The irrefutably challenging topic of chattel slavery has plagued North America and, of course, the world since its abolition in 1866 and has proved a topic of great discussion amidst the public. Naturally, this topic has prompted widespread public intrigue and thus historic slavery has been illustrated to the public through an extensive variety of mediums, namely motion picture. Subsequently, this begs the question how have films tackling slavery affected the way in which the public views this ‘peculiar institution’? Two such films who both tackle the subject of slavery, but have received contrasting responses, are Quentin Tarantino’s Django and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
Tarantino’s Django offers a fictional, western revenge fantasy set against the backdrop of the American civil war and Southern chattel slavery. The plot follows newly-freed slave turned bounty hunter, Django, on his quest to free his still-enslaved wife; the protagonist embarks upon his journey alongside his white mentor and arguably ‘saviour’, Dr Schultz. Typical of a Tarantino western, the film is filled to the brim with scenes of bloodshed and gunfights, with Django eventually fulfilling his pursuit of freedom at the expense and deaths of those who have oppressed him.
However, although Django certainly does not fail to remind its audience of slavery’s brutal and turbulent nature, the film arguably feeds white ideals of ‘white saviourism’ and ‘white guilt’. Under the watchful eye of his white companion, Django takes revenge on his white captors and becomes the film’s hero. Likewise, throughout the picture Django continuously enacts vengeful violence on white slave-holders. This, coupled with the fact that Django is accompanied on his journey of retribution by the white Dr Schultz, holds no historical gain, but simply makes it an easier watch for those who reject contemporary white complicity. The complete rejection of historical accuracy provides a sense of redemption for contemporary audiences, providing both an unlikely slave-hero and simultaneous white protector.
Despite the historical inaccuracy of a slave becoming both bounty hunter and murderous hero, it seems the violence in Django: Unchained consequently renders the picture a more bearable experience for the general public. Indeed, critics and historians argue the concept of revenge and recurrent violent scenes enable the viewer to sit easier, watching a slave take action against his tyrants, rather than the more typical alternate scenario. Journalist Jelani Cobb argues the film “inverts” the typical slave and master relationship, ultimately creating a feeling of resolution amongst viewers. The violence explored in Django somewhat appeases the viewer and makes for a more enjoyable watch, unsurprising when taking into account the reality of its historical issues. Matthew Hughey similarly recognises Tarantino’s need to fill the white guilt led void, arguing “while Django had been billed as a black revenge fantasy, it fits comfortably within the white saviour genre”.
In contrast, McQueen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece provides an accurate illustration of enslaved life in the ante-bellum South but is much less comforting for its audience. Based on the slave-narrative of Solomon Northrup, the film trails the tyranny its protagonist and his enslaved peers endured over the course of, obviously, twelve years. During the course of the film, viewers are forced into watching the hanging, lynching and whipping of different slaves, including the film’s protagonist himself, and thus are constantly met with the brutality of this era. It is evident that the director’s use of violence and abuse in a multitude of scenarios certainly has an effect on the audience in the sense that viewers must come to terms with slavery in the context of our contemporary society, one that has often tried to deny its true atrocities.
McQueen’s picture seemingly has a comparable happy ending to that of Tarantino’s; Northrup reaches his eventual much deserved freedom and returns from the torment of the South to the safety of the more-liberal North. However, through another of his characters, the vulnerable slave-woman named Patsy, the director reminds us that Northrup is an exception. As his protagonist rides away to safety in the foreground, McQueen haunts his audience with the final image of Patsy collapsing in the backdrop. This ultimate scene reinforces the continuity of racial abuse suffered in the South and thus once again plunges the viewer straight back into a pit of distress. 12 Years delivers a realistic depiction of slave-life in the South, and so enhances the knowledge of those who invest in its story, evidently in contrast with the result of Django.
Surprisingly, it appears that although the history of American slavery has been made more accessible to the wider public through these films, a certain taboo still encircles the subject. Indeed, James Horton, a specialist historian on the subject, has argued that “the tendency is to turn away from history that is upsetting”, and this is particularly true where McQueen’s picture is concerned. Evidently, despite a clear enhanced understanding of the subject surrounding both films, Tarantino’s film remains an easier watch as it does not force its audience to accept the horrors of slavery or consider the ramifications it has caused today.
Nevertheless, both films undeniably have a positive impact on public opinion in the way that they respectively bring questions about slavery to the surface and implore the viewer to question the institution’s historical past. However, the discomfort that 12 Years projects onto its viewers clearly points to the need for more understanding and better acceptance of the realities of America’s racial history.
By Ella Wallker