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Hollywood’s New Shoah

The Golden Globes and Oscars reward Lincoln and Django. Are slavery movies the new Holocaust flicks?

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Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) in Django Unchained. (Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)

I hardly think I need to explain to anyone who has been to the movies in the past 30 years—or indeed, anyone reading this column—the masochistic, magnificent, cinematic pleasure of the Holocaust picture. It would take a more qualified psychologist than me (Ed. note: Rachel is not a psychologist at all) to tell you why spending a couple of tense hours watching meticulous recreations of genocidal atrocity feels so emotionally satisfying. Whether it’s an uplifting story of the bittersweet triumph of the human spirit against impossible odds, a cinema-verité trek into the heart of darkness (complete with realistic gas chambers and period teeth), or some colossally miscalculated piece of insta-kitsch involving European-style circus clowns, we watch, we cry, we feel strangely proud of ourselves for having the courage to stare unguardedly into the chasm of man’s infinite inhumanity to man, even if we did have a jumbo-size popcorn to help us get through it. And when these films invariably win, or are at least nominated for, the Best Picture Oscar that year, we nod approvingly, satisfied that the world has rightfully continued to acknowledge that people hate Jews and that in most cases this is a bad thing.

But not this year. Move over, Anne Frank. When it comes to portrayals of cataclysmically human events of nearly incomprehensible scale, there’s a new sheriff in town. It’s been a long, a long time coming, but a change is going to come.

We first saw it in the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, when a recently freed former slave, in the uniform of the soon-to-be-victorious Union Army, proudly recites passages from the Gettysburg Address to its visibly moved author. It’s a neat and evocative parallel to the final scene of Schindler’s List—the gratitude of the saved, the ambivalence and self-doubt of their saviors (Schindler’s anguished cry that he could have done more; Lincoln’s clear guilt at the idea that he has freed this man only to send him off to die in a war Lincoln himself might have somehow prevented)—and no less effective for being such a blatantly direct hit to the nose, and to the heart. Shame director Steve McQueen is currently filming Twelve Years a Slave, the hotly anticipated film adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir, to which the tiny genius Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild is the latest addition to its already starry cast. The Underground Railroad is so zeitgeist-y that on 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan is directing a Harriet Tubman biopic, in which, unfortunately for comedy, he is not playing the title role.

If all of the above is too earnest (or funny) for you, do not fear: Any trace of sentimentality has been scrubbed like bloodstains from the floor of Django Unchained, the epic slave-revenge spaghetti western gore fest for which Quentin Tarantino just won the Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay (under the watchful eye of Jodie Foster’s date, Tattler mascot and favored anti-Semite, Mel Gibson). If either Lincoln or Django takes home the Oscar, it’ll be official: Slavery movies are the new Holocaust flicks.

And it’s about time. For being American’s “original sin,” the existence of and subsequent repercussions of which have poisoned our civil soul for more than three centuries, it’s astonishing how little the entertainment-industrial complex has dealt with the fact that this is a country in which it was, not so long ago, perfectly legal to buy, sell, and own other human beings. Tarantino has said in interviews that he was inspired to make Django due to his shock at how effortlessly the westerns that influenced him elided slavery. I’ll go one further and point out that, for the most part, when Hollywood films have traditionally dealt with the subject, they have done so from the point of view of the slave-owners; this is an industry, after all, whose first mammoth blockbuster, Birth of a Nation, was a sympathetic depiction of the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan, and whose second, Gone with the Wind, depicted slavery as an essentially benign institution upheld for the slave’s own good—a kind of non-voluntary self-improvement program not unlike the mandatory janitorial duties candidate Newt Gingrich proposed for poor children during the Republican primaries. (Although it bears noting that producer David O. Selznick, mindful, as per his own famous memos, of the plight of Europe’s oppressed Jews during the making of the film, tried his best to accommodate the concerns of the NAACP; still, you can only do so much with a romance novel written by a segregationist.)

