From ‘Lincoln’ to ‘Django’: Slavery takes center stage at holiday box office

OPINION - 'Django Unchained' – Quentin Tarantino’s latest ode to unrestrained violence and blood-soaked mayhem – and 'Lincoln', the celebrated Steven Spielberg period piece about the Great Emancipator, are notable for two specific reasons...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Has slavery become the movie industry’s new black?

That phrase seems appropriate, given the critical acclaim and widespread audience enthusiasm for two movies currently leading the award season buzz. Their emphasis on slavery is even stranger because they grace the silver screen during the traditionally family-oriented holiday season.

Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest ode to unrestrained violence and blood-soaked mayhem, and Lincoln, the celebrated Steven Spielberg period piece about the Great Emancipator, are notable for two specific reasons.

Although both are products of two entirely different genres, they are poised to dominate their competition as Hollywood fetes its own with gold statuettes.

Meanwhile, both movies address, rather forthrightly, a topic once believed too thorny for mainstream audiences, let alone the Caucasian directors at their helm.

What to make of slavery’s new – and unexpected – popularity as cinematic fare? Not since Glory, the acclaimed 1989 Civil War film that earned a meager box office haul, have reviewers glommed onto a movie about slavery.

This time, audiences of all stripes seem more receptive to slavery-themed movies – a curious development given that just a decade ago, many gave a cold shoulder to Beloved and Amistad. Both were virtually declared dead on arrival when they landed at the box office.

Much like the Holocaust, works about slavery will forever be given velvet glove treatment because of the seriousness at the root of its subject matter. There’s a tremendous amount of drama, for lack of a better term, when attempting to discuss race in America. Most of it is the outgrowth of the self-censorship that is itself a product of the enforced political correctness that dominates talk about race. The hypersensitivity that predominates this sore topic tends to grant de facto licenses to certain people who can broach racial matters, and on what terms. The end result is that artists steer clear of these rough cultural shoals, if for no reason other than to be spared the objurgation that ensues when white artists wade into racial affairs.

Although a work about slavery, the popularity of Lincoln is perhaps easily explained, if not understandable. There is always a groundswell of interest in movies with historical icons at their epicenter, especially when made by the closest thing Hollywood has to a living legend. Spielberg’s name is practically a byword for cinematic excellence, and Abraham Lincoln is a seminal figure in the country’s movement toward civil rights. He enjoys an historical cachet and mystique that puts audiences at ease, even if the subject matter is tough to swallow.

Even if the movie may have foregone a chance to illuminate a murky avenue of Lincoln’s value system, the film is a triumph of fine acting and complex storytelling. The movie may have done itself a favor by maintaining a monomanical focus on the behind-the-scenes legislative process that lay behind the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet it’s Django that is emerging as the award season’s most head-scratching oddity. How does any filmmaker, much less a white one, get away with turning the Civil War into a comedic Spaghetti western – and one the entertainment industrial complex has wholeheartedly embraced? Where Spielberg emotes, Tarantino eviscerates (literally and figuratively). His bombastic and often comical treatment of race should arguably prompt most moviegoers to take to the streets in protest.

The answer lies in Tarantino’s grind-house aesthetic, along with an iconoclastic and irreverent style that gives him credibility with black audiences, for better or worse. In addition, most of the black actors who have worked with him in the past have spoken very highly of his directorial talent, which gives Tarantino a creative license that would be denied most other directors who would endeavor to make a race-themed movie.

All the more curious is that with Django, the notorious schlockmeister seems to have sunk to new depths of depravity. Less than fulsome praise has come from several quarters, most notably Entertainment Weekly, which bemoaned Tarantino’s signature hyper-carnage and his “promiscuous” use of the n-word. In the past, the word has gotten Tarantino in hot water, and triggered a long-running war of words between he and fellow director Spike Lee.

With each successive decade, movies such as Glory, Amistad and even the critically-panned Beloved have brought about an inflection point, helping to till  the very fertile cultural ground that exists between the intersection of history and race. Discussions which were once verboten are now legitimate discourse.

Thus, somber and loquacious prestige pictures like Lincoln, or jocular and bloody grind-house movies like Django, indirectly complement one another while stripping away old taboos.