Monday, January 21, 2013

Django Freeman, Oskar Schindler, and the Atomic Bomb

There are questions in this world that cannot be answered and many times they are raised by art.  Most of the time it is intentional but sometimes the question comes from the devices of the art itself.  Recently, Django Unchained raised the question, quite unintentionally, about what kind of history can be used as backdrop for story.   Django Unchained has been called a revenge fantasy and a spaghetti western and both of those have a little truth to them though, in the end, it is more a love story told through those genre conventions than anything else.  The problem is, or the problem that some people have with the movie is, comes with the historical reality of slavery used as a propellant for the story.  Some notable commentators on the subject, like director Spike Lee, find the idea offensive on the face of it and refuse to even see the movie. It is difficult to engage in a discussion about a movie one hasn't seen but for Lee, I suppose, the offense is too high to risk seeing it.  Tavis Smiley agrees.  On the other hand, how much harm can come to two grown men watching a two hour and forty five minute movie if the end result means they will be taken more seriously in their arguments?  It seems a no-brainer - see the goddamn movie, it won't kill you.  The two questions at the center of it all are simple:  First, how and when can a movie use history as a backdrop without causing offense?  Second, who gives a damn?

Both questions are as important as they are virtually unanswerable.  Let's say a filmmaker decides to use the horrifying event of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima as a backdrop to a story of a troubled relationship.  And let's further say that the relationship story is treated with utter solemnity and the subject, of both the relationship and the bombing, are treated with respect.   In that case, you probably have Hiroshima, Mon Amour and won't find too many people taking offense at the use of such a disturbing event in the service of a fictional story.  If, on the other hand, the events of Hiroshima were used in a flippant or callous way, in the service of a tawdry sex comedy, things might be viewed differently.  Audiences might ask, "Couldn't you have come up with a different backdrop for your story than that?"

Or sometimes, the backdrop is so incidental that it seems wrong to use something so important for something so unimportant.  For instance, when I watched Shutter Island a couple of years back, I remember thinking, "Dachua, huh?  You had to use Dachau for a minor story backdrop?  Couldn't just turn it into watching a soldier die in a building after a battle?  Why?"  I wasn't hideously offended but, well, it just seemed a bit off.  That is to say, there are certain events in history that are so overwhelmingly awful that we owe it to them, if we use them at all in our stories, to make the story about them, period.  If I'm going to use the Holocaust in my movie then my movie better goddamn well be about the Holocaust.  It can occur inside the camps or years after (The Pawnbroker, Sophie's Choice) but the end result is, it better be about it and not used as some clever way of giving our lead character some deeper back-story.

The same goes for slavery.  Slavery in the Americas encompasses hundreds of years before the United States existence and nearly a hundred years after and it's in that "after" period that it really gets truly, monumentally awful. The number of men, women and children born into or sold into slavery and worked to death or beaten to death or simply brutalized by the knowledge that they were human property is incalculable.  Unlike the Holocaust, we don't have a condensed period of time, with modern records and census numbers, to make the task easier.  We have instead only the dreadful estimate that over hundreds of years (and given the number of slave ancestors living in the United States today) the numbers must have been in the millions.  And that is, by any measure, irreconcilably terrible.

And so, like the Holocaust, it feels as though a story that includes slavery as an important element of the story better goddamn well be about slavery for the whole story.  It's too serious, too horrible, too revolting an event in human history to be used as a plot device.  

But why?

Upon its release, Schindler's List was greeted with both praise and detraction.  Detractors stated that it was insulting that a movie about the Holocaust wasn't really about it at all but instead a tribute to a non-Jewish, German industrialist.   Why didn't Schindler's List tells Schindler's story through the eyes of Jews suffering instead?  At the same time, supporters asked why was it off-limits to celebrate one man's heroic act.  After all, if Schindler indeed risked himself and his business to save his fellow human beings, why is it a problem to celebrate that?  How else are you supposed to celebrate it without focusing on him?

