It is, we all know, foolish to look to Hollywood for history lessons. Part of the trouble is cinema itself. Moviemaking, for all its undeniable power, is an art form that struggles to express the ambiguities and multiple possibilities inherent to interpreting primary sources. Married to Hollywood’s love of drama, this tendency has encouraged the creation of strong, simple narratives, from which all complexity—the essence of good history—has been drained away.
Still, as problematic as they may be, movies remain the source from which most Americans imbibe their visions of the past—which is what makes the recent release of two movies dealing with slavery and emancipation, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” so important. I’ve yet to see “Lincoln” (much of which, for the record, was cribbed without attribution from the book of my friend and former colleague, Mike Vorenberg). But last week I made the short walk up to the Magic Johnson Theater on 125th street to watch “Django Unchained.”
Tarantino is a gifted historian of cinema, and his movie quotes with great fluidity from many films—not only the Spaghetti Western and Blackploitation genres, but from classic westerns such as “The Searchers.” (Indeed, like “The Searchers,” “Django Unchained” represents a captivity narrative.) Tarantino as a historian of slavery is on less firm ground. The plot of “Django Unchained” pivots on “Mandingo Fighting”—a sort of early UFC that has almost no basis in reality (healthy male slaves were too valuable to waste in fights to the death). There are other odd mistakes as well: Tarantino gets the starting date of the Civil War wrong; suggests that enslaved African Americans seldom rode horses; and has his characters quote prices for slaves are far below the $1,000-$1,500 that a prime field hand commanded in Texas in the 1850s.
Setting the movie in Texas in the 1850s is a far better decision, but even here Tarantino doesn’t take full advantage of the opportunity that the Lone Star State presents. Texas was arguably the most dynamic part of the antebellum slave south, site of a booming internal migration that witnessed ever more enslaved African Americans converting former Mexican grazing lands into cotton plantations. Yet, as I discovered in researching Passing the Line, slavery in Texas also proved to be quite fragile. The presence of ethnic Mexicans and proximity to Mexico created vectors for flight that did not exist elsewhere in the south. Thousands of slaves from Texas escaped across the Rio Grande into Mexico. For their part, Texas slave owners were consumed with fears that nearby Mexico was inspiring slave uprisings, leading to bloody reprisals against suspected Mexican and African American plotters.
There is no Mexican presence at all, however, in the Texas of “Django Unchained.” In fact, when some Texan slaves do escape in the movie’s opening scene, Tarantino has them heading north. But the U.S. north in the 1850s was no refuge for escaped slaves, given the Fugitive Slave Act. Mexico was both closer and safer, and, as history demonstrates, slaves in Texas in the 1850s knew this.
There is a level, however, on which Tarantino’s merging of the Spaghetti Western and “Blackploitation” genres is more successful. The extreme violence (some might even say sadism) of the Spaghetti Western evokes all too well the brutality of antebellum Southern slavery. Indeed, I would argue that despite the criticisms he has received in the aftermath of Newtown, Tarantino is not violent enough—or, to be more accurate, his violence, by focusing on Western gunplay, overlooks the sexual exploitation, separation from children, and grueling long hours of labor that exemplified antebellum slavery. In the vast majority of runaway slave ads from 1850s Texas that I’ve managed to locate, the slaves feature some sort of physical trace from their brutal lives in bondage, be it whip marks, broken limbs, cropped ears, or missing teeth. This portrait of the daily cruelties of slavery has yet to make it into our Hollywood presentation of the past.