Oddly enough, the last month or so has, for me, involved a great deal of meditation on slavery. It’s probably Quentin Tarantino’s fault, although Steven Spielberg added to it. And getting a DVD set of Roots for Christmas just turned it up a notch. Between Django, Abe, and Kunta…well, let’s just say a lot of diverse terrain is covered.
I am the descendant of white Northerners, one of whom fought for the Union in the Civil War. This heritage was never particularly emphasized when I was younger. In the North, the Civil War is history, and it’s mostly buried in textbooks, not the kind of thing that comes up often. As such, my earliest exposure to the antebellum South came from movies and books, often works whose messages conflicted. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and then Gone With the Wind, so had I fully understood the messages I was getting, I would have been pretty thoroughly confused. Nothing, however, had the impact of Roots.
I found Alex Haley’s novel on the library shelf at my all-white, rural Pennsylvania elementary school (!), and for some reason checked it out. All of the horrors of chattel slavery–rape, dismemberment, whippings–were there, in language simple enough for me to understand. Shortly thereafter, I saw the 1977 miniseries on some cable channel.
Let’s be blunt. Roots was one of the most important programs ever aired on TV. Whatever its flaws–bad acting, cheesy music–it is the definitive go-to for anyone seeking a general overview of American slavery. The dialogue can feel a bit on-the-nose and explanatory, like it was made for a middle school audience, but this is likely part of its appeal. It assumes the viewer is unfamiliar with the workings of a slave ship or a slave auction, and it makes sure you’ve got the idea by each scene’s end. When this film first aired, one of its chief purposes was consciousness-raising. As such, it functions as a microcosm of the Slave Experience.
There’s a moment early on where Kunta Kinte is captured by slavers and bound in chains. The visuals are striking, sickening. A young man, moments ago free, is now doomed. (This is especially clear to the audience, who knows there are still several episodes left and he’s not getting away.)
“Thank God,” I told my wife at that point, “for Django Unchained.”
No, Tarantino’s film is not actual history or even based in the real world. It is, as the last decade of his work has been, a live-action comic book cobbled together from various, disparate influences. In this case, spaghetti western tropes are combined with the pre-war South to give us a revenge fantasy in which a freed slave does not (as with Inglourious Basterds) solve the larger problem at hand, but does make his own little corner of the world better.
The opening scene wastes little time showing us a group of slaves killing the man who had them in chains, and that’s the moment when I realized just how much I’d been waiting for this movie. As catharsis, it works very well, indeed. Django brutally whipping an overseer in front of a group of awestruck slaves is a nice counterpoint to the iconic Your-Name-Is-Toby beating in Roots. (Playing Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” in the film is another inadvertent tip of the hat.) Tarantino has publicly dismissed the miniseries, but his film can’t help but evoke it.
Lincoln, on the other hand, deals with slavery in a more abstract, more traditional way. Presenting the story of the president’s attempt to pass the 13th amendment, it is about slavery but does not depict it. This is not a problem. We are presumed to have come with the knowledge not only of brutal bondage (Spielberg knows his target demo has seen Roots, after all) but also of politics. Spielberg is not offering us blood–he’s showing us that heroics more often involve distasteful alliances and stubborn persistence.
Abraham Lincoln is one of history’s great men, even with his rough edges. By all accounts, he was a thoughtful man whose views on race evolved with time and contact with free Blacks. Lincoln is inspiring and hopeful.
But I have to tell you, watching the slave South explode with righteous bloodletting sure made me smile.