But, it has also been said (by Terry Gilliam, for instance) that the Holocaust represents one of humanity's greatest failures and Schindler's List focuses on a success story.  Is that a problem?  Why?  Yes, it does focus on a success story but it does not imply that the Holocaust itself wasn't a titanic failure of human morality on almost every conceivable level.  It says only, in effect, yes, we know this larger event was awful but here's one tiny corner of it that provided a brief but meaningful cover from the rain of shit that defined almost all of it.

Django Unchained, of course, has a different set of problems than Schindler's List.  Django Unchained is not based on a true story and is only about slavery to the extent that it works to give our hero, Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), a risk and a challenge in getting his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), back.   But, really, plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) could be a James Bond villain, the plantation a fortress and Django and Schultz (Christoph Waltz) two agents working to free their partner from inside (and Stephen, played by Samuel Jackson, could easily sub as the Bond villain's henchman).

Now it's not that Django Unchained doesn't show the brutalities of slavery in an unflinching way, it does.  It shows it in disturbing and uncomfortable detail.  But, in the end, it's all in the service of the "not without my wife" story and, honestly, I can see how taking hundreds of years of brutality and pure, unadulterated moral filth and making it a backdrop for a spaghetti western love tale might piss more than a few people off.  Just as I can with Schindler's List and even Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  I can imagine, though I have no evidence, that there were a few survivors of Hiroshima who felt fourteen years was a little too soon to start using their personal nightmare to tell a love story.  Survivors of the Titanic might have felt the same way about the countless movies made about the doomed ship but I don't really know.

But, of course, the second questions remains: Who gives a damn?  When I watched The House on Telegraph Hill a couple of months back and wrote it up for a blog post at TCM, I noted that it starts out in Bergen-Belsen and then said no more on the subject.  Here was a movie that was specifically using the Holocaust to set up a goddamn mystery-thriller.  That seems pretty damn offensive and, yet, it wasn't.  Why?  I don't know.   Maybe because it was made so soon after the actual events that I knew everyone involved understood the gravity of the event.  Maybe it was because the Bergen-Belsen scenes were so obviously stage-bound that it seemed harmless.  Maybe I just forgive older movies too much.

The problem here is that I can only assume that everyone involved in Django Unchained also understands the gravity of slavery just as the makers of The House on Telegraph Hill understood the gravity of the Holocaust.   And since Django does an excellent job of showing the horrors of slavery and the horrifyingly callous indifference of the slave owners, I imagine they felt it important enough that flinching away from it would be the bigger insult.

So where does that leave us?  In the case of Django Unchained, it leaves us in the same place that Schindler's List leaves us, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour and, yes, even The House on Telegraph Hill.  It leaves us in a place where it's up to each person who sees it to decide what level of offense they take from it.   I was not personally offended by Django Unchained because it was at least blunt and straightforward on the horrors of slavery.   Something like Gone with the Wind, so cavalier in its disregard for that very thing, so sugarcoating of the true horror of that very nasty, not peculiar, institution, is much more offensive.  No one is beaten or set upon by vicious dogs and everyone leads a happy, peaceful existence until those damn Yankees get all hostile.   Something like Birth of a Nation, coming up on its hundredth year anniversary, is such a nightmare of racial animosity and moral turpitude and so far removed from anything that is betrayed now that it probably belongs in its own discussion.

Those who would argue against Django Unchained or Schindler's List do so on the basis that films are not history but films do teach history to a great many people.  As we get further away from the horrors of slavery and the Holocaust, it's important to remember that plantation owners weren't given their comeuppance by freed slaves and German industrialists didn't work together to end the Holocaust.  Sounds obvious but give it another hundred years and a few more "inspirational" movies and let me know what the consensus is.  Think I'm crazy?  Check out any poll on how much people in this country know about history.  Christ, over a quarter of all Americans don't know we gained our independence from Britain and you're going to tell me we don't have to worry about movies teaching history?  The hell we don't.  Or maybe we can take solace in the fact that 74 percent do know.

