Although it’s probably old news in the United States,it’s only in the last few weeks in England that two films have been released about the American slave trade from two very different but equally celebrated directors. Lincoln is a relatively high-minded film about the sixteenth president of the United States and the extent to which he had to bend the rules to ensure the passage of the thirteenth amendment. Django Unchained is a typically violent Tarrantino film which celebrates the Western in a decidedly southern location with the ever-present backdrop of slavery.
Although Lincoln is the more admirable film with yet another masterful performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, in a way Django Unchained is the film that best captures the horror and hypocrisy of the slave-trade by baldly presenting it not as a problem to be resolved through mannered debate but something about which you feel very angry indeed.
Much of the criticism of the film has focused on the constant use of the word “nigger”, which is a word that has undergone at least as much evolution and variation as other offensive words like “fuck”, “cunt” and “damnation”. Personally, I think the fuss is totally pointless. There’s plenty of evidence that the word was used a lot at the time and quite often not so much as an insult as a noun. What is disgraceful isn’t so much the language of the time, but the disgraceful behaviour that so many ordinary white Americans believed to be perfectly legitimate towards fellow human beings that they considered to be property. And although slavery had existed as an institution probably since the very earliest days of humanity, there was something especially vile about the way descendants of African slaves became slaves simply by the fact of birth: as if the misfortune of bondage had become a kind of perverse birthright.
Although I’ve never suffered directly from racial prejudice, I’ve always felt very strongly about it. I don’t know why in particular, but I suppose the fact that I’ve had some very close friendships with people of all types of ethnicity might have something to do with it. And unusually for a writer in the kind of genre I’ve written in, I’ve tackled the subject headlong. I’ve dealt with prejudice against Jews (The Price of Prejudice) and against people of African origin (Freedom in the New World) not only in my short stories, but in my novels. In fact, the subject seems to come up rather frequently even though I can’t be described as a campaigner or a polemicist. I guess the grotesque fact of the History of Slavery, the Jewish Holocaust and the continuing existence of prejudice is just so much an apparent evil in this world that I think it is somehow wrong not to somehow attempt to confront it.
And for those who believe that the attitudes displayed in Django Unchained are gone forever should check the ceaseless flow of bile that you get in the comments to articles in such place as Fox News (as shown by the appalling comments associated with the death of Whitney Houston on the news site that is as far from Fair and Balanced as it is possible to be).
And for those who think that it is only thanks to the kindness of white Americans that Black Americans were granted their freedom, here are some images by Thomas Waterman Wood which may not show the worst of slavery, but tries to give African Americans the dignity they were mostly denied: