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Neil Wynn – American History in the Movies

It has been a bumper couple of weeks at the movies for students of American History: first Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained combining aspects of slave history with the style of a spaghetti western, then Steven Spielberg’s bio-pic Lincoln focussing on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and finally, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty the story of the CIA’s pursuit and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden, apparently based on true events.

For sheer entertainment Django Unchained has to be the stand out film of the three. It offers a brutal view of slavery but also an equally harsh look at western mythology – the bounty hunter who also trades in human flesh for example. While some of the images could have come from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Leonardo Di Caprio as a kind of Simon Legree and Samuel L. Jackson’s superb performance of an “Uncle Tom” figure combining the style of Stepin Fetchit with a “Sambo” who also has power), others offer an alternative take on traditional images – the “hero” Django is a black gun-man combining hints of Clint Eastwood with Roy Rogers or John Wayne – and Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles thrown in for good measure! The Ku Klux Klan (or an early prototype – the film is set in 1858 some seven or eight years before the KKK emerged) is ridiculed mercilessly – unlike the version in Birth of a Nation (1915). But at the end, we are left with a fiction – our (black) hero having rescued his “gal” riding off into the sunset – but isn’t that how “history” has been made?

Lincoln, on the other hand, has no such happy ending … although it does end [plot spoiler!!] with the dead president’s words and hopes of healing a nation after the Civil War. Here is a much more solemn piece of film-making, with a complicated plot about the political wheeling and dealing employed to get the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery through Congress before the war had ended – and strong hints of The West Wing. Daniel Day Lewis gives a stunning performance as Lincoln and there is a lot insight in the film. But … it is quite heavy going, not always that easy to follow the narrative (especially for non-Americans), and … well … the portrayal of African Americans is problematic. The black characters are rather peripheral – observers in the debates about their future. A major omission is surely any reference to Frederick Douglass? And much more could be made of Thaddeus Stevens’ (another great performance from Tommy Lee Jones) black mistress, Lydia Hamilton Smith, or the role of Mrs Lincoln’s black dress maker and former slaver, Elizabeth Keckley. But a fascinating and serious film, with some great images and great acting.

Zero Dark Thirty is very different. In many ways a thriller (possibly like the TV’s Homeland in some respects, but probably more a corrective!) this movie shows the laborious way in which a female CIA operative followed up the complicated leads that would eventually identify Bin Laden’s hide out. Much has been made of the film’s inclusion of scenes of torture (and if you don’t know what water boarding is, then the film will make it clear). Some critics believe that it offers a justification for torture, but in reality it perhaps questions its effectiveness, and does show Americans rather than someone from a friendly client state using it. Although there are apparent inaccuracies in the film it does show something of the life of CIA operatives in countries like Pakistan, and it does place women in leading roles in a very male environment – and it does have an exciting ending!]

Well … coming soon Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then a film version of Solomon Northrup’s narrative, Twelve Years a Slave. Plenty for the historian/cinema goer to look forward to!


Christian says:

I saw Lincoln on the plane of my way back from the US, and like you, I had mixed feelings. The film is quite difficult to follow, and was only really possible due to my knowledge of the events surrounding the abolition of slavery. This is probably why I’ve heard people say that it’s a film for historians. There are many things left unexplained, such as Stevens’ mistress and Lincoln’s maid, I agree. What’s more, I find all the inevitable Spielberg trademarks very irritating, such as the use of John Williams symphonies trying to augment the emotion in certain scenes, and the good vs evil narrative of the debates in Congress. The film is rescued by Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, There were always going to be problems in a film which put so much emphasis on Lincoln abolishing slavery almost single-handedly…

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