Django Unchained, in the end, feels like a cartoon adventure, like that Bond movie scenario I alluded to up top.   I also found it rather dull for long stretches and easily the least of all of Tarantino's works (although I've never seen Death Proof so maybe that's worse, although I can't imagine anything worse than Parker Lewis Can't Lose sound effects being employed every time there's a smash close-up).  But does that preclude it from using slavery as a backdrop?  Is history something to be recited with unfaltering reverence or something to be riffed on and used for commentary?  I don't know.  I don't have a single, concrete answer to one of these questions.  I just hope art keeps forcing us to ask them.  If it does that, surely we can't go too wrong.


Joel Bocko said...

I haven't seen Django yet, but I'm pretty familiar with the controversy surrounding Schindler and have written about it myself.

What's fascinating and troubling to me is how certain things are "off-limits" but others aren't. You note Titanic. I thought reissuing it in 3D on the actual 100th anniversary of the sinking was in poor taste. Others did not. It's like the whole "too soon" notion, when we can crack a joke about something, when we can't. Sometimes it's ok to laugh at people's deaths (the Darwin awards), other times its the most serious, untouchable subject on earth.

I think the more one peels back these "common sense" presumptions, the more one discovers knots of pretension and prejudice we all take for granted, myself included (I may point out these examples but I'm sure I have plenty of my own double standards applied thoughtlessly). Like you, I have more questions than answers at this point by I'll try to return later and hash it out more analytically.

A very compelling post.

Ray Young said...


Ray Young said...

...but if you see it, watch the GRINDHOUSE version before the extended solo cut.

Greg F. said...

Joel, I probably find all real life horror in the service of fictional story telling a little queasy but I know without it we wouldn't have a single war movie, some of which are the greatest films ever made. At the same time, maybe everything comes down to the talent of the film maker. STALAG 17 was made within eight years of the end of the war and revelation to the world of the Holocaust and yet it's presented as comedy and the Nazis as buffoons. And it works and doesn't feel offensive. Of course, it doesn't take place in a death camp.

I still think the best Titanic movie is A NIGHT TO REMEMBER which just tells the story of the sinking ship and thus feels the most respectful.

Greg F. said...

Ray, I'll definitely watch the Grindhouse version. I've been meaning to see it as it's the one and only QT I haven't seen. I mean, the guy's only got what, eight movies, so it shouldn't be too hard to work that one in soon.

Neil Sarver said...

The thing I think Lee and others are missing - from my perspective, which is much different, I admit - by not seeing it is how much this movie hates slavery, which is something I think is too often lost in many of the more quaint tellings we usually see. I think we need more of that.

I was following one of those conversations about the Constitution and original intent and all of that and the idea that half our Founding Fathers were slave owners and the other people were people who could sit at a table with slave owners without kicking them in the nuts until they bleed out their eye sockets. I fit into neither category and when I really put my mind to it, find the entire notion to be horrifying. But for too many of them it was easy to be dismissed, a sign of the times.

I like that this movie frames it in more proper terms and harder terms to dismiss.

And I really like that it does them in the form of an entertainment that will, to some extent, be seen by the people who haven't put this in proper perspective, in real human terms. I don't think the more proper movie would have attracted them to see it and, as such, engage the subject.

On the same level, by telling a success story, Schindler's List brought people in to be reminded, to one extent or other, how awful this shit was. Yes, if you want a sense of the truth, there are many better things to see. I'd say Shoah, which is one of the most horrifying documents in human history and an astounding achievement, but seen by a tiny fraction of the people who have seen Schindler's List.

Is any of that good history? No.

But while the movies are bad at the facts of history, sometimes they can remind of the bigger truths.

In school, you can learn how many people died and see film clips and get other disturbing bits of data, but the movie puts a face on it, shows something of what it meant for people in the middle of it. In letting people remember that these atrocities happened to people who got up in the morning and needed to pee and wanted to see their children succeed and all of that is what the movies can do best.

