As is often said by those in Cultural and Media Studies, films talk to each other about themselves and are mirrors for the social moment in which they were produced. While ultimately about the "now" and the "present," "historical" movies are also exercises in representing past events and the people involved with them.
For example, if you are a Black American in your thirties or forties who can trace their lineage back through to the 19th or 18th century (or before), your grandmother's grandmother was likely born a slave.
For example, reflecting on the echoes of history into the present, I came upon this letter to President Lincoln, dated August, 25, 1864, from a former Maryland slave:
It is my Desire to be free. To go to see my people on the eastern shore. My mistress wont let me.You will please let me know if we are free. And what I can do. I write to you for advice. Please send me word this week. Or as soon as possible, and oblidge.
Annie DavisThe Emancipation Proclamation was an acknowledgement of how black people had long been freeing themselves across the South, was a tactical move to further disrupt the CSA's labor supply and resource pool, was complicated in its enforcement by the border states, and while a document rooted in realpolitik, is rightly hailed for its symbolic value in a country fighting over its status as one that would be either "free" or "slave."
Spielberg's Lincoln flattens this history and denies black folks agency in our own freedom struggle. Django Unchained, while a fun exploitation film and thrilling meditation on the concept of regeneration (and masculinity) through violence--a right long denied black people in the United States against whites--focuses on the spectacular and heroic deeds of its main character Django, while ignoring the many day-to-day acts of resistance and heroism by black bondspeople across the Southern slaveocracy.
If we are to fully understand the history of slavery in the United States, it cannot be overlooked how whites lived in utter terror of black slaves because despite the former's monopoly on State violence: black bondsmen and bondswomen fought and struggled everyday against their oppression in ways small and large.
As Jelani Cobb highlights in his very good review of Django Unchained, there are so many black people who misunderstand their own history and triumph over impossible odds. They cower and hide in shame, avoiding a history that should empower them, instead holding onto the same silly myths of black passivity and Gone With the Wind white lies about happy servile slaves on yee old plantation who eat watermelon, fried chicken, sleep all day, and have fun under the kind eye of old massa:
Is this how Americans actually perceive slavery? More often than not, the answer to that question is answered in the affirmative. It is precisely because of the extant mythology of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic payload. The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality—it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter. In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.The Southern slaveocracy was a military state which ruled through terror. Its elites, as well as rank and file whites who drew their identity from American slavery and the colorline, lived in peril and fear. On one hand they were deluded into thinking their dominance natural and permanent; on the other hand they were possessed of a deep anxiety and fear that history would bring them their comeuppance. Thus, the state of utter disbelief when many thousands of black men like Django showed up in Union blue to liberate their families, and to free their people.
It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution.
The Root offers up a good entry point for reflecting on Sister Annie Davis and her personal freedom struggle. I have some other questions as well. What personal risks did she take writing this letter? How did she learn to read and what would have been the personal consequences for her safety and security had Annie Davis been found out? What happened to her after the Civil War?
In thinking through her voice, imagine what it must have been like to have to ask another person if you were free? To not "own" your own personhood? That is a barbarism and crime against humanity which the United States has never been forced to give a fair accounting of, or compensation for.
Yet, Sister Annie Davis still has the agency to send this letter and to seek guidance. She had enough of a sense of autonomy to seek advice about how she should proceed, and what she could do to better her own circumstances.
There is a powerful subtext in Annie Davis' letter.
While she was a slave, Sister Davis owned her own sense of destiny, and had some faith that the government--if not just and only Lincoln--could do some good in the world.
At present, we are a free black people in the United States, in a society where so few, of any color, are willing to take up any struggle. We live in a country where most have lost faith in governing institutions. Here, real autonomy, as well as a sense of one's control over their own destiny, has been surrendered to a sham "market democracy." Contemporary politics is a series of spectacular events where crises are manufactured in order to create a sense of urgency in the service of extreme conservatism/neoliberalism. The "fiscal cliff" is one such example of new speak and invented language that does the work of Power.
In all, the United States is a self-soothing, self-medicating society whose members confuse a choice over what type of consumer product to buy with radical and substantive democratic processes. One could take away the right to vote and there would be silence; if one took away Facebook there would be cries and fits of oppression and tyranny. The machine wins again, does it not?
What would Annie Davis, and those others who had to actively work for their freedom think of this current state of civic affairs? I do wonder.