Battling Slavery: Fantasy and Actuality in Django Unchained and Lincoln

Django Unchained

If Quentin Tarantino had directed Lincoln, the film would have most likely ended with all the no voters in the House of Representatives being gunned down by Private Harold Green and Corporal Ira Clark, who appear at the beginning of the film. And this ending would have felt satisfying, if historically inaccurate.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained have much in common in terms of topic and setting. Yet they are poles apart in terms of style and tone. In the UK, the films have been released a week apart, in the all important awards season. Perhaps less of a coincidence but more significantly, the release of these two films sandwich President Obama’s inauguration. Although these movies have no overt link to the second term of America’s first mixed-race president, it nevertheless seems like the fruition of events that transpire in the two narratives.

In contrasting Django Unchained with Lincoln, it can be argued that Tarantino’s film represents the fantasy of the abolishment of slavery whilst  Spielberg’s picture represents the actuality. Although it would be impossible to ascertain just how accurate Lincoln is as a study of a long-dead figure, the vote to pass the thirteenth amendment in 1865 is more difficult to dispute. Django Unchained meanwhile deals in pure fiction, however entertaining this may be.

Lincoln

Ultimately, Django Unchained version of overcoming slavery feels more gratifying than Lincoln’s, than the actuality of events. The story of a black former slave who enacts revenge against the barbaric slave owners engenders more passion than the privileged politician seeking to right a wide-scale wrong. Django Unchained offers a catharsis; the kind of revenge that is only appropriate in a film as outlandish as Tarantino’s.

Quentin Tarantino offers us viewers a protagonist that we can get behind. It is not necessary to be able to relate to the race of Django; fighting back against slavery and injustice is something for all to admire. Rather it is Django’s position as an underdog that empowers the character in a way that Abraham Lincoln lacks. As the victim of prejudice and mistreatment, Django is a character we want to overcome the odds.

In Lincoln, the president’s connection with the issue of slavery is markedly different. His encounters with black people are limited to a conversation with soldiers at the beginning of the film and the presence of his butler (born a free man) and his wife’s maid Elizabeth Keckley. It is the personal relationship with the issue that is missing, in spite of Lincoln’s admirable intentions. Django meanwhile is something of a trailblazer, bucking the conventions of the time and aided by his white friend Dr Schultz. Whilst it is true that Django’s aim is not to end slavery (his vendetta is a personal one), in killing merciless slave owners he does free at least some of the enslaved.

Django Unchained

Lincoln uses his position as the most powerful individual in the white male political class to exact change. His crusade is a pivotal and historically one. There is something more satisfying, however, about a former slave eliminating those who trade in human life. Django is the protagonist we want to cheer along to his goal.

Lincoln and Django Unchained depict an era that seems as alien as it is unpalatable. A glance at this week’s events in Washington DC indicates how much things have changed since then. It was Lincoln who facilitated this change back in 1865. But how much more fun would it be if it had been Django?

Django Unchained is in cinemas now. Lincoln is released in UK cinemas on 25th January 2013.