So, that's where the rage this movie has against something which is too often side-stepped as an unfortunate event is refreshing and overdue.

Greg F. said...

Neil, I absolutely agree that movies that sugarcoat slavery, like Gone with the Wind are far more offensive than anything here. Until you see the movie, you cannot know how unblinkingly it shows the awfulness of slavery. Also, the plantations felt right. They seemed isolated and scary, not romantic and mysterious. When they all pull up to Candie's plantation after a long haul, and find the slave in the tree trying to escape, it feels like a prison camp with nowhere to run or hide. No other movie about the South and slavery has ever given me that scary feeling.

Unfortunately, I was not a big fan of the cartoonishness the movie descended to in the last twenty minutes and felt much of the bounty hunter story was superfluous. Nonetheless, the one area I think it did a great job with is precisely the area people like Spike Lee are criticizing for, its portrayal of slavery.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Somewhat related to your query about the Japanese response to Hiroshima, Mon Amour. said...

Many good points raised and an enjoyable read about something I have been thinking about.

My feelings are that in light of the revisionist history taking place in many history text books in the U.S., this film might be the only look some kids ever get of the horrors of slavery.

Where is Spike Lee's film about the horrors of slavery? Is he simply mad that a man he suggested wanted to be "an honorary black man" created a film that forced mainstream movies audiences to confront the brutality of slavery?

Mark said...

Tarantino himself acknowledges that he can "get away with pretty much anything." Spike Lee doesn't enjoy the same latitude. Quite the contrary, he's dealt with a regular and constant chorus of detractors ever since he starting making films. Why? I'm sure there are numerous reasons — he's not funny, he's something of an ass, he's often angry, and he's certainly black. Nevertheless, 'Do the Right Thing' is an extraordinary, landmark movie that still doesn't hold the place in the public conscience that it deserves — and ironically, Tarantino was undoubtedly influenced by it as much as anyone else.

Greg, great thoughtful stuff as usual. My comment is primarily in response to the one immediately above. It seems that when one offers any criticism of Tarantino these days there's a vocal rush to defend him. And although unlike Tarantino he doesn't care to be liked, Spike Lee deserves as much.

Stacia said...

When I saw Django, there was a moment I remembered the Chappelle's Show episode of outtakes, where Chappelle mentioned a sketch was removed from an episode because the network thought it was too controversial to see a black man from the future shoot a slave owner, even in the service of comedy. It eventually aired in the clip show, where Chappelle said he thought shooting a slave owner was hilarious and would begin the show with it if he could. If I recall, that didn't get much of a laugh from the audience.

A few years later and Tarantino makes Django Unchained. As Mark just said, he can get away with anything, and I suspect much of Lee's criticism comes from the fact that a black man with plenty of clout and influence couldn't even joke about shooting one slave owner, where a white guy could dedicate a whole movie to it.

And of course, Tarantino is spoofing plenty of exploitation, Blacksploitation, and Z-grade horror revenge flicks. They have always been criticized for being vulgar, for appropriating serious issues for base titillation, so it's not a surprise Django gets the same criticism.

Greg F. said...

Great comments. I think it's true that Tarantino can get away with more than Lee but I also think Lee shies away from subject matter because he doesn't want to be held up to its standards. That is to say, he knows that he will be identified as Spike Lee, black filmmaker and therefore held to a different standard. So his film on slavery will, by the rules of the game, be a political statement because he's Spike Lee, black fimmaker. But Taranatino is the crime drama filmmaker, the thriller filmmaker, violent revenge story filmmaker not the white filmmaker.

Greg F. said...

