by ARMOND WHITE
Nov 14, 2012
The story in Lincoln dramatizes the President’s efforts to install a 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolishes slavery. His struggle is more than politically correct; it is presumed inarguably correct which takes the movie outside of history; outside of dramatic immediacy. Watching Lincoln is very much like observing a flesh-and-blood diorama. Everything is soon settled (within 2 ½ hours); there’s no emotional suspense.
The trick Spielberg needed to pull off was to make the characters’ moral choices dramatically compelling; analyzing ethics in politics (those pragmatic procedures that deemed the Emancipation Proclamation “a military exigent”). Yet that’s where the film becomes dodgy–open to accusations of merely being a civics lesson, or worse: Spielberg’s equivalent to Richard Attenborough’s still-born hagiography Gandhi, rather than a companion-piece to his thrilling, brilliantly analytical masterpiece Amistad.
In Amistad Spielberg cannily transformed the issue of Slavery into the intricacy of Law; human endeavor and spiritual struggle were historically modified into argument and principle. The Amistad characters Cinque the African (Djimon Hounsou) and John Quincy Adams the political descendant (Anthony Hopkins) grappled with the fact of Slavery. This time Slavery is anthropomorphized. The introduction’s two docile and truculent black soldiers patronizingly prophesize modern attitudes; Lincoln himself (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) describes Slavery as a “disease” which distances it into abstraction. Lincoln attempts to dramatize mere rhetoric. Despite high-flown language, it turns the experience of human lives into platitudes, homilies and predetermined theorems.
For a lesser filmmaker, the prevarications in Lincoln would be disastrous. But Spielberg’s innate filmmaking resources consistently provide rhythmed imagery: Conventional–as when Lincoln’s aides race to get his disingenuous communique. Daring–as when Lincoln dreams his forthcoming struggle as an eerie ship voyage. The film is always something to look at. Congressional arguments are composed to show the vitality of faces and individuals–the elite body politic–like period versions of Francesco Rosi’s courtroom scenes in Hands Across the City and Salvatore Giuliano yet without Rosi’s worry about literal political corruption. Spielberg’s vibrant style just barely offsets the mundanity of parliamentary debate. The fact that Lincoln’s drama comes from predictable dialectic, rather than an in-the-moment philosophical conundrum like Amistad, reveals its insufficiency. Lincoln tilts toward magniloquence, using important sounding words and an exaggeratedly solemn and dignified style.
Spielberg shrewdly chose the histrionic Day-Lewis to impersonate Lincoln with twinkling eyes and a wily, high-pitched voice that humanize the icon. Day-Lewis’ long face is given built-in hollows and shadows that match the Lincoln Memorial and postage stamp figures while also suggesting mysterious depths. His every close-up suggests historical reverence. But this immortality contrasts the fascinating mortal portrayals by Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as W.N. Bilbo who act through their flesh, courtesy of Janusz Kaminski’s portraitist lighting that suggests the grain of historical painting animated by fluid camerawork. At one point (“It‘s too hard”), Fields’ transition from agony to aggrieved diplomacy is as much the director’s triumph as the actress’. Spader’s grungy agitator feels lived-in while Jones enlivens a cliché Congressional hack–his toupeed-role reaches back to a key idiosyncratic characterization in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
With Lincoln, Spielberg assumes his place in the descent of American cinematic mythmakers following Griffith and John Ford–a fact already evident–and earned–in Amistad. Here it’s done self-consciously. Not because it’s impossible to portray Abraham Lincoln any way other than worshipfully but because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (adapting a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin) manipulate Lincoln into a contemporary political paradigm.
Without clarifying the intricacy of the 19th century Republican party and the different principles of early Democrats, Spielberg and Kushner claim Lincoln as their model autocrat–always the smartest man in the room–which becomes a form of adoration. Thaddeus Stevens even refers to Lincoln as “the purest man in America.” Distinct from the cultural myth in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln that was widely shared in less jaded times, Lincoln presents a new style giant (a storyteller of superhuman probity and only fleeting moments of the most admirable self-doubt) probably influenced by the current hunger for a great leader whose outstanding talents must be either prefabricated or whose failings go ignored in order to answer a desperate contemporary need for power.
Here’s how Lincoln prevaricates: Scenes where black characters show flawless nobility and strength (whether as a silent, pious gospel chorus entering the senate chambers or unimpeachably dignified servants). Scenes where white politicians focus on issues with little motivation beyond hectoring opposition. These convenient and very modern political defects prevent Lincoln from achieving the historical reach of Amistad or the miraculous suasion that made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s change-of-heart scene so moving.
