The year in political/historical films ended with a bang (a lot of bangs, actually and some booms, and much blood spatter), with Quentin Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained. It's rare enough in the movies to be able to enjoy long stretches of clever dialogue, but with Tarantino there's also the bonus of slowly-building tension in each scene until some character finally explodes into extreme violence. Maybe there's nothing else going on in Tarantino's movies than that. The setting and story are just an excuse for a number of set pieces of chatter followed by spatter. Also lots of references to lots of bad movies that I'm glad Tarantino took the time to see so I don't have to. It's all style, wit and blood, and who needs any other reasons to go to the movies?
In Django Unchained, it so happens that the genre is spaghetti westerns and the story is about slavery. But it's important to remember that this is a comic book movie version of slavery; it's not a documentary. That doesn't mean that slavery wasn't as bad as is shown in the movie. It might even have been worse than is shown in the movie. We know that the beatings and the whippings and the disregard for bonds among slaves really happened. We also know that slave rebellions and examples of revenge actually happened. What I'm talking about when I say the movie is a comic book is the depiction of an exaggerated kind of super-hero who is able to, say, mow down dozens of rifle-wielding attackers armed only with a couple of pistols. (Sorry if anyone reading this thinks I just spoiled any of the movie for you, but if you don't know something like that is coming from the moment you first lay eyes on Django, then you just don't get out to the movies often enough.) Anyway, that kind of character only exists in spaghetti westerns or action thrillers. (Jamie Foxx plays this kind of character beautifully. He should do more action movies.)
Tarantino prepared us for how to appreciate his kind of historical fiction with his last movie, Inglorious Basterds (genre: buddy war movies; story: the Holocaust). We all know that World War II didn't end anything close to the way Tarantino chose to show it. But it was fun to imagine that spectacle. We should therefore expect that a Tarantino movie about the South just before the Civil War is not going to end in a historically accurate way. On the other hand, Gone with the Wind wasn't at all historically accurate either, but made a pernicious pretense of accuracy, thus encouraging audiences to believe its lies. Tarantino doesn't expect the audience to believe in his revenge fantasy, exactly, but is going after a deeper truth I think.
Which leads me to a discussion of historical revisionism. There are basically two kinds of historical revisionism, the good kind and the bad kind. The good kind challenges the conventional wisdom about a historical event, and tries to show history in a different, truer light. Our view of Reconstruction, for example, has in the last several decades, been challenged by the good kind of historical revisionism, to the point where we are more likely to see Southern efforts to shake off Reconstruction in a negative way. The bad kind of historical revisionism are attempts to whitewash or deny the actuality of historical events. Holocaust denial, for example. Django Unchained, like Inglorious Basterds, does not fit within either category. These stories are not historical revisionism at all; they are historical fantasy.
But this style does lead to a deeper truth. And the deeper truth lies in the depictions of the endless brutality of slavery; the horror of treating people as property. And perhaps most of all, showing just how deeply ingrained racism was and still must be in American culture. The nearly universal racism depicted in this film is and should be the most shocking thing in it. The kind of easy, offhand racism we see in Django Unchained you would not expect to see disappear from American life for hundreds of years, if ever. And in fact we know it has not disappeared, though it has moved into the shadows. (Anybody who thinks that racism has disappeared from American culture should try reading some of the truly disgusting remarks spread on the internet when our president pre-empted a football game to speak at the Newtown memorial.)
One symptom of just how ingrained racism still is in American culture is the dearth of films that deal honestly with slavery. I saw an interview with Tarantino where he noted that we have a lot of Westerns, but hardly any Southerns. Why is that? Southern history should furnish just as many stories of drama and conflict as we can gather from the west. Our fear of confronting that long stretch of our history tied up with slavery--most of American history, really--can be compared to the fear of Germans honestly coming to terms with the Nazi era. What we need now are even more movies about slavery. Tarantino has not said it all by any means. But he might have shocked us to the point where we are able to look under some rocks and confront some ugly truths.