Christian McWhirter on Taking Lincoln and Django Seriously

django-unchained-poster-e1357542813658.jpegI’ve been thinking about the gulf between the public’s response to Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarrantino’s Django Unchained and the overall commentary coming from professional historians and other public intellectuals.  I’ve commented on this before, but this morning I was pleased to read Christian McWhirter’s review of both movies in The Civil War Monitor.  Actually, it’s not really a review as much as it is a commentary on the value of the movies, which he believes has been overlooked by the academic community.  I couldn’t agree more.  Here are a few passages from McWhirter’s review that stood out for me.

Dismissing Lincoln is to effectively dismiss its vast audience, much of which is surely hungry for precisely the sort of information and interpretation we can provide.

I saw both films in packed theaters and the response to each was overwhelmingly loud and positive. This sort of reaction demonstrates that audience members were emotionally, and I suspect also intellectually, engaged. We cannot dismiss these movies because they do not adhere to the same rigorous standards we apply to historical monographs and documentaries. Instead of fearing the massive reach of bad films, we need to appreciate the potential for good films to help us educate the public and overturn resilient historical myths. Lincoln and Django Unchained will do more to change popular perceptions of American history than they will misinform or confuse. So, relax, enjoy, and ride this train as far as it will take us.

It’s safe to say that these movies will do more to influence popular perceptions of the Civil War and slavery than all the books published in the past twenty years combined.  Unlike others, I fully embrace this fact.  Much of the commentary about these films does little more than highlight individual historians’ current research projects and tells us very little about the films themselves.  It’s not that I have a problem with pointing out shortcomings in historical content, but that they fail to acknowledge why these films are so popular with so many people from a broad range of backgrounds.  Christian hits the nail on the head when he references the emotional and intellectual engagement of their audiences.  We haven’t seriously explored this as of yet.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how I am going to use these movies in the classroom – assuming that I can use Django at all.  Beyond the classroom I do hope that public historians are also thinking about how they can take advantage of this wave of enthusiasm.  It’s a unique opportunity that could not have come at a better time.  We are smack in the middle of the sesquicentennial having just commemorated the 150th anniversary of emancipation.  The issues and subject matter raised by these two films are incredibly controversial and fraught will all kinds of landmines.  Just getting people to think about them is a challenge and, yet, that is exactly what millions of Americans are doing.  What more could we ask for?

All of us in the historical community should give Spielberg and Tarrantino a big Thank You.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

21 comments… add one
  • Scott A. MacKenzie Jan 19, 2013 @ 6:17

    Someone produced Django Unchained action figures. You can re-enact scenes from the movie with foot-tall dolls of Django, Schultz, Broomhilda, Candie, Stephen and Butch. Well, at least you could before Al Sharpton and other activists raised hell over it. This, quite frankly, gave me the creeps.

  • Guest Jan 19, 2013 @ 6:14
  • Leroy_Jethro_Gibbs Jan 19, 2013 @ 6:13

    I’m surprised that no one caught this. Someone produced Django Unchained action figures – foot-tall dolls of the main characters in the movie. Yup, no lie. Thanks to Al Sharpton, they’re no longer for sale.

  • dudski Jan 18, 2013 @ 16:16

    I agree with Spike Lee, who said, “American slavery was not a Sergio Leonne spaghetti western.”

    I’m not impressed with Tarrantino artistically. If you take cinematic violence and increase it to hyper levels are you really offering anything new or different, or more importantly revealing anything new or worthwhile about the human condition?

    When the final shootout scene came on the screen in Bonnie & Clyde in 1967 it was something new, stylized violence. At that time the last big school shooting incident was in Michigan in the early thirties. Since then, in the name of art and commerce, we’ve cranked up the violence on screen to unprecedented levels and added in video games with the same attitude. “It’s not mindless violence, it’s art.” we are told. Meanwhile susceptible minds viewing this “art” shoot up movie theaters, schools, and shopping malls.

    Put another way, isn’t it odd that having been exposed to unprecedented violence soldiers from the Civil War to today have not come back to their home towns and committed mass casualty assaults on civilians? But young civilians who have never experienced such horrors but watched the “artistic” stylized hyper violence on screen are committing mass casualty shootings at an ever increasing rate?

    Tarrantino has made a career of making movies which don’t have anything to say. That said, I suspect he has about as much useful to say about slavery as Sergio Leonne had about the American West.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jan 17, 2013 @ 10:00

    I have yet to see Django. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not it’s worth seeing. I know it’s a revenge fantasy; a “If-you’ve-always-wanted-to-see-the-evil, racist,sadistic-slaveholder-get-his-then-now’s-your-chance” movie. But honestly, I think it’s a film that never even had to be made. By that, I mean had the truth been told from the beginning, there would have been no need for this ridiculous, over-the-top fantasy world that really teaches nothing substantial.