When Lincoln proclaims “We’re stepped out upon the world’s stage now, the fate of human dignity is in our hands. Blood’s been spent to afford us this moment. Now! Now! Now!” the stage metaphor exposes playwright Kushner’s smugness. Lincoln is rife with Kushner’s pedantic tendency. Speechifying characters (especially Lincoln) display conceited literacy, over-stating their differences (their career positions) but never embodying the passions that made Michael Apted’s biography of British abolitionist William Wilberforce Amazing Grace such a remarkable drama of moral inspiration. Kushner’s self-congratulatory approach to the 13th Amendment doesn’t enliven our sense of personal conviction and political maneuvering. Even the powerful “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” trading song in 1776, the Declaration of Independence musical, more clearly outlined America’s practical and political functioning. Both Amazing Grace and 1776 worked as ideational histories; Lincoln merely, well, fantasizes.
Justifying political manipulation and the idolizing of a single politician forces Spielberg and Kushner into the weird position of displacing the moral rigor that distinguished their collaboration on Munich. When Lincoln bases his notion of equality on Euclidian principle, referencing a 2000-year-old secular book as his foundation then praising “a great invisible strength in a people’s union,” Kushner’s vagrant communist-sympathy comes into play. The platitude is barely disguised by Lincoln’s out of nowhere wish to visit the Holy Land “where David and Solomon walked.”
As with Angels in America, Kushner is partial to formula, prescription, disquisition–the pageantry of rhetoric. But Spielberg thrives on movement and imagery and there isn’t enough to keep Lincoln from bogging down in verbiage. It frequently resembles the self-pleasing sophistry favored by this era of punditry and hero-worship.
But cinema’s most memorable political histories have always been films like Young Mr. Lincoln, Amistad and Amazing Grace that attain the ineffable by honestly clarifying history and daring that Capraesque link between dramatized conscience and delineated principle; that’s what stirs one’s soul in Albert Finney’s conversion scene of Amazing Grace which found the perfect symbols and actions to express the passion of ideas. Lincoln weakens from the current political era’s disingenuous pageantry of rhetoric.
In the popular fashion, Spielberg and Kushner fall back on the “great man” theory of history. Their iconography is vague, a fantasy where equality is learned through logic–not experience or faith because in this film’s view no human beings can be taken on faith (as when Lincoln says he doesn’t know any black people. The film’s one-dimensional, anachronistic black characters indicate Spielberg and Kushner progressive elitism; they never absorbed the richness of Jonathan Demme’s Slavery-era Beloved.) This dream of Lincoln, fitted to the solipsistic subjectivity of the political moment eschews Amistad’s beauty and historical clarity to favor a “semi-divine” (that is, non-spiritual) view of political heroism. The fantasy might well be re-titled Dreams From My Father.
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Like I've been saying for many years now: ARMOND WHITE IS BY FAR THE BEST AND MOST PROFOUND FILM CRITIC IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY. That he also happens to be a homeboy from Detroit (and a former esteemed editor of mine during the 1980s in Brooklyn, NY--long live the late and lamented City Sun!) only makes me that much more proud of and appreciative of his wonderful intellectual gifts, comprehensive cinematic and literary erudition, deep critical consciousness, authentically hip sophistication, and fundamentally ethical/moral/political courage. That his critical film reviews are often far more interesting, insightful, inspiring, and necessary than many if not most of the films he is compelled to critique is a testament to how real art--in this context his criticism-- can still survive and thrive in even the most challenging and depressing circumstances. While this larger reality may often look and sound like an unavoidable "moral hazard" of his profession, in his particular case (thankfully) we are very fortunate that it really isn't...
Still Not a Brother
by ARMOND WHITE
Dec 28, 2012
CityArts: New York's Review of Culture
A review of 'Django Unchained'
How SamJack stole Tarantino’s epithet orgy Django Unchained
Uncle Tom, the black overseer created by Harriet Beecher Stowe and despised ever after, reappears to spy on and punish other slaves in Django Unchained. It is the role Samuel L. Jackson was born to play.
In Django Unchained Jackson is to Tarantino what Step'n Fetchit was to John Ford–the actor who personifies his director’s sense of the Other. This is not an alter-ego thing; it transfers detachment into “sympathy.” Roles like Jules in Pulp Fiction, Ordell in Jackie Brown and now Stephen the ultimate Uncle Tom display Jackson’s patented shamelessness–his Nigger Jim flair. Jackson reverses the anger that 70s black militants felt toward the Uncle Tom figure into an actorly endorsement. He embodies the dangerous Negro stereotypes harbored by Tarantino and every Huck Finn wannabe.
