With the release of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the upcoming Django Unchained, it is important that we discuss the practice of historical revision, given the political climate we live in today. First, nothing is inherently wrong with historical revision. As we learn more about the past, we revise history. Sometimes we do it as a form of creative expression like historical fiction. However, historical revision becomes a problem when, whether intentionally or not, helps in some form to continue an oppressive framework or system. Recently, within the political realm, this is seen with the constant mentioning of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech by conservatives, who conveniently leave out that many of the views King held and fought for would go against their own. How about how conservative Christians and their revising of Jesus to fit their own hurtful beliefs? Or states like Texas, Tennessee and Arizona that want to revise textbooks and classes to reveal less about the country’s horrific past.
This plays out in subtle ways as well, which can be seen in the two slavery-era films I mentioned before. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter may be fun to watch in its mash-up of horror film and history, but the movie plays off a mythology of Lincoln that has seeped into our country’s memory for almost 150 years. Many believe Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, but do not realize that he did so for political gain, economic inequality (for whites) and to unionize the country. He may not have been a big supporter of equal civil rights for all races as found in his speech from the Lincoln-Douglass debate in 1852:
I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
He may have changed his mind later, he may have not, but this shows that he was not the uncomplicated, god-like hero that our country and this film promotes him as today. If the history embedded in the film is not problematic enough, the issue of colorism well hurts it more. The character of Harriet Tubman has a short part in the film, but she is memorable in that the actress, Jaqueline Fleming, looks nothing like the original Harriet Tubman. If the filmmakers could make Lincoln look the way he actually did, why not Tubman and her dark-skin. And barely anyone questioned yet another erasure of dark-skinned black women.
Now onto Django Unchained, which stars Jaime Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Waltz, may also be enjoyable in its own right and probably better than the Lincoln film. But when it is released later this year, I will still nervous about it because I do not trust it. I am afraid that it will rely on stereotypical tropes and make light of the topic of slavery. Positioning this film as a sort of comic revenge film takes away from the systemic reality of slavery. But should I expect any different from Quentin Tarantino, since his work has always been problematic, and does not that necessarily mean it will be bad film? I don’t know, but I know that within the climate we are living in of politicians, media pundits and ignorant citizens as well as educational and media systems that lack substance, these films may hurt more than entertain.