How We Need to Learn to Stop Worrying
and Love Lincoln and Django Unchained
Alright . . . historians, history buffs, and anyone who cares about history—take a deep breath and repeat after me: “It’s OK to love Lincoln and Django Unchained.”
Why? Because they’re excellent—and I don’t just mean artistically. These are good historical films.
I can already hear you doubting me:
“But what about the historical inaccuracies in Lincoln?”
“Does either of these films accurately describe the road to emancipation?”
“Isn’t Django Unchained just a silly Spaghetti Western merely set in the slaveholding South?”
And you’d be partially correct on all three counts. But you’d also be making a gross oversight. From a historical and educational point of view, both of these films do far more things right than they do wrong. Historians are rightfully wary of big-budget historical films. They frequently contain numerous inaccuracies and their massive reach spreads this bad history far and wide. But something amazing happened this year: Hollywood got it right. Instead of fearing the public influence of Lincoln and Django Unchained, we need to embrace it, because the images and ideas these films present are rarely conveyed elsewhere and largely beneficial to the broader perception of American History. Neither movie is perfect, but the commentary from most historians has the tenor usually reserved for Hollywood history non sequiturs like The Patriot or Gods and Generals. Those films are so historically problematic that they are useless to historians. Lincoln and Django Unchained, however, provide a sturdy foundation for subsequent discussion with students and the public at large.
Let’s start with Lincoln since it provides the best example of what I’m talking about and Steven Spielberg takes fewer liberties with the historical record. First of all, let me be clear that this essay isn’t about basic nitpicking. All historical films contain factual errors and Lincoln is no exception. Instead, I’m primarily concerned with the interpretive criticisms of the film, which are numerous and sometimes scathing. Most upsetting to many historians is not what Lincoln shows but what it leaves out. “Where are the abolitionists?” many have asked, “and why are there so few African American characters?” Indeed, several critics have lamented how the film’s narrow focus on Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day Lewis) last four months and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment obscures the larger history of abolitionism and black agency. This criticism has merit but misses a larger point. Instead of focusing on what’s absent, we should highlight how many aspects of the Civil War and emancipation the movie effectively includes. Anyone paying even limited attention would leave the theater with some impression of how politics, race, and the war itself influenced the end of slavery and shaped Lincoln’s legacy. Spielberg’s depiction of 19th-century congressional debates, in particular, is both accurate and entertaining and has been celebrated as such by film critics.
For many audience members, Lincoln will inspire a newfound or renewed interest in Civil War history and an excellent starting-point for further study. If they then read largely negative reviews by historians, they will likely lose this enthusiasm because the film will appear dishonest. Spielberg may not have had the time or the inclination to tell audiences about contraband camps or other aspects of the war, but we historians do, and individuals who have seen Lincoln will be more open to learning about these topics than those who haven’t—and a lot of people have seen this film. Dismissing Lincoln is to effectively dismiss its vast audience, much of which is surely hungry for precisely the sort of information and interpretation we can provide.
Django Unchained is a more problematic case but still offers enormous potential for historians—it simply requires more care. As with his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino audaciously rewrites the historical narrative in Django and provides a revenge fantasy for a historically abused minority. With stylistic winks to the audience, he builds a narrative in which Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed from bondage, becomes a bounty-hunter, and violently frees his still-enslaved wife from a Mississippi plantation owned by ruthless slaveholder Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). For many historians, this plotting surely represents the worst possible scenario: It is completely fabricated and so outlandish that audiences may not take the subject matter— American slavery—seriously.
As with Lincoln, these criticisms obscure the true achievement of Django Unchained. Underneath the cowboy trappings and stylistic flourishes, you have one of the most honest depictions of the potential horrors of slavery ever featured in a successful big-budget film. Unlike previous Hollywood depictions of slavery, Tarantino does not wince from showing audiences the brutality that lay at its core. Among the film’s disturbing visuals are whippings, solitary confinement, “mandingo fighting” (a fictitious but plausible invention of the film), and a slave torn apart by dogs. The latter two examples are extreme but especially valuable because the accompanying dialogue directly expresses the contradiction between the slaveholders’ conceptions of property and paternalism. Candie speaks to his slaves with affection and kindness, only to uncaringly watch them fight to the death or order their execution when they fail to measure up to his standards. Such depictions of the slaveholder mentality go as far back as Uncle Tom’s Cabin but have rarely appeared in such a prominent film. Of course, not all slaveholders were like Candie, but Hollywood usually takes the opposite approach—downplaying the worst elements of slavery and avoiding the horrifying possibilities of the master-slave relationship. Filmgoers used to such benevolent depictions will likely be shocked by what they see in Django Unchained. Historians need to seize this potential and use the film to foster a more realistic image of slavery among the general public.
I saw both films in packed theaters and the response to each was overwhelmingly loud and positive. This sort of reaction demonstrates that audience members were emotionally, and I suspect also intellectually, engaged. We cannot dismiss these movies because they do not adhere to the same rigorous standards we apply to historical monographs and documentaries. Instead of fearing the massive reach of bad films, we need to appreciate the potential for good films to help us educate the public and overturn resilient historical myths. Lincoln and Django Unchained will do more to change popular perceptions of American history than they will misinform or confuse. So, relax, enjoy, and ride this train as far as it will take us.
Christian McWhirter is an Assistant Editor for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and the author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (2012).