, sort of, ignores the huge shift about the morality of slavery that went on in the North during the war. All that said, the movie is Spielberg at his best (which is to say, his most restrained).

In Lincoln, Lincoln is the great white father freeing the slaves and the slaves are passive pawns; none of the black people in the movie seem to have any agency in their own freedom except in an opening sequence showing a battle between black Union troops and Confederates. Still, black freedom is presented as a gift from above. There are some nice bits, however. One that struck me was a scene when southern embassaries come across the lines to meet with Lincoln and their northern honor guard is composed of black troops. I don’t know if this is accurate, but it is something that Grant might very well have done and it is a nice visual (and, with somewhat over 180,000 black troops in the northern army, it could have easily happened).

In Django Unchained, Django ultimately,  frees himself. I can not think of another movie in which this happens: always, the black guy is saved by the white guy. (Hummm… maybe I am wrong here, maybe Beverly Hills Cop would qualify and In the Heat of the Night). In Tarantino’s story, Django goes from being a helpless slave to being the most powerful man in the movie. The change is slow and subtle, but powerful. Throughout the movie, the south is shown as a society that is built – in all its institutions, large and small – around slavery. It is easy to see the helplessness – and hopelessness – of being a slave; the day to day terror. It is easy to see that there is no way out, that escape is fantasy, that slaves do as they are told or they die a painful death. The story arc is Django being unchained – duh! – but it is also about, maybe more about, Django growing into his humanhood.

I liked Django Unchained immensely and my only regret is that its violence will keep some people away. I know that much of the violence is needed to establish the horrors of the slave society and, while the violence against the slaves is sometimes hard to look at, it is necessary to both, set the tone of the slave’s absolute helplessness, and establish the horror of the day to day denial of their humanity – as well as set up the orgy of violence at the end – but it is too bad that there isn’t a G rated version because the movie deserves to be seen by a wide audience.







One thought on “Lincoln, Django Unchained, and the Civil War

  1. I have been waiting for the “Lincoln” movie for about 7 years, since I first heard Spielberg was working on it. Shelved for a few years so Spielberg could make his seminal movie “Tin Tin”, Liam Neeson had to move on from the role of Lincoln, which I think was fortuitous, for this was the role Daniel Day Lewis was meant to play. I actually heard about “Django” fairly recently, but knew I would see it, being a huge Tarentino fan. I thoroughly enjoyed both films. I personally feel this is Spielberg’s best work since “Schindler’s List”, and Tarentino’s best since “Kill Bill”. Christoph Waltz is an amazing actor, as charming and sympathetic in “Django” as he is frighteningly evil and calculating in “Inglourious Basterds”. I would agree that “Lincoln” is a more approachable portrayal of a complex issue, while “Django” offers a more complex layering of the obvious evil of slavery. I love the absurdist, comic moments in “Django” that decimate any semblance of a rational argument to defend slavery.
    I know both films have stirred our nation’s openly wounded psyche that still exist regarding slavery, particularly “Django” –from no longer relevant directors that judge the film without watching it to the NAACP nominating it for an Image Award. Let there be no doubt that the Civil war is the real defining moment of our nation – both before and since. Its impact continues to reverberate to this day, and will for many years to come. My favorite summation of what the civil war was, and who Lincoln was, are the words spoken by Frederick Douglass in 1876, Delivered at the Unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln. The entire text can be found here – – it is profound and beautiful, unflinching in its honesty; Douglass’ rich eloquence at its finest. My favorite passage is as follows, in reference to Lincoln:
    “But now behold the change: the judgment of the present hour is, that taking him for all in all, measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln. His birth, his training, and his natural endowments, both mental and physical, were strongly in his favor. Born and reared among the lowly, a stranger to wealth and luxury, compelled to grapple single-handed with the flintiest hardships of life, from tender youth to sturdy manhood, he grew strong in the manly and heroic qualities demanded by the great mission to which he was called by the votes of his countrymen. The hard condition of his early life, which would have depressed and broken down weaker men, only gave greater life, vigor, and buoyancy to the heroic spirit of Abraham Lincoln. He was ready for any kind and any quality of work.”
    Generations later, we look back, and we yearn for infinite wisdom to send its messenger again.

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