It’s been 35 years since Roots, and Amistad never made much of an impression. So, the terrifying images of slavery are freshly horrifying—Django’s branding irons and flogging posts pack an iconographic punch that tattooed forearms and yellow stars no longer do. They also, in this time of bitter division between the states, have a homegrown relevance that—you, my mother, Abe Foxman, everyone will forgive me—our own people’s suffering can’t quite match. Take the paranoid hysteria you hear from those whipped into a frenzy by the president’s recent actions to attempt to make it slightly harder to walk into an elementary school and mow down a classroom of first-graders: He’s impinging on “individual freedom,” “destroying our way of life.” Hearing those phrases come out of the mouths of on-screen pro-slavery forces in the Old South is as perfect a chance as any to affect a Gallic shrug and a plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. For certain members of the right wing in this country, liberty has always been defined by being free to oppress others.

What I’ve found most fascinating, however, is how the controversy engendered by these films mirrors exactly the same lines of attack hurled at some of what my husband likes to call “Rachel’s special Nazi movies”: that they are simplistic, victim-blaming, revisionist, or exploitative (and those are just things people said about Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds). Spike Lee’s diatribe against Django disrespecting his ancestors is now Internet-famous; his subsequent smack-downs from eminences grises such as Dick Gregory and grises less eminent, such as 2 Live Crew’s (remember them?) Luther Campbell are well on their way. The actions of the vengeful title character for Django have been accused of deflecting blame onto all those slaves who were powerless to resist their masters (remember Defiance?); Lincoln has been criticized as portraying slaves in need of a white savior (a charge also leveled at Schindler’s List, both times in contextual denial of historical fact).

I really don’t mean to make light of anyone’s right to be offended, an absolute right enshrined in the United States Constitution. But I hope that as more of these films are made, the indignation will begin to cool. As some forty-odd years of Nazi movies and Shoah projects have shown us, the only way to quell the psychic pain of horrible stories is to share them, in whatever form you can. There’s no perfect way to depict an excruciatingly imperfect world; no right way to describe the indescribable. But we owe it to those who came before us to try. And if anyone has a print of The Day the Clown Cried, you know where to find me.

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Why is this question even being asked?

I agree with all, except calling these films about slavery the “the new Shoa” or “Slavery movies are the new Holocaust flicks”.

The Holocaust and more appropriatetly called the Shoah is a unique, infamous period in the History of Humanity. The term is exclusive and cannot be applied to any other genocide.

Ephraim_K says:

The opening scene of Lincoln–with the former slave-turned-Union soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address–is one of the most laughable, self-important scenes in movie history.

pushedoffthederech says:

NOT. Hollywood has been doing slavery as a topic from the get go. Go look up some Hollywood movies about slavery–for TV and the theatres–starting with Birth of A Nation (1915!), Gone with the Wind (1939), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927), Mandingo, Amistead….Roots, Color Purple, etc. etc. etc. This piece is so shallow, it’s not even worth thinking about. And NO. Slavery movies are not the Holocaust substitute and they were making these films before they even thought about doing the Shoah. This lack of frames of reference affect many of the articles I read from young people today. They need to be better educated or do some basic research before they start writing. This writer has made herself look basically uninformed and made Tablet look ignorant. A pity and a waste.

I haven’t plowed through this article, so maybe my comment is unfair… but so be it.
I hate making comparisons between these two historical horrors. Both are huge tragedies and both entailed immense suffering. So, my knee-jerk reaction, without having read the article is – “tasteless.”

this film is just The Blazing Saddles made in earnest. It seems one element escapes reviewers: that German abolitionist who dies for the sake of Django. Such blatant revisionist Holocaust (yes,yes!) history even Mel Gibson wouldn’t produce.

brynababy says:

You are absolutely right. And I thought the article childish, self-important and ridiculous.

You mean the German in the movie set almost 100 years before the Nazis? For a little context, Christoph Waltz (the actor who played King Schultz) was stated by Eli Roth as knowing more about Judaism than the average Jew and his first wife was a Jewish woman and he has a son who is an orthodox rabbi in Israel.

alfredjlemire says:

This writer has never seen a Taramtno film and won’t start with this one. Seems that the film glories in retributive killing: them there whites of the South done the hero, if that’s the word, wrong, or done others wrong, and they sure gonna die for that. Mass murderers often have similar grudges, merited or not, which they use to justify their killings. One gets even with others by ending their lives.

By honoring Django Unchained, people in the entertainment industry are pretty much justifying many past, present, and future murders, including those of A. Hitler. Sickening.

he is an actor, for God’s sake. what does this has to do with the role he plays?

Huh!!! What did she say? All this has to have its Genesis in the evil empire of the GOP otherwise why bring in Newt? If not for those hateful Republicans who voted in the civil rights laws over strong Democrat (NOT democratic) objections, we’d probably still be into a slavery mentality.

Terrible comparison, Shoa vs Slavery.

FifthHorseman says:

America has always been a great dumping fro the unwanted of other countries.The South had their slaves the rest of the country had servants. How do think that farmers from Europe got to America in the first place. They came here as servants. They were rounded up in the old Europe put on boats sail to America, got off boats, put into wagons and went to farm in a strange land. It was not just families, but whole communties that were shipped to the US to work on huge sections of the country.
On my fathers side my great grand father farm potatos in Wisconsin (USA) not as a free man, but worked for some land owner that lived in Europe.
My great grandmother (Mother side) was sold in Europe to a family in the USA. She was ship as cattle got off the boat (spoke no English) and served to the day she died. Her masters were kind she got a day off once a month. She did not even own the cloths on her back.
If you look at many families that were force to come to America the theme would be the same, they left a good life as servants in Europe to lived in a back water country.
You got to look at the person behind the movie the director. Likely his great grandfather came as a servent from the old country.
If this film was about a white man being free from a chain gang it would be just another flick, but add a Black slave and you make people take notice. Then they will make comments about the film and want to pay (PAY) monet to see it.
I for one will wait for the DVD.

During the historical period when the United States of America had slavery, free African-American themselves owned slaves. Free black slaveowners would whip their slaves whenever they got out line, and have slave catchers go after their runaway slaves, just like any white slaveowner.

I wonder how the general public would react, if a major filmmaker like Oliver Stone or Steven Spielberg, made a mainstream movie about the slavery period of time in America, in which the “Massa” himself is a free African-American slaveowner?

Anyone familiar with Tarantino is well aware of his penchant for violence. It strikes me that he has found a perfect outlet by making movies with Nazis and slaveowners as villains. After all, who will complain at graphic scenes where Nazis and slaveowners get blown away in gory detail. Tarantino mocks his audience. He shows a scene where slaves are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the slave master. How is this any different than Tarantino’s display of violence for the pleasure of the viewing public? It is a guilty pleasure like a boxing match or football game. In light of recent events in our culture perhaps we should reconsider our praise of the gratuitous and adolescent display of violence.

They briefly made reference to black slavers in Django when he was called upon to act like one in a rouse. He called them the lowest people in the world.

It doesn’t really, but I don’t see what his country did 80 years after the movie was set also has to do with the role he plays. Unless I am completely off with what you meant in your first post. It’s hard to tell sarcasm over the internet sometimes.

LEIBER HERMAN says:

Whats your fucking point FUCK YOU AND ALL THE EVIL JEWS WHO MAKE HARDCORE PORN JEWS ARE USEING HUMAN BEINGS AS SLAVES TO MAKE THOSE FILMS FOR CASH . Fuck you with your rabbit vibrator cause you are a fool .That comment shows how evil you are there only movies . PORN DESTROYS THOSE WOMENS SOULS THAT ARE IN IT . Sell your soul and ass to make a RICH JEWISH PORN KING . I am not talking about good jews only EVIL JEWS THAT MAKE HARDCORE PORN FOR $$$

LEIBER HERMAN says:

Why don’t JEWS that run PORN or anyone in porn biz make titles aimed at Jews like BIGG TITTY JEW OR BIG DICK JEW ORGY . Why cause evil Jews run PORN not good Jews Fuck the evil Jews that run porn like SLAVERY

I, for one, can’t stomach Holocaust films.

Pam Green says:

I did read it and can confirm that “tasteless” is accurate.

AugustWest99 says:

Great item. I was thinking the same sort of thing myself the other day. It is along the same lines as the argument that is hard to make an ‘anti-war’ movie that is not itself a war movie. And even then it will likely contain lots of riveting war scenes.

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Hollywood’s New Shoah

The Golden Globes and Oscars reward Lincoln and Django. Are slavery movies the new Holocaust flicks?

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