November 21, 2013

Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave: Two Takes on America’s Dark Past

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As I was watching Django Unchained last year on its Christmas Day opening night, I was disappointed to find — as has been pointed out by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman — that it was not genuinely terrifying. While it did contain moments of sheer shock and plenty of bloody, gory, slavery-associated violence, said violence was handled with Tarantino’s characteristically camp style. This did not make for what could have been a more subdued, yet brutally realistic portrayal of slavery that would have been far more fearsome than the blood-splattered gunfights that dominated Tarantino’s picture.

This is exactly what Steve McQueen achieves in 12 Years a Slave, to a degree that is perhaps too effective, as it makes his film extremely difficult to watch. In one particular scene, we are forced to observe as a woman is whipped with such ferocity and cruelness that her flesh is torn apart. The camera then lingers over her backside, calmly taking in the abhorrent spectacle, as if to say, “This was how things were during antebellum times.” While Tarantino and McQueen both deserve credit for tackling the subject of slavery from two entirely fresh angles, their films might both have benefitted had they borrowed from each other.

One trait the two filmmakers have in common is a propensity to relentlessly pursue subject matter that is taboo and at times even repulsive. McQueen, the director of the low-budget indie dramas Hunger and Shame, took a decidedly hard look at the plight of Irish hunger strikers in the 1980s, even including details of how the prisoners would refuse to be clothed and smear excrement on the prison walls in protest. In Shame, he excavated the rigors of sex addiction with such graphic and unflinching realism that the film earned an NC-17 rating and was described by Roger Ebert as an ordeal he did not believe he could go through twice.

Tarantino, similarly, has never been one to shy away from exploring controversial content on film. In Inglourious Basterds he made the most deliciously savory character a Nazi colonel and put him at the forefront of the story; wrote in crazed and flamboyant caricatures of Hitler and Goebbels; and tasked Jewish-American soldiers with claiming as many Nazi scalps as possible. In his most well-received film, Pulp Fiction, he included a loving anecdote about a watch stowed in a rear-end during the Vietnam War and one jarring, perversely twisted rape scene that recalls the harshest parts of A Clockwork Orange. In Django, he sets a freed slave off the chain to take revenge on the slavers who kidnapped his wife.

The concept of revenge as delivered through the Tarantino perspective is nothing but sweet when watched on screen. It would have made for a movie just as ridiculously enjoyable as Inglourious, were it not for Tarantino’s insistence on exaggerating the already despicable horrors of slavery. By failing to exercise restraint in his inclusion of “Mandingo fights,” overly brutal murders and an unrealistically vicious dog attack, the director hamstrung the potential impact of the film’s depiction of slavery. Instead, the film comes to life when Django and his colleague Dr. Shultz take revenge on the hated plantation masters and white Southern gentry. These scenes are without exception a thrill to watch — Especially the ending, where Django gets even with the plantation owner and his accomplices in cruelty. These scenes are powerful because they let loose bottled up frustration many feel towards a despicable scar on this country’s past.

12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was tricked into bondage and sold to slavers in the American deep south. There is no camp attitude in this story, and for its main character, no promise of revenge — or even relief — from his dreadful, ungodly experience. Even when he finally returns home to his family at the end of the film, the tone of the film is far from hopeful.

Aside from one scene in which Northup manages to get the better of a scrawny, hate-filled overseer played by Paul Dano, there is not one moment of redemption for him. This is perhaps the movie’s point: America is possibly beyond any hope of redeeming itself for the horrors of slavery. When Solomon is liberated and reunited with his family, he is filled not with relief but with the heaviness of the dozen years stolen from his life and taken from his family, years that will never be regained.

This begs the question of whether some stories might be too harsh to even be put to film. Few recent movies have displayed such a penchant for so realistically portraying an atmosphere of torture. Schindler’s List and The Pianist come to mind. It’s fascinating to wonder whether some things are too ungodly to be experienced through the world’s most powerful of art forms. Some, like me, will be grateful that artists are giving slavery its due by making films about it in a realistic fashion, while others, like some kind-hearted friends of mine, will be unable to stand watching even a few minutes of 12 Years a Slave. While I admired the movie unquestionably, I could not deny that the experience of watching it made me feel downright awful at times, and I could barely bring myself to see it again. It is therefore a film which I must recommend with reservations.

To display the subject of slavery with more levity would have been disrespectful, but 12 Years could have excised the wholly unbelievable character of Mrs. Epps, for instance, who is so ruthless as to be an improbable Lucifer in a southern belle’s clothing. Django could have scaled back the level of unnecessarily graphic violence in favor of the dispassionate, day-to-day violence which was the common practice in the days of slavery. After all, the most effecting elements lie not in the act of the violence itself, but in the toleration of all those who practiced it andwitnessed it, yet decided to let it continue. The two films offer unique takes on slavery, but Django could have done with some of 12 Years’ realism, while 12 Years could have used a less morbid design.