That, essentially, is the transgression on view in Django Unchained. This pseudo (not neo-) Blaxploitation film about a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who goes on a killing spree with a psychopathic bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) two years before the Civil War (rendering that conflict unnecessary) offers a pointless jamboree of disparate sentimental, anachronistic and absurd elements; it seems aimless until Jackson’s Uncle Tom eventually shows up and galvanizes all Q.T.‘s hostile silliness.
Not to rank Tarantino with Ford or Mark Twain but his diabolical Uncle Tom descends from their precursors, specifically to the way Twain refashioned American social codes into a narrative that to this day gratifies some people’s entrenched racial prejudices. That’s why Huckleberry Finn is canonized while Twain’s Puddinhead Wilson is not. It’s also why SamJack is the true star of Django Unchained and Jamie Foxx, with his pandering, deliberately modern swagger, is not.
There’s no mistaking the division of labor or social/racial hierarchies preserved in Jackson-Tarantino’s spectacle: Tarantino uses a gray-haired, wily Jackson with a deceptive limp and mean scowl to fulfill his white hipster’s fanciful reinterpretation of social history. Through Jackson, QT gets to remake the cultural world he didn’t grow up in (complete with incongruous pop songs) and enjoy how its dangers and excesses effect a subordinate. Brazenly inauthentic, Django Unchained is unmistakably QT’s vision–trivializing slavery’s true deep treachery–and it’s an impersonal, privileged vision.
Tarantino, who commands more leverage than any Hollywood director besides Spielberg, is beyond needing to look cool about his race obsession. He’s got Jackson to satisfy his need for pity. [More on this in my forthcoming book Say What?] Pity, according to the hipster definition laid out by Norman Mailer’s classic 1958 essay “The White Negro” (a confession that has entered the subconscious of every Wigger) is the flip side of envy and such pseudo-rebellious class envy borders that thin line next to contempt.
Unlike Ford’s passive naif Stepin Fetchit, Jackson’s Uncle Tom is aggressive, an evil ol’ Brer Rabbit (even nastier than Ordell) who demonstrates how untrustworthy a black man can be. He incites his psychotic Massa (Leonardo DiCaprio) and cock-blocks the simpering romance between the titular stud and his wench (Kerry Washington). This despicable, scowling, sniveling, cursing and cinematically lynched figure reveals what SamJack really means to us: His self-hatred is hilariously grotesque. He’s malicious, not virtuous as Civil Rights Era Ford would idealize Woody Strode in Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The narrative force exerted by Jackson’s character (and the actor’s lip-smacking glee at exceeding his previous wicked benchmarks) exposes Tarantino’s basic misunderstanding of Blaxploitation. He’s still not a brother.
QT’s misguided delight matches that of black co-producer Reginald Hudlin, a Blaxploitation fan whose name is used to buffer expected complaints about racism. While Django Unchained satisfies the boyish black teen thrill that Hudlin has not outgrown, it primarily proclaims a white hipster’s voyeuristic pleasure in black vengeance–a form of Liberal porn, aberrant hip-hop.
How did Hudlin let Django Unchained erase the politically-charged motivation behind most 70s Blaxploitation films? (Anyone who really knows the Blaxploitation era can only scoff at this movie’s white supremacy.) Insensitivity is evident in the sound and inexcusable repetitions of “nigger” by white characters. QT’s epithet orgy recalls the O.J. Simpson verdict quip “If the word ‘nigger’ could light up the sky, Los Angeles wouldn’t need streetlights.” Django Unchained’s First Amendment mockery suggests it’s lights-out in Obama’s America.
This is not so simple as calling Tarantino, DiCaprio, Waltz, Washington, Hudlin or anyone else racists. (Besides, if QT could reap Oscar nominations for disgracing the Jewish Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds, our culture will surely let him can get away with anything.) These filmmakers simply don’t deliver whatever it is that can justify the word’s utterance as historical accuracy or emotional righteousness. It’s just fodder for Tarantino who single-handedly devised this mash-up of Blaxploitation and Italian Spaghetti westerns out of juvenile amusement–not Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist principles nor Blaxploitation’s get-whitey ingenuity. Django Unchained’s two antithetical genres only belong together in a reprobated mind.