    When I saw “Roots” as a kid on TV when it was first broadcast, I walked away from it feeling like, during slavery, every time a Black person stood up for him or herself, they lost. Every time than ran away, they were always caught. And even if they beat a White person, A legal system would be there to eventually prosecute them. I don’t remember the details of “Roots” but to me, it was presented as 100 years of losing the battle and then finally winning the war (emancipation).

    But since I watched “Roots,” I’ve learned on my own that there were certainly moments of victory, even in the darkest days of slavery. The Amistad story and the movie based on that story are a great example of this. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography that he was beaten by an overseer every day until one day, he beat the man up and he “never laid a hand on me again.” In an article I read recently, I slave woman talked about how the other slaves finally cornered a very cruel overseer and “one [slave] held him whilst another knocked him in de head and killed him.” And from the same article, I’m still getting a kick out of the story of a slave who purchased his freedom for $1800 in Confederate money.

    The point of these stories for me is that they provide balance to the narrative of slavery we’ve been given through TV and movies. I certainly understand that many may not have known of Black victories during slavery; or that they feared violent reactions from African-Americans had such things been shown on the small or big screen (sad to say, some of that happened anyway).
    I just feel that Tarentino wanted to make a movie of something we’ve never seen before but always wanted to see. Fine enough; but there are plenty of real stories he could have chosen from.

    • margaretdblough Jan 18, 2013 @ 5:15

      I have no desire to see Django. I think Tarentino enjoys violence way too much.

  • Connie Chastain Jan 16, 2013 @ 14:34

    Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is, among much else during its leisurely 165-minute running time, an adolescent male revenge fantasy about an omnipotent mass shooter wreaking carnage upon dozens of victims. I suspect the film would have appealed profoundly to the late Adam Lanza.

    You might think that this wouldn’t be the best time for a quasi-comic daydream/bloodbath about a deadeye gunman who always fires first and is immune to the thousands of bullets shot at him. But the recent unpleasantness in Sandy Hook has gone almost unmentioned in the critical hosannas greeting Django…because, you see, the invulnerable hero is a *black* gunman shooting bad (i.e., Southern white) people.

    From “Tarantino Explained” by Steve Sailer
    Entire article here:

    • Kevin Levin Jan 16, 2013 @ 15:39

      I am certainly sensitive to the timing of the movie’s release, but is this the only violent movie currently playing? Doesn’t the fact that that movie has been critiqued along these lines an argument against this author’s point? I’ve read a number of articles and have seen a number of interviews with Tarrantino in which Sandy Hook or concerns about violence have been raised.

    • CMcWhirter Jan 17, 2013 @ 5:53

      Actually, Tarantino has come under fairly intense scrutiny from several media outlets for the violence in Django Unchained – especially given the timing of the film’s release. His interview with Terry Gross on NPR and Krishnan Guru-Murthy on were both fairly heated, especially the latter.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 17, 2013 @ 7:03

        Thanks Christian. I was thinking of Guru-Murthy interview.

    • Pat Young Jan 17, 2013 @ 7:29

      Just to make a point that goes well beyond Django,

      I have never noticed that the audiences at highly violent movies skew towards the political left. It is typically only when gun control comes up after a massacre that movie violence is associated with the left. Hence, there were no conservative outcries about the body count in the Red Dawn re-do, for example.

      I would hazard that among my circle of friends, the more liberal, non-gun owning folks are less likely to watch movies where all disagreements are settled with violence or to play “shooter”-style video games than the gun owning more conservative folks I know.

      I also note that the movie violence of a black man fighting for justice (Django) is a subject to attack by the political right, while the movie violence of a white man fighting for justice earned Clint Eastwood a prime time spot at the Republican National Convention.

  • Tom Jones Jan 16, 2013 @ 12:22

    I haven’t seen Django, but loved Lincoln. It’s very encouraging to see the positive reaction to such a long, serious film that seemed to speed by. I went at 11 a.m. on a weekday here in Charlottesville and the theater was packed (albeit it was still the second week.)

    Having said that, the movie was very narrowly focused on a period late in the development of Lincoln’s attitudes to race and slavery and late in a war that might have ended with slavery still in place–if it had ended within the first year or so. Perhaps best assigned as an assignment and use classtime to hit all the nuances not covered in this fine film. And to remind students that slavery and racism were national problems not just southern. (Not a teacher, just my two cents worth. And this is a nice problem for you teachers to have.)

  • James Harrigan Jan 16, 2013 @ 7:26

    Kevin, I don’t think the pornographic violence of Django has a place in the classroom.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 16, 2013 @ 7:49

      Hi James,

      I certainly agree that there are some troubling scenes in this movie. Public school teachers will likely not be able to show any of it for the obvious reasons, but there may be more wiggle room in private schools. One way would be to show clips from the movie. I can even see getting parents to sign off on a class viewing of the entire movie as well.

      That said, we should remember that much of what we have students read about slave violence is just as powerful as some of the scenes you might have in mind. Given the kinds of violent images that students are routinely exposed to it might be helpful to talk with them about how they should be interpreted.

