(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 14: Were slaves actually eaten by dogs, as was shown in the film Django Unchained? Also, was it unusual for slaves to ride horses — and were they really forced to fight each other to the death?
One of the scholar’s favorite spectator sports when it comes to our version of film “criticism” is the gleeful search for historical inaccuracies in Hollywood feature films. Pursued with enough intensity and zeal, this sort of Monday morning quarterbacking can be a veritable blood sport, which is no idle metaphor when reflecting on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The film contains one of the most violent — and devastatingly effective — scenes I’ve ever witnessed in any representation of the horrors of slavery, a scene that literalizes the term “bloodhound.” (But more on the historical accuracy of that scene in a minute.)
After Spielberg’s magisterial Lincoln was released, my email inbox was flooded by comments from other professors pointing to supposed “historical inaccuracies” in it. The emails I’ve received about Django have been just as intense, though curiously enough, less focused on historical details than on the movie’s postmodern modes of representation, the way it tells its tale, the manner in which it presents the events it uses as emblematic of the larger, horrendous institution of slavery. And perhaps that isn’t such a surprise, considering the fact that Django is one of the first — if not the first — postmodern feature films about the enslavement of our African-American ancestors.
Aesthetic history is replete with debates over form and style, such as the bitter exchanges between Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright over the merits of lyrical modernism versus naturalism, respectively. Another example of this sort of debate is the battle between realism and modernism made famous by the philosopher Georg Lukács, who championed the realism of Thomas Mann over the modernism of Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Django Unchained is a focal point for the latest iteration of this sort of debate — in this case, between realism and postmodernism.
Throughout my career as a cultural critic, I have done my best to defend the right of filmmakers, visual artists and novelists to take liberty in their depictions of historical events. Feature films, for example, are not documentaries, and the generic differences between them should always be kept in mind. What is the difference, at least in this context?
I think of it this way: Feature films are about what could have happened, while documentaries ostensibly are about what did happen. But a post-structuralist critic would argue that all representations, all works of art, are in some sense fictions, because even works of history and documentaries are imaginative creations that are invented, in the sense of having been made.
No historian, and no documentarian — however careful, however diligent — can travel back into the past and capture an event as it precisely unfolded; history is not being recorded by a video camera, waiting to be rediscovered in some cave. Even history has to be recreated, and the process of recreation inevitably is subject to all sorts of influences and factors, whether these are fictional or nonfictional recreations. That’s why historians and documentary filmmakers sometimes engage in such fierce debates with each other about their interpretations and recreations of events. And that is fair game, how it should and must be.
Still, there is a huge difference between what we require of our students in terms of rules of evidence in a history class and what we require of them in a course on writing for a documentary, as opposed to what we require in a course on screenwriting for feature films — even feature films on historical topics or biographical subjects. And that, too, is how it should and must be. In any fiction-making, we all do well to recall Aristotle’s distinction between what he called “probable impossibilities” (good), as opposed to “improbable possibilities” (bad).