More so than any film, actor, director or other Hollywood hotshot, it was Uncle Sam who was the big winner at this year’s Academy Awards. Maybe not from the standpoint of a tangible Oscar tally, but certainly thematically speaking: 2012’s cinematic stock pulled copiously from the USA’s historical archive, with four of the year’s 10 Best Picture nominees — Argo, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln — splashing the nation’s backstory on the silver screen. However, Django and Lincoln, their distinguished Oscar wins aside (Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay for Django, Best Actor for Lincoln), stand out in that they broach the subject of slavery, attacking the dark stain in America’s fabric in a vastly contrasting, yet at times remarkably parallel, fashion.

Lincoln, first and foremost, is the chronicle of a president determined to pass the 13th Amendment before the end of the Civil War, portraying the film’s protagonist — none other than Abraham Lincoln (a brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis) — as the principal author of the leviathan, slavery-abolishing piece of legislation. And if he’s the chief architect, the Democrats in the House of Representatives are like the demolition team wielding a political wrecking ball, hoping to raze this legislative skyscraper to the ground. The biopic offers an intimate view of the machinations at work in the Congressional halls and White House chambers of the era, as Republicans — the progressive party at the time — both radical and moderate deliberate how to subvert the Democratic stranglehold on the House. It turns out Honest Abe doesn’t quite hold truth or integrity to the highest of standards, either, when it comes to securing the necessary majority for the amendment’s passage (let’s just say patronage and other methods of vote buying are not above a president “clothed in immense power”), which is reflective of director Steven Spielberg’s desire to bring a “multifaceted” persona to his main character.

“I wanted to tell a story about Lincoln that would avoid the mistakes of both cynicism and hero worship and be true to the vastness of who he was and the intimacy of his life and the softer angles of his nature,” Spielberg describes in the film’s production notes.

Overall, Lincoln is a visually somber (courtesy of darkly lit rooms and dreary panoramas), action-starved, morally aware and highly philosophical production that has the institution of slavery at its core — familiar territory for Spielberg, who’s worked on other such racially saturated masterworks as The Color Purple and Amistad.

On the surface, Django Unchained is a total about-face from the politically theorizing Lincoln. Whereas in the latter, the only risk of injury was the sting of a congressional opponent’s swift verbal rebuke, Django is a gut-punching bloodbath. A spaghetti Western — a sub-genre also known as Italian Western, reminiscent of past greats such as director Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the UglyDjango draws from Sergio Corbucci’s 1965 film of the same name starring Franco Nero (who cameos in Quentin Tarantino’s revamp), although the narrative varies from its progenitor. However, because the action takes place predominantly in the Deep South two years before the Civil War, the flick is an unconventional fusion of sorts, meshing a classic gun-slinging saga into an overtly racial context.

“It can’t be more nightmarish than it was in real life. It can’t be more surrealistic than it was in real life. It can’t be more outrageous than it was in real life,” Tarantino explains in the movie’s production notes. “It’s unimaginable to think of the pain and the suffering that went on in this country, making it perfect for a Spaghetti Western interpretation. The reality fits into the biggest canvas that you could think of for this story.”

The Western genre’s structure and characteristics lend themselves perfectly to a tale such as Django’s, rife with sinister characters, dark tones, moral complexity and justice-serving mentality. It’s a gruesome, violent quest for revenge, as freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx), aided by German-born Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) — a dentist turned bounty hunter as well as Django’s liberator, mentor and eventual partner — sets out to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the ownership of eccentric slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). In the classic Western mold, there are the requisite majestic sceneries as our heroes traverse vast territories on horseback, as well as an abundance of shoot-outs, with gore to boot. (Indeed, bodies pop like overripe tomatoes and plantation walls are left looking like a Jackson Pollack canvas. Knowing director Tarantino’s gravitation toward the sanguinary — Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs being a few examples — this shouldn’t raise any eyebrows… maybe only induce slight nausea.)

In emotionally charged and dramatic oeuvres such as Lincoln and Django, it can be difficult to separate fact from falsehood and blurred truth. Lincoln’s solemnity and Day-Lewis’ spot-on incarnation of America’s 16th president seemingly give the movie more credence as history than Django, whose screenplay has a flair for the comically absurd (members of a lynch mob bickering at length about the eyeholes in their masks is a laugh-out-loud case in point). However, the encyclopedic appearance of Lincoln disguises its glaring inaccuracies.

“Both [movies] have insights into history but neither is history — both are historical fiction,” explains Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and author of, among numerous books chronicling the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. “Both are fantasies of a Great Emancipator — white in the case of Lincoln, black in the case of Django. In neither do the slaves as a group have anything to do with their own emancipation.”

The presentation of Django as a Great Emancipator isn’t damaging, historically speaking, because the audience is aware of the narrative’s fictionalization; Django’s quest isn’t inked in the pages of any history book. However, that Lincoln is such an emancipating figure is a detrimental manipulation of facts, as it skews viewers’ perception of what transpired in the drafting of a hallmark piece of legislation. The suggestion that the amendment was Lincoln’s brainchild omits a major piece of the puzzle and as such is an overly simplistic portrayal.

“Within abolitionist and reform circles, the notion of emancipation was already talked about before Lincoln and Radical Republicans,” says Jim Downs, author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction and an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. “The problem with the film is it creates this notion that it was just Lincoln’s idea or that it was just Thaddeus Stevens [Tommy Lee Jones] and that it’s not coming from the ground, coming from both radical abolitionists and reformers.”

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