Fiction can complement reality in modern history films

By Andrew Horton

What is the best way to remember the past? Keep an accurate record of everything that happened or just capture the overall emotion? 

This dilemma has been illustrated by two recent films dealing with the heavy theme of slavery, namely Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” 

The first takes a realistic approach to illustrate the brutal reality of slavery in the South, whereas the latter takes a more abstract approach with a story that was artificially constructed to be entertaining.  

“12 Years a Slave,” released in October, is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped into slavery. 

It is an intense, emotional story that does not shy away from presenting the brutality of slavery in a very plain and unsettling manner — including explicit representations of whippings and hangings, among other grotesque acts. 

“Django Unchained,” on the other hand, is Tarantino’s unique twist on the subject in the form of a spaghetti western. 

The film centers on the story of Django, who falls into the company of a bounty hunter and goes on a quest to reunite with his wife who had been sold away from him. It touches on many themes, but relies on fictional plot devices that illustrate emotion but do not have any historical basis.

Both films have received critical acclaim. “Django Unchained” was nominated for best picture at last year’s Academy Awards, and “12 Years a Slave” is likely to be a top contender this year.

So the question remains: Which of these styles is preferable in exploring such a sensitive topic?

Few people would criticize the sincere style of a movie like “12 Years a Slave.” A columnist for The New Yorker proclaimed that the movie “is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery.”

On the other hand, many people were quick to jump on Tarantino for his new version of history. For instance, Spike Lee stated, “it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.” 

The trouble is that many fail to see how an abstract interpretation of an issue can bring new light to it. 

For example, a major plot element in “Django Unchained” is the sport of Mandingo fighting, which involves slaves being forced to fight to the death as a form of entertainment. Historians agree that nothing of the sort occurred, noting that it would not make any sense for slave owners to risk their valuable property in such a way. 

However, the device is certainly intriguing and manages to illustrate the dehumanizing way in which slaves were treated and how Southern tradition often pitted man against man.  

As Tarantino stated, “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it.”

This style, while often deviating from historical accuracy, leads to a unique kind of story that is more engaging for audiences and generates new ways of thinking about well-known issues. 

For instance, while most people would tell you how great a movie “12 Years a Slave” was, fewer would tell you that they would want to sit through it again. Tarantino’s film generates the opposite reaction due to its integrated comic relief and more upbeat ending. 

This is not to say that an abstract style is better, but rather that the two styles are complementary. 

While both films were violent and gory, I think “12 Years a Slave” did a far superior job of driving home how horrifically real slavery was — more so than what you would get out of reading a textbook in school. As Tarantino acknowledged about the violence in his film, “I’m here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened.”

At the same time, the plot of “Django Unchained” enabled for the exploration of additional themes, particularly revenge, which could not possibly have been as successfully implemented in a story that perfectly followed history. 

Ultimately fiction can complement reality. 

While the need remains for films that preserve historical accuracy to put emotion in proper context, it is important that filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of conventional genres to further stimulate these profound emotions in the first place.

Andrew is a junior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]