12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained as a Slave Cinema

Updated September 21, 2021

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12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained as a Slave Cinema essay

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Slave cinema, films with slavery as the main subject, are nothing new in the Hollywood film industry. However, the story of slavery is often told through a ‘white lens’, prompting questions as to who tells the black struggle and how should it be told. Already with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) and Birth of a Nation (1915), slavery and blackness was introduced to classical Hollywood film by white actors in black face; and years later, Gone with the Wind (1939) portrayed the slave’s story through the eyes of a plantation’s mistress. According to critics, slave cinema often lacks the perspective of the slave, and tends to downplay the real violence in slave narratives.

Thereby, two new films, black director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and white director Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, are original in their depiction of slavery through the eyes of the black protagonist slave. 12 Years a Slave presents a brutal and touching depiction of black slavery, and Django Unchained presents its depiction of the powerful black slave in a revenge fantasy. Both can be considered vital explorations of slave cinema, yet they differ substantially in the message they convey and their use of cinematic style, and have created considerable debate among critics as to which film best portrays slavery.

First an analysis is presented of the overarching purpose of each film with regards to telling the story of slavery, i.e. the message conveyed in each film. Second, an analysis of the differences in cinematic style to depict the black struggle is presented. And third follows an analysis of the response of critics to the manner in which the story is told.

While the two films explore the same topic, they take very different directions in terms of how black slaves are portrayed and the message they seem to convey. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen portrays the story of a free man who becomes a slave and is robbed of his life for 12 years. McQueen aims to demonstrate in the realest way possible the actual uncompromised struggles of black slaves – and in this way, he can both horrify the viewer and tell a story that can connect with the audience on a personal level. McQueen aims to have the viewer identify with and emphasize with the black slave, in a way that has not been accomplished by other films. By telling a very true story, he is able to examine many issues in depth, such as objectification of black women by white slaveowners, and torture of slaves. In contrast, Django Unchained portrays the black slave Django in a revenge fantasy, a ‘slave-era Avengers’ (Okwanga, 2014) , in which Django kills those who have persecuted slaves.

Tarantino develops a black character that is not subordinate but rather has great power and agency, and in this way, he rejects classical Hollywood black cinematic stereotypes. Django’s character is able to stand up for himself and other slaves in a way – creating a sensational, almost supernatural aura to the slave’s story. Tarantino aims to combine both humor and lightheartedness and violence to tell the story of the black slave. While McQueen takes the realist route in depicting the true horror of slavery with the aim to inspire empathy, Tarantino takes a sensationalist route in depicting the revenge fantasy of a slave. The one presents the subordinate slave and the other the powerful justice-seeking slave.

The cinematic style of each film used to tell the story of the slave is widely different. McQueen uses realist filmography and cinematography to shock audiences, while Tarantino uses sensation and at time over-exaggerated cinematic style. In 12 Years a Slave, the perfected imagery of each scene helps to portray the slave in a very authentic way. McQueen considers the smallest details, the sound of a whip cracking like a gunshot, the beauty of a ferry shot, to portray both beauty and horror and the stark contrast between the two. In one scene, as Solomon helplessly sings along with the slaves about souls rising from the Earth, the viewers can see that his voice becomes stronger and louder, demonstrating both his despair and his courage and conviction.

These subtle moments showing Solomon’s experience are pervasive throughout the film to develop character and provide insight into the spirit of Solomon. The scene of Solomon’s lynching, in which he is tied up with just enough room to tiptoe on his feet, is particularly intense due to McQueen’s careful attention to its visual elements. The shots are long, confronting the viewer with a terrible reality, and the shots from various angles and distances gives the impression that Solomon is merely an element to observe. These types of shots have an eerie calmness and steady tension – one could almost consider the film to take on a documentary style at times.

On the other hand, Tarantino employs colorful avant-garde visual effects of old Hollywood cowboys and oscillates between difficult-to-digest violent scenes and outright humorous scenes to tell a dramatic story of slavery. For example, in one scene, the viewer is confronted with a slave ripped apart by dogs, whereas another is a scene with the Ku Klux Klan in an almost goofy discussion about the eyeholes in their masks. This style of over-exaggeration, the switch between humor and tragedy, along with Tarantino’s use of special effects and stylistic dialogue, gives the film an explosive nature, in contrast with the stillness in 12 Years of Slave. In short, the cinematic styles in each film contribute to its aim: McQueen’s calm and observant realist style to tell the story of oppression in a horrific but understated way and Tarantino’s explosive sensationalism to tell the story of an empowered slave in a fantasy.

It is clear that these two slave films differ substantially in their aim and style, but how have critics responded? Is one film better able to to tell the story of black slavery than the other? While there is no clear answer to the question, there has been considerable debate among critics about this very question. 12 Years a Slave was highly revered by many as “not just a great film, but a necessary one” (MacInnes, 2013) . McQueen is commended for his depiction of brutality as necessary to demonstrate the realness of slavery. At the same time however, critics (White, 2013) also targeted McQueen for turning a necessary film into ‘torture porn’ and a ‘horror show’ and focusing on violence rather than history. In addition, he is criticized for fishing for tears, rather than eliciting ‘constructive outrage’ (Harris-Perry, 2013) The film is also criticized for its lack of heroes and resistance.

With regards to Django Unchained, critics have argued that the film is historically inaccurate and treats the horrific subject far too lightheartedly. Djanjo Unchained is particularly criticized for its “rueful fantasy of black hyper-violent virulence”. The concept of revenge fantasy is also questioned; in this film, slavery is depicted as a single trial to overcome in which revenge is presented as a solution. Harris (2013) argues that such films should depict the systemic nature of racism and the solution being changing the system and society. He argues revenge is not constructive: “After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish.”

In this respect, it can be argued that McQueen’s film is better able to demonstrate the systemic nature of racism, how it was rooted in the minds and spirits of both slaves and masters at the time. One critic (Rainer, 2013) argues that 12 Years “is a necessary corrective to the antics of Django Unchained.” Finally, critics have also pointed to the overuse of the ‘n-word’ in the film Django Unchained. While some argue that the language is essential to understand the story, others condemn the use of the word.

Regardless of the controversy, both films are successful in striking up a discussion in society about race and the treatment of slavery in film. In terms of message, 12 Years a Slave is uncompromisingly honest in its depiction of subordinate slaves, with the aim that the viewer can empathize with the black slave, and Django Unchained conveys a dramatic story with an empowered slave seeking justice. The style of McQueen is calm, observant, even artistic, and that of Tarantino is explosive, colorful, and very Hollywood. Both are original in their depictions of slavery, and perhaps both types of storytelling are necessary to provoke thought in society. Through 12 Years, we reflect on the tragic story of slavery and empathize, and through Django, we view a black protagonist that is no longer subordinate but powerful. In conclusion, both films cover the topic of slavery, but differ in their message and cinematic style, and ultimately their treatment of slavery in film.

12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained as a Slave Cinema essay

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12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained as a Slave Cinema. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/12-years-a-slave-and-django-unchained-as-a-slave-cinema/


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