Django Unchained vs Lincoln: Viewing history through different lenses

Django Unchained and Lincoln view Civil War America through lenses as disparate as those employ today. Photo: Abraham Lincoln Centennial Souveneir

HOLLYWOOD, March 22, 2013 – In the movie “Lincoln,” Sally Field plays Mary Todd. Petite in stature, Mary scolds her gangling husband, “Woe to you, you’ll have to answer to me.” The 13th Amendment outlawing slavery must pass, the Civil War must end, and their son Robert must live.

Abraham Lincoln stood bravely against the Confederates and domestic opposition at the end of his life, but he was not always so courageous. Almost a quarter century earlier, on January 1, 1841, Lincoln had kept dozens of bridal guests waiting at Mary’s sister’s home. Search parties could not find the groom all afternoon.


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When friends found Lincoln the next day, they questioned the despondent country lawyer as to his absence. Guests considered him a coward for failing to show up to his own wedding, while his close friends fretted about his state of mind. They hid knives and other objects, so he would not hurt himself. Years later, as Lincoln portrayed, the roles were reversed.

Mary worried her husband would put her away. “Will you threaten me again with the madhouse?”

Last month, even though it had received a dozen nominations, “Lincoln” did not dominate the 85th Academy Awards. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” claimed two Oscars, matching the number awarded to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Based during the Civil War era, both films depict the struggles of slavery, but in vastly different ways. A spaghetti-style Western transplanted to the antebellum South, “Django Unchained” received tons of criticism for the number (more than 100) of times the “N” word was used in the picture. More jarring and offensive language was deployed in its depiction of the cruelty slaves suffered and endured. Scenes that included dogs mauling and chewing up a Mandingo slave wrestler were not a pretty sight. Tarantino does not equivocate. His protagonist, a slave turned bounty hunter named Django watches, seemingly unmoved.


SEE RELATED: Abraham Lincoln and the Land of the Free


Jamie Foxx stars as “the ‘D’ is silent” Django. Nothing will distract him from pursuing his noble quest, reuniting with and freeing his beautiful wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from bondage. A natural shooter, he teams up with a German doctor, King Shultz. Played by Christoph Waltz, who received the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Dr. Shultz tells Django, “The badder they are, the bigger the reward.”

After Django helps the doctor track down a trio of white fugitives, they learn that plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio of “Titanic” fame) has purchased Django’s German-speaking wife. When they find out that Candie is involved in Mandingo fight-to-the-death slave wrestling, they devise a scheme to free her.

The bounty hunters arrive at Candieland in the deepest part of the south, rural Mississippi, and find her locked in a hot box, punishment for a failed escape attempt.

Later during dinner, black house overseer Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) discerns that Django and the German-speaking house slave know each other. He tells Monsieur Candie, “Something’s up with these two. They’re here for that girl.”

At the climax, Candie’s big house explodes in a fiery conflagration. Tarantino, who received the Oscar for Writing the best Original Screenplay, gives the impression that rough justice sometimes prevailed in the pre-Civil War era.

Whereas “Django Unchained” depicts the gruesome horrors of slavery through fictional Mandingo wrestlers, “Lincoln” attempts to portray a more accurate rendering of history. Based on the non-fiction book Team of Rivals, Lincoln highlights the debate and passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives.

Unlike “Django’s” expansive shots of the West, in “Lincoln,” the scenes on the floor of the House, at Blair House, and inside the White House grab center stage.

Jim Carter and Rick Erickson, who jointly won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Production Design, methodically replicated Lincoln’s study. Using the complete inventory from Lincoln’s death, they purchased and displayed, both on the desk and in the bookcase, the correct editions of Lincoln’s books. They did not want to pull Daniel Day-Lewis out of character.

Day-Lewis told them, “It was casting out like a fisherman.” Slowly, the actor reeled it in, reaching a point where he was no longer sure whether he was reeling Lincoln in or if Lincoln was reeling him in. Day-Lewis, honored previously for There Will be Blood and My Left Foot, won his third Oscar for Best Actor for Performance in a Leading Role.

In the movie, Lincoln says he was “always against slavery.” When he was young, Lincoln owned two books, a biography of George Washington and the Bible, reading both cover to cover. Well-versed about Moses setting his people free, Lincoln would have known scripture: “And ye shall know the truth, and the Truth shall make you free.”

Later in the same year he broke off his engagement, Lincoln travelled by steamboat, seeing “on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled with irons.” That experience deeply troubled him. Lincoln’s position evolved from fighting expansion of slavery to new states to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Whether pushed by Mary or on his own volition, Lincoln wanted more than an end to the war. He wanted an end to slavery.

While Francis Preston Blair, Sr., a founder of the Republican Party, secretly traveled to Richmond, Virginia to negotiate peace, his offers for patronage positions did not produce enough votes. President Lincoln donned his top hat and visited wavering Democrats.

During the razor-close vote, rumors of Confederate negotiators reached the House floor and chaos ensured.

From the gallery, Blair, played by the venerable Hal Holbrook, signaled to conservative Republicans to delay the vote. Assured by the President that negotiators were not in Washington, the roll call continued until the final count was announced. As the House chamber tossed hats in the air, in the distance, Lincoln, in the White House, listened to the church bells toll.

~ ~ ~

David Eugene Andrews is the author of the forthcoming novel The English Slave, the true story of a Turkish noblewoman given a slave by her fiancé.


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