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Sunday, 10 March 2013


I was watching the film Lincoln recently, and couldn't stop thinking of Quentin Tarantino's last movie, Django Unchained. They were released around the same time, and are of about the same length, but are massively different films. Apart, that is, from the issue of slavery.

Slavery is central to both movie, though treated in completely different ways. Django addresses slavery directly, in all its barbarity and sadism and hypocrisy. We see the brutality and the self-righteousness of slave owners, we see slaves being murdered and tortured and whipped, and treated as objects. Nothing is spared. In Lincoln the only black people we see are free, workers and soldiers and passers by. Yet slavery is a constant presence in the film, in the drive of Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones' character, Thaddeus Stevens, to eradicate it, and in the determination of the Democrats to maintain it at all costs. Slavery is why the South seceded and why the Civil War began, and why hundreds of thousands of men died in battle. To me, seeing the films so close together makes them in a way companions to each other, the stark barbarism we see in one and the attempts to end this in the other, brutal realism in Django and the intricacies of the politics of it all in Spielberg's movie. Certainly, for me, seeing Django first helped me understand better the pasion of Lincoln and his allies for change.

Django Unchained shows Tarantino at his best. He is an underrated filmmaker, is brave and unique and verging on genius. In this film, too, like at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, he shows that no-one else on the planet can film those long, long, long scenes of thirty-five, forty minutes in length, better than he can. Here too, with Leo De Caprio's character, slaver Calvin Candie, freed slave Django and his German ally, Dr. Shultz in Candie's mansion, the scene of dinner and its aftermath feels like a film in itself, the tension builds and builds and builds to an inevitable, bloody climax, the upper hand going one way and then the other. Samuel L.Jackson - almost unrecognisable as Candie's black assistant - adds intrigue and uncertainty. It is riveting and intense. 

Django is a complex film, is subtle and layered and then, regrettably, in the last thirty minutes it goes all Tarantino - murder, mayhem, gushings of blood, and enormous body count. it was as if the director couldn't help himself, he had been holding back all movie and then it all just came out in the final act. An orgy of violence. For me it was a pity, and didn't quite fit with what had gone before.

Lincoln, on the other hand, is entirely consistent in tone right through the film. Daniel Day Lewis predictably inhabits the role, and is the constant throughout the film, principled, controlled, like an avuncular grandfather who is driven by this one goal, this one passion. He is totally convincing as president of the United States, as changer of a country. I quickly forgot it was Day Lewis at all on screen.

And the film does what can't be easy, it makes the parliamentary process of nineteenth century America suspenseful and emotional. Lincoln is trying to get an amendment to the American constitution to outlaw slavery passed in the House of Representatives, and he is twenty votes short. The narrative follows his, and his allies', attempts to gain those twenty votes. That they go about it by unashamedly bribing people is one of the fascinating details of the film. Lincoln himself shows no qualms about what is blatant corruption in the service of a higher goal. Near the end, as each Representative votes, the tension mounts, and it becomes quite moving, with the first black people allowed into the chamber, sitting in the observation seats, and those once fervently against Lincoln's amendment slowly coming over to his side.

Some more knowledge of the history of the time might have helped me grasp the intricacies of the political process better, but the film is compelling and moving. Taken together, Django Unchained and Lincoln complement each other, adding depth to the stories that each one may have lacked on its own.

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