      • jamesharrigan Jan 17, 2013 @ 23:40

        Kevin, my point wasn’t whether Django WOULD be permitted in a school (public or private), but whether it SHOULD be shown. The violence in Tarantino films is exciting and erotic and is intended to arouse the viewer. He isn’t expressing shock or disgust at violence, which would be the civilized reaction – he is reveling in it, savoring it. I think this approach to violence is disgraceful, degenerate, and immoral.

        I liken Tarantino to Leni Riefenstahl: both are geniuses at film making, which makes them all the more reprehensible as persons and artists.

        There are ways to teach about violence, including the violence of slavery, without supporting the work of Quentin Tarantino. It is true that students are routinely exposed to images of gruesome, sensationalistic violence, but I think this is a terrible thing about our visual culture. My view is that parents and educators should fight against this, or at least refuse to participate in it.

  • Karen Cox Jan 16, 2013 @ 7:00

    Hate to say I haven’t seen either, but I’ve thought that the two should be reviewed together given that they cover some of the same ground and both have had success with popular audiences. I can agree with McWhirter that historians need to come off of their soapboxes and think about the bigger picture when it comes to history and film.

  • Pat Young Jan 16, 2013 @ 6:02

    I loved Lincoln and liked Django a lot. Here is a little bit of my own review of the newer movie:

    Slavery and the violence against non-whites that it required are so
    essential to the character of our country that their residue can still
    be smelled whenever Birther fulminations against a “Kenyan President”
    are heard. I grew up at a time when white people believed they had the
    right to beat blacks with clubs if they tried to vote. In our time, when
    a recent poll shows that a majority of my white fellow Americans hold
    racist views of blacks, I know that this is good as it has ever been for
    African Americans. Black kids grow up assured that even if they grow up
    to be president, half of all whites will still not consider them part
    of the “Real America.”

    Django, the slave freed by a German Liberal, is the Siegfried, or Freeman, of the Götterdämmerung of slavery’s gods in this movie. His rescue of his wife, Brünnhilde,
    is incidental to his role as the man who brings down the old white gods
    who had the power to order the destruction of the bodies of their black
    slaves. The twilight of these idols comes with the splatter and
    explosions you’d expect from a Tarantino film, but throws the post-Civil
    War radical’s quandary into sharp relief. Without the inhumane
    slaughter of those whose violence kept blacks in chains, freedom would
    always be jealously assailed by whites dispossessed of their fortunes in
    human flesh. Django and his wife can only escape to freedom if those
    who enslaved them cannot follow them from the grave.

    • Lyle7 Jan 16, 2013 @ 21:51

      I don’t really agree with you Pat because your arguments don’t comport with any facts, but I will say that an anti-Jewish, white supremacist like David Duke espouses non-violence. That’s how awesome America is today.

      “half of all whites will still not consider them part
      of the “Real America.” This statement is just absurd. I respectfully suggest you travel around America more or spend some time with some different people.

      I also know of no violent Birthers, which means they suggest nothing of the Bull Connor days or the Nathan Bedford Forrest days.

      Why all the black male on black male crime in America today? What’s that a residue of?

      • Pat Young Jan 17, 2013 @ 4:26

        Since your response to my comment is praise for David Duke’s
        “non-violence” (he is the Ghandi of the racist Right, apparently) and a
        description of the “black male” as violent, neither of which addresses
        my points, I’ll not engage in a refutation of those elements of American
        racial awesomeness.

        As for your challenge to my factual
        assertion about a majority of white Americans harboring racist views
        towards our fellow citizens of African ancestry, I am sure you are
        familiar with this Associated Press poll which was published during the
        run up to the 2012 election:

        “Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United
        States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll
        finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward
        blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.

        Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were
        measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist
        attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views
        toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.

        In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.

        When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans
        with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent
        during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of
        Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.

        much as we’d hope the impact of race would decline over time … it
        appears the impact of anti-black sentiment on voting is about the same
        as it was
        four years ago,” said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who
        worked with AP to develop the survey.

        The AP surveys were conducted with researchers from Stanford University, the
        University of Michigan and NORC at the University of Chicago.”

        Here is the link to the article and the survey:

        As for the Birthers, as blacks were once blocked from voting, now the first black man elected president has been the focus of a delegitimation campaign based explicitly on the notion that he can’t be an American. I have attended Birther rallies where our president is routinely described as a “Kenyan” in the same way that my black neighbors were called “Hottentots” three decades ago. Those rallies also had signs graphically depicting guns on signs against Obama. I have never been to other demonstrations where guns were part of the iconography of protest.

        • bummer Jan 17, 2013 @ 8:29


          Bummer recalls signs bearing violent slogans in Dallas in 1963 and Panther protests in California later in the 60’s and Wallace had some interesting signage in his campaign. This old guy doesn’t go to rallies any more, but anything called a “Birther” would probably be avoided. Duke is the same old Forrest, in a suit and tie. Had a mental case on the west coast for years, that really was full of himself, Tom Metzger. Friends in SoCal relate he’s attempting a comeback.

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