We all judge films before we see them, it’s why we have movie trailers. They give us an idea of whether or not we want to spend our hard earned cash on seeing a film. But at the end of the day, even after being bombarded by advertising, you never really know until you go. You can’t be sure until you are sitting in that darkened theater watching the film. In the past few weeks there seems to be a lot of uproar over two films in particular. People were rushing to pass judgment on these films even before they were released to the public. This seems more like a plan to taint the films rather than have an actual discussion about them; to give us the viewer a preconceived notion on what the film might be saying before it even has a chance to say it. It turns out that both of these pictures are not just controversial, they’re also two of the year’s best.
Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulously made thriller. Kathryn Bigelow has created an exciting procedural that surprises in its details even though we all know exactly how it’s going to turn out. However, leading up to its release all you have heard about is its first act. That’s the stuff that has a few senators, including John McCain, up in arms. Without seeing it they called it “grossly inaccurate and misleading.” They argue that torture did not play any role in the hunt to catch Osama bin Laden, and that the film shows it playing an important step in his discovery.
There are a few problems with their argument. Let’s concede that Zero Dark Thirty shows torture somewhat playing a part in finding bin Laden. Well the fact of the matter is that you can’t portray the hunt for bin Laden without showing torture. It’s a shameful fact that our nation did use “enhanced interrogation means,” like waterboarding. It would be completely disingenuous not to show torture as part of the process, whether it works or not. We tortured people, plain and simple. And the torture in the film is presented in a very real way. It’s not fun. It’s hard to watch, as it should be.
If we concede that the film says torture helped us find bin Laden, we must also concede the film never once shows torture directly leading to information. In fact, in one scene it starts to lead to misinformation as an abused detainee mumbles different days of the week over and over rather then tell them when an attack is actually happening. When does he give the real information about bin Laden’s courier? Over a quiet meal. Although he was tortured, it’s a different technique that ends up working.
The way the senators have come out against the film makes it sound like Bigelow treats the information given as they would on the show 24. There Jack Bauer would gain the intel he needed during the actual act of torture – something Zero Dark Thirty does not portray. Jack would shoot a man in the leg or try and shove a wet towel down his throat and eventually the villain would tell him what he needed to know. By the way, this was a favorite program of John McCain’s and he even did a cameo on it.
In reality it’s not that simple, and Zero Dark Thirty has a complex relationship with torture just like the country does. The information they get didn’t even need to be gained via torture. It’s under their noses the whole time. Was the torture necessary? The characters in the film might think so. But it’s up to us to determine if they’re right. So yes, the senators are correct in saying “that waterboarding, torture, does not lead to reliable information.” But if those senators would see the film they would know Bigelow never once shows that it does. Instead they have turned Zero Dark Thirty into a political issue before ever watching a frame of film. Maybe they’re just embarrassed by the mirror it holds up to us as a nation. We can debate how useful the information we gained was, but not that we tortured.
Django Unchained is another crazed revenge story from Quentin Tarantino. It’s a helluva good time. And that is exactly why it too is receiving flack from people who haven’t seen it. The campaign against it is lead by equally polarizing filmmaker Spike Lee. He tweeted:
“American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them”
The objection he seems to have is that Tarantino is somehow trivializing slavery. Django is an exciting, action packed, and even funny film. But what Spike doesn’t know because he won’t see it is that it features some of the most brutal scenes of slave abuse you could imagine. Much like the torture in Zero Dark Thirty, they are upsetting. And they should be. We should not enjoy watching slavery in any form. It should be a tough pill to swallow.
In one scene a slave is torn apart by dogs. This moment doesn’t just haunt the audience; it haunts the characters in the film. They can’t shake it and arguably that inability to do so becomes their undoing. That is far from trivializing. I understand Spike’s hesitance, but as a filmmaker himself I think it’s wrong to come out against a work of art before seeing it. Without seeing it, couldn’t someone say they didn’t want to watch Do The Right Thing because they think it stirs racial prejudice? If so they would be missing out on one of the greatest films of all time. A film that actually made me think more thoughtfully about race relations than any work of literature, documentary or news report ever has.
I think Django is important in this regard too. Slavery is the greatest shame of our nation’s past. It should not be swept up under the rug. I for one am glad a successful film is forcing us to once again talk about such things. And another positive to Django Unchained is that it is, and sadly this is an all too rare thing in Hollywood: a film that portrays a black hero.
However, then there is the problem with the use of the word nigger. I was recently at a party where one of the guests complained that Tarantino uses the word too much and for no reason. That he shouldn’t say nigger in Pulp Fiction. By the way, this party guest is a middle class white guy. As an equally white guy, I find it hard to be the arbiter of when we can and can’t say nigger in art. The fact someone might say it in a film I would think says something about their character. In Django, the people who say it are villains. They are buffoons who we don’t like. Plus it’s 1858 in Mississippi. If racist plantation owners didn’t say nigger it would, again, be completely disingenuous. If you have a problem with it, then I don’t know what to tell you. People said it a lot back then. Pick up a copy of Huckleberry Finn.
Is this again a mirror we just don’t want to hold up to our past? I can’t claim to know how bad this word truly is, but I do believe this awful word has been given too much power. When said in hate, in reality, it is awful. I sometimes read racist tweets about our President that use this word and it hurts me. It makes me sad for our nation that we have people who feel this way. Again, buffoons not to be taken seriously. But this is not the case with its uses in Django or Blazing Saddles or Huck Finn. You can’t equate satire with actual hate. Otherwise it could lead to the censorship of great art.
In both these cases, the reasons John McCain or Spike Lee don’t want to see these films are the very reasons I love them. Both put focus on complicated subjects. Both force us to examine controversial topics in our history. I wonder, if these men went to go see the films they are bashing would they change their minds? Probably not. In art you often see what you want to see. The romantic who thinks The Graduate has a happy ending. Maybe Django does trivialize slavery, but all I see is thrilling Tarantino madness. Maybe Zero Dark Thirty does glorify torture but I don’t see it because I want to believe Bigelow doesn’t feel that way. Preconceived notions are a powerful thing. I’ve succumbed to them too. They’re probably the reason I’ve never enjoyed a Happy Madison production.