Verbal Violence: Comparing Django Unchained and Lincoln
Usually, when two films on the same subject are released within a short period of time, it’s hard not to focus on their differences. And, on paper, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are notable for taking a wildly divergent attitude towards the shared theme of American slavery during the 19th century.
One is a violent, flamboyant cartoon which creates a mythical hero out of a (fictional) freed slave in the years leading to the American Civil War. The other is set in the death throes of said war, as the (real-life) President attempts to force through a change to the constitution that will end slavery.
In outline, this is the difference between entertainment and art. Tarantino favours exploitation and gallows humour; Spielberg a reverent, theatrical tone of prestige. Tarantino sits in the cheap seats to deliver a wish fulfilment fantasy in which the black guy rises up to his oppressors; Spielberg’s film preaches to fellow liberal white guys about trying to do the right thing.
And yet… on one thing the films agree, and to an unusual degree for two such superficially yin and yang experiences. The message is loud and clear across both films: violent struggle is all well and good, but it’s nothing if not backed up with words.
Jamie Foxx’s Django begins as a man of silence, taciturn even as garrulous bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) takes him on. But as the German talks, and talks, and talks, Django changes until – by the end – he’s making a point of explaining to his enemies how to pronounce his name: the D is silent. Sure, there are multiple bloodbaths along the way to reinforce Django’s point, but his education is the real narrative arc.
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) isn’t adverse to violence: he authorises his army to unleash a barrage on a Confederate stronghold, grasping his general’s hand in a gesture of mute solidarity that the war can be won. But the President’s greatest weapon proves to be words – shouted by his legislators in the House of Representatives; whispered by the covert team hired to bribe opponents with promises of public service; or softly spoken by Lincoln himself in rambling but pointed allegories of empowerment and change.
What’s really interesting watching these films back-to-back is how two great directors are content to sit back and let words dictate the pace, the tone and the moral thrust of their stories. Tarantino’s mastery of dialogue is well known, but Spielberg has a literate screenplay (by Tony Kushner) to match, belying his reputation for blockbuster action. In both films, the camera – be it via Tarantino’s loving, retro zooms or Spielberg’s elegant tracking shots – seeks out the storyteller, and both directors have employed actors whose command of nuance is second to none in order to command our attention. Aptly, Waltz and Day-Lewis have been the big winners of awards season.
Is this just a coincidence? I don’t think so. Slavery is one of the most harrowing legacies in the history of America (and, indeed, many other countries) and remains a fault line for certain segments of society who have never let go of the so-called “good old days”. If you’re a Confederate flag-waving dunderhead who believes that slavery was defeated by force, it leaves open the possibility that others might be persuaded by the same dangerous, racist rhetoric the the South was hard-done-by.
But if you can show that slavery was defeated by logic, and common sense, and decency, then that argument falls apart. And for that you need words. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln claimed that these truths are self-evident. But it doesn’t hurt to say them out loud from time to time.
In a nice bit of symmetry, the same actor – The Shield’s Walton Goggins – crops up in both Django Unchained and Lincoln. Tarantino casts him as an unthinking, sadistic slaver, but in Spielberg’s film he’s one of the crucial, wavering voters that the President’s team needs to convince. That difference rams home the point of this unlikely double-bill, showing that a bit of education – and a man’s willingness to use his voice – can make all the difference. It’s also proof that, for all the 3D and CGI and High Frame Rates today’s filmmakers want to throw at us, it’s unlikely to get people thinking compared to a few, well-chosen words.