Stacia, I remember that episode too! Here's the difference I saw at the time between what Chappelle was saying (white audiences don't want to see that yet) and what actually happened. The scene shows the man ask the plantation owner/overseer if he works there and when he gets a "yes" he pulls out his gun and shoots him, slow motion, drawn out. The problem was it wasn't filmed for comedy! What Chappelle was missing is that the segment had been incompetently shot. It had a very serious feel to it, not a comedic one. As a result, it didn't work. Not because it wasn't funny but because it had been incompetently shot with the wrong emotional tones.

That's how I remember it at least.

Judy said...

Great posting and discussion here. I was wondering about this issue of using history as a backdrop last night, when my son got me to watch 'X-Men: First Class' on TV and I was rather taken aback by the concentration camp background for Magneto, which perfectly fits your description of "some clever way of giving our lead character some deeper back-story"... plus the extra troubling factor that this particular lead character turns into a villain. I'm not sure if this back story was already in the comics and so laid down to some extent, but it did seem in bad taste to me.

Margaret Benbow said...

This discussion should address Lee's ludicrous vanity in supposing he can lay down commands and judgments about a movie he refuses to see. And the other important point is that--as Neil Sarver says--this movie HATES slavery and presents it absolutely unflinchingly. The central premise of Django's search for his wife, and all of the violent action, are clearly shown to arise because of this evil institution. This is a standup movie from a director who, here at least, shows no compromise and no fear. My personal theory is that Lee is jealous. Tarantino made the movie that Lee didn't have it in him to make.

Stacia said...

I think it is absolutely, unquestionably within Lee's rights to feel that American slavery is not a white director's story to tell, not in a culture that pretends to offer equality, where film is protected by the First Amendment and no longer hindered by things like the Production Code. And I think we can extrapolate from his comments that he feels slavery used in exploitation flicks is morally wrong, not just in QT's work but all the slavery-exploitation films that came before.

It's a bit concerning to see so many people wagging their finger at a black director who has boycotted a film because he finds it objectionable. It's equally concerning for people to be attributing all manner of traits on Lee like jealousy, things they're just guessing at, all in a sideways ad hominem attack.

I don't mean to single you out, Margaret, because you aren't the first person to say those exact thoughts. It's an overwhelming scolding that comes from a lot of people and, like Tarantino's entitled little rants about John Ford and such, much of the complaints about Lee are offensive in their own right.

Not that Lee is an angel -- I want to make it clear Lee has his own problems, a history of antisemitism and sexism and as great a problem with criticism as Tarantino has displayed. Lee is selective about what he complains about, which is disingenuous at best. But it would be nice to see Lee's comments taken in context more often, with less scolding and unconscious attempts to make sure Lee knows his place. Because that kind of stuff doesn't make your case, it makes HIS.

Margaret Benbow said...

Stacia, I didn't check on new comments until today. Your thoughts are well-expressed. And of course Lee is entitled to "feel" anything he wants to. BUT, anybody of any race is also entitled to answer his charges of racism or inappropriateness in Tarantino. You seem to be saying that others don't have the right to question Lee's reasoning, or to expect intellectual rigor from him, because of his race. This is disturbingly condescending. You also admit what has long been obvious: Lee has shown serious personal prejudices throughout his career. This is not a slight matter. It's a severe defect which affects his filmmaker's vision and judgment. Taking him all in all, I'll stick with my assessment of his probable envious motives in attacking Tarantino. This is not "keeping him in his place." It's acknowledging his responsibility, which we all share, to speak honestly and with self-knowledge, and to try to make real sense in this world.

Stacia said...

I absolutely did not say that because Spike Lee is black, no one should "expect intellectual rigor" from him. What a horrible thing to say.

Margaret Benbow said...

Stacia, you need to reread your original comment slowly, carefully, and with an open mind. "Criticisms about Lee are offensive in their own right." Really? He has chosen to put himself in a huge public forum and expressed opinions which he knows very well are controversial. Why would he, or you (on his behalf), flinch from the controversy? He's a grown man. He doesn't need you, or anyone, to protect him, to excuse him, to shield him from normal human exchanges. Especially in his chosen field of film.