Thursday, December 19, 2013
December 19, 2013: Representing Slavery: Django
[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me, one a special guest post!]
On anachronism, accuracy, and what we owe to the past.
Reading Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) was one of the most discordant experiences of my AmericanStudying life. Johnson’s novel is a National Book Award-winning historical novel, and a nautical adventure story and first-person narrative of self-discovery to boot; which is to say, a book aimed at multiple Ben sweetspots. Yet it didn’t do much of anything for me, and if I had to say why, the answer would be a pretty simple one: anachronism. It’s not just that Johnson’s narrator, Rutherford Calhoun, uses terms like brontasaurus and astronaut that had not yet come into existence in the novel’s 1830 setting. It’s that these linguistic anachronisms reflect a broader, entirely purposeful choice on Johnson’s part: to create a narrator and character who is distinctly more modern than the novel’s historical setting, who feels anachronistic by design to the period and to histories of slavery, the slave trade, and other antebellum American experiences.
In the interview available at that latter hyperlink, Johnson calls his use of these anachronisms both an attempt “to close the distance between the past and the present” and “a kind of ironic winking at the reader.” Similarly dual purposes, thematic and stylistic, seem clearly to animate Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), a film that uses both the scores to 1970s film Westerns and 21st century rap songs as the musical accompaniment to its depiction of a mid-19th century America that seems at one and the same time Southern and Western, antebellum and contemporary, mythic and realistic, boundary-pushing on multiple levels. Along with closing the distance and ironicallly winking, I’m sure Tarantino would argue—and likely has, although I have a hard time watching his interviews—that his film’s anachronisms help him create, in his two central slave characters Django and Broomhilda, figures who explode any stereotypical or mythic images of slavery, replacing them with a badass action hero and his German-speaking idealized beauty of a wife.
I don’t think that either a novel or a film has a necessary responsibility to be accurate to the past, either in small details (like word choices and musical accompaniments) or big ones (like the historical realities of the slave system); these texts are created to entertain and engage, and if we look to them for education in any overt sense, we’re likely setting them and ourselves up for failure. But on the other hand, I would disagree with Johnson that such inaccuracies or anachronisms close the distance between the past and the present—quite the opposite, they create more of a distance, reinforcing our present perspectives and world at the expense of a possible connection to this distant period. And so while Rutherford and Django might feel more positive or heroic than prior slave characters and stereotypes, they’re no less mythical, no less an artificial construction imposed on these histories for present purposes. And I do believe that we owe our pasts—and especially our darkest pasts—an attempt to engage them as best we can on their own terms, rather than to manipulate or reshape them (even with the best of intentions). On that score, both Johnson and Tarantino fall short.
First 12 Years post tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think?