Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Latest Updates

December 28, 2012

Slate: For 'Django' and 'Lincoln,' a woman problem

The release of Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti Western slavery revenge drama "Django Unchained" on the heels of Steven Spielberg's rather more sober biopic "Lincoln" has given moviegoers a holiday season full of questions about one of the darkest periods in American history. Are we capable of reckoning with the racism of one of our most beloved presidents? Was vengefulness or reconciliation the more useful emotion in governing the reintegration of the seceded states - and individual slaveholders - into the Union? Did slaveholders really pit slaves against each other in fights to the death?

But one question raised unintentionally by both movies is why they ignore so much of the work that black women did to fight for their own freedom. In "Lincoln," which portrays the machinations of an all-male legislature and Cabinet, with interjections by the president's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, that makes at least some historical sense. But both Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the enslaved wife of Django (Jamie Foxx) in Tarantino's movie, and Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), the free black woman who is presented in Lincoln as Mary Todd Lincoln's maid, are curiously blank, important only in how they motivate the black and white men around them.

In real life, Keckley bought her freedom and that of her son, and after petitioning for a license to work in Washington, D.C., began a career as a dressmaker, one that took off when she got as a client Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of eventual Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Keckley made dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln and dressed her for events, but she was not a servant. And three years after the president's assassination, Keckley published a memoir called "Behind The Scenes" that, in its descriptions of the Lincolns, as well as the publication of letters from Mary, broke with previous norms of privacy, not to mention race and class.

That's a fascinating story, and none of it, except an acknowledgement that Keckley was once enslaved, makes it into "Lincoln." Instead of being the agent of her own freedom and an independent businesswoman, Keckley is a companion to Mrs. Lincoln, and an opportunity for the movie to have some mild discussion of the president's less-than-perfectly-liberal racial views. "I don't know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you," the president tells her, explaining his perspective on black Americans. "I expect I'll get used to you." Keckley wants to know why she has to be an even more perfect role model than any other mother with a son fighting on the Union side. Lincoln doesn't have an answer for her, and "Lincoln" doesn't have any praise or attention for the work Keckley did to liberate herself long before her president committed himself to the same project.

At least Keckley gets to talk to the president, and to be a witness to the vote in the House of Representatives that passes the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery. In "Django Unchained," Broomhilda barely gets to be a person at all. Much of the time we see her only as her husband Django imagines her, naked and radiant in a hot spring in winter, beguiling in a yellow silk dress. In more realistic scenes, she's whipped, branded and pulled out of a sweat box - looking gorgeous the entire time - providing a different kind of motivation for her rescue.

The movie lets us know that, even as Django's been mounting an epic quest to save Broomhilda, she's tried to run away again of her own accord. But "Django Unchained" is more interested in her as an object of other people's desires than in the courage that leads her to keep reaching for own freedom. The movie ends with her fingers stuck pertly in her ears as her husband dynamites the plantation house where she was last owned.

It's true, as A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review of the movie, that "The idea that regenerative violence could be visited by black against white instead of the reverse - that a man like Django could fill out the contours of the hunter - has been almost literally unthinkable." But what's unthinkable in the movies can be less ambitious than what actually happened in real life. It's not as if there aren't true and more ambitious stories to tell about women and the fight against slavery. If your taste runs to action, the story of Harriet Tubman's work on the Underground Railroad and then as a scout and tactical planner for the Union Army might be a good place to start.

               

       

 

1
Text Only
Latest Updates
  • West Africa Ebola outbreak tops 700 deaths

    Security forces went house-to-house in Sierra Leone’s capital Thursday looking for Ebola patients and others exposed to the disease as the death toll from the worst recorded outbreak in history surpassed 700 in West Africa.
    U.S. health officials urged Americans not to travel to the three countries hit by the medical crisis:  Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

    July 31, 2014

  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 31, 2014

  • The virtues of lying

    Two computational scientists set out recently to simulate the effects of lying in a virtual human population. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show that lying is essential for the growth of a cohesive social network.

    July 31, 2014

  • lockport-police.jpg Police department turns to Facebook for guidance on use of 'negro'

    What seems to be a data entry mistake by a small town police department in western New York has turned into a social media firestorm centered around the word "negro" and whether it's acceptable to use in modern society.

    July 31, 2014 3 Photos

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 2.12.55 PM.png VIDEO: Five-year-old doesn't want her brother to grow up

    Sadie, an adorable 5-year-old from Phoenix, wants her brother to stay young forever, so much so that her emotional reaction to the thought of him getting older has drawn more than 10 million views on YouTube.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • Comiskey.jpg Sterling not the only bad owner

    As the Donald Sterling era in with the Los Angeles Clippers looks to be winding down, many are calling him the worst owner in sports history. From being cheap with the players to his most recent racist comments, it's hard to argue against.
    Yet, there are a few owners of athletic teams who can give Sterling a run for title of worst in history.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • 1,100 layoffs planned at Alpha coal mines in W.Va.

    July 31, 2014

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Grandstands feel a little empty at NASCAR races

    Two decades after NASCAR started running at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the crowds have thinned considerably. It's probably no reflection on the sport's massive following, which stretches from coast to coast, but it surely doesn't NASCAR's image help when the cameras pan across all of those empty seats.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • About 15 UMWA leaders arrested at EPA hearings

    July 31, 2014

  • More than 5,000 coal supporters protest EPA rules

    July 31, 2014