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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.