What I did last week was, you might say, the cinematic equivalent of what the Scandinavians supposedly love to do -- sit in a sauna until their thighs are boiled hams and their eyeballs are poached eggs, and then go dive naked into a snowbank.
It was like throwing back a big old glass of grain alcohol and chasing it with a quart of baby formula.
Now, there may be 10, or 10 million, movies out there set on the plantation in the antebellum South. But, friends, in one 24-hour period, I saw the bookend extremes of that genre. I'm still recovering from the cultural whiplash.
The first one you've probably guessed by now -- Quentin Tarantino's garish and grotesque "Django Unchained," which astoundingly received the imprimatur of greatness when it got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture last week.
And the second part of my weird double feature? It was Walt Disney's notorious "Song of the South," which, other than theme and setting, had almost nothing in common with "Django." Let's see -- they were both in English, or an approximation thereof... and, well, that's about it.
"Django" is as new as movies get right now and currently in wide release in theaters across the country. It finished second in box office receipts last week to, ahem, "Texas Chainsaw 3-D" (God love America).
By contrast, "Song of the South" is a dusty old cultural artifact from 1946 that is a rarity in this Netflix-ed culture of availability, a movie exiled from public view. It is not now, or has it ever been, available on DVD, other than cheap bootlegs, and was only released on VHS in other countries. It was re-released theatrically in the mid-1980s by Disney, but since then, it's been buried in Disney's vault where it will remain indefinitely.
The reasons why are obvious. Most famous for giving us the song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," "Song of the South" is an adaptation of the folk tales of Joel Chandler Harris, known for his "B'rer Rabbit" stories. The Disney film is full of grinning, singing Negroes on some Georgia plantation, including the chortling, kindly old Uncle Remus, the star of the movie. Watching it -- the movie can be seen in its entirety on YouTube, where I saw it -- is like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls of racist African-American stereotypes. These stereotypes are presented not with hostility but with the most overt and gloppy sentimentality you can imagine, which is just as pernicious.
On the other hand, the Tarantino film is a virtual Wagnerian opera of the "n-word," a lurid revenge fantasy featuring actual fountains of bloodshed. Tarantino's title character, played by Jamie Foxx, is as far away from Uncle Remus as Neptune is from Earth. If there is a character that even superficially resembles Remus, it's Samuel L. Jackson as the film's aged and stooped house slave Stephen, and yet the resemblance doesn't go one jot beyond their two balding gray heads. Remus is a bowl full of sugar mush; Stephen is raw meat gone slightly rancid.
I took on this curious experiment to get a sense of how movies carry and reflect cultural values far more effectively than how they portray real history, because if there's anything else that these two movies have in common is that they both have only the barest claim on historical accuracy.
Slavery in the South is, of course, America's original sin and though there are a lot of people -- both white and black -- that would dearly wish we would quit talking about it, obviously, we're still in its thrall. New Year's Day marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Oscars this year, despite "Django," is likely to be dominated by a film about Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.
Hollywood is our great engine of storytelling and though it certainly hasn't ignored the period -- what is widely considered Hollywood's single greatest movie "Gone With the Wind" is a story of the antebellum South -- we have rarely gotten a glimpse of slavery presented on the big screen with much historical fidelity. The closest we've gotten is probably "Roots," in the 1970s, which was, of course, a product of television.
The bookends of "Django Unchained" and "Song of the South" surround a genre with an enormous vacuum in the middle.
They prove that we Americans are very good at talking around a subject to avoid addressing it directly. One of the prevailing clichés of our age is the famous "elephant in the room." When it comes to slavery, we can smell the elephant, hear it, even feel its shadow. But, with notable exceptions like "Roots," we never look at it directly.
I grew up in Atlanta, the hometown of Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remus stories. As schoolchildren, we visited his home, and read the stories of B'rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. This was right around the time of "Roots," so this odd juxtaposition of two wildly varying stories of Southern slavery has an ancient precedence for me.
But I had never seen "Song of the South" before last week. And, though I may have pulled a muscle or two from wincing at the ridiculous and overcooked stereotypes, I'm glad I saw that particular tip of the elephant's tail.
Now though, it's time to turn and gaze courageously and forthrightly at the beast itself. Is there a filmmaker, preferably an African-American one, out there who can give us the story of slavery as authentically as the artificial medium of movies can deliver? Let's hope so, because the first step is getting the elephant out of your room is to look at it squarely.
Contact Wallace Baine at email@example.com.