There hasn't been a major Hollywood movie in recent memory with more confounding racial politics than Django Unchained. And there probably isn't a film more representative of Hollywood's take on race than Lincoln.
(This post is full of potential spoilers. Consider yourself warned.)
Django, Quentin Tarantino's blaxploitation/spaghetti western homage, is set in the antebellum South. It follows a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter and guns down slave-owners and criminals in the South as he plots to save his beloved wife, who is being held captive on a notorious plantation in Mississippi.
But, man, is it hard to pin down.
What to make of a movie that shows slaves on one plantation frolicking on swings but also doesn't shy from showing the fear wrought by slavery's capricious sadism? Is Dr. King Schultz, the Christoph Waltz character who frees Django and becomes his partner, meant to represent the naivete of well-meaning paternalism or is he actually an endorsement of it? (We could be here for a minute.) Is Stephen, the house slave played by Samuel L. Jackson as equal parts Lex Luthor and Uncle Ruckus a broad caricature or a pointed critique of internalized racism? And what the hell does it mean that he's Django's ultimate foil?
See? We could be here for a minute.
Now let's look at Lincoln, the other big Hollywood movie from this winter about slavery. (Or sort of, since there aren't actually all that many slaves depicted in it.)
The Steven Spielberg film follows the 16th president as he cajoles and glad-hands and prods and seduces lawmakers into supporting an amendment that would, for once and for all, emancipate all of the country's black slaves. It's gorgeous and fantastically acted and, aside from some scenes depicting the aftermath of some bloody Civil War battles, basically relegates America's "peculiar institution" to an abstraction being debated by old white guys. It even leaves Lincoln's own, less-than-neat feelings about emancipation mostly shorn of their rough edges.
Both movies are going to be in a lot of award conversations this year.
But Lincoln is part of a long tradition of movies that are about our racial history but that lack the desire to make any of their viewers squirm. Take Red Tails, a not-so-good film from last year based on the famous all-black fighter pilot squadron, The Tuskegee Airmen. The racism in the film is limited to the team being supplied with crappier planes, a mustache-twirling Pentagon official played by Bryan Cranston, and a whites-only club for American pilots in Italy. No one in the film has a terribly complicated relationship to the established order. That order is, of course, easily vanquished once the Red Tails do some nifty flying. (See also Glory Road, Remember the Titans, The Great Debaters, etc.)
Django, meanwhile, never shies away from the quotidian, petty terror that undergirded American slavery; it gives every interaction between blacks and whites a frisson of mortal risk. One woman is whipped for breaking eggs. A man is torn to pieces by dogs for attempting to escape. When Calvin Candie, the Mephistophelian plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio, wonders aloud why his family's black slaves didn't rise up to kill his father — a soliloquy he delivers while fingering the skull of his family's most trusted slave like an ornament — he's unknowingly answering his own question.
Slave rebellions were not unusual in real life, but Candie's plantation is meant to represent an evil kingdom from which there's no hope of escape, which is probably what it felt like to many slaves in the Deep South.
And that's where the nut of this difference lies, really.
These are both movies very much informed by our current moment, but in crucially different ways. For Django, this is mostly stylistic — think Jamie Foxx's sunglasses, Rick Ross rapping over action scenes, and Sam Jackson's thoroughly modern approach to profanity. But Django is deeply invested in portraying the unrelenting ugliness of slavery. Lincoln, on the other hand, feels like a reverential look at a crucial moment in our history through a contemporary prism that recognizes that the outcome is never in doubt; it's more "accurate," but less alive. It's also much more invested in a mythology that doesn't implicate anyone in that ugliness.