Sunday, 27 January 2013

Les Miserables, Django Unchained and Spielberg's Lincoln all use and explore slavery. Why?

Les Miserables
Hugh Jackman plays prisoner 24601 who experiences nineteen years of punishment as a slave.

Django Unchained
Jamie Foxx plays a freed slave (Django) who is travelling with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz)  to free his wife from a plantation which partakes in negro slavery. 

Abraham Lincoln
Daniel Day Lewis plays the historically prominent American president Abraham Lincoln who fights against slavery.

Before we delve into the shared theme of slavery in this years top 3 films, we must note that the stories in these films are based upon late 18th/ 19th century France (for Les Miserables) and America (for the other two). This period of human history witnessed the eclipse of slavery, the French revolution in 1848 and the thirteenth amendment installed by Lincoln around 1863 shut the doors on involuntary servitude.

After these revolutions, slavery still existed as a punishment for certain injustices but the idea of trafficking humans for free labor was seen as completely immoral and inhumane. The western world witnessed a major cultural shift in moral values. The freedom to govern oneself was legally and politically seen as an increasingly important principle in society. Racism, however, did not die out in America and many segregations formed.

We must also note that slavery is depicted slightly differently in each film.  In Les Miserables it is shown in the opening scene and we are then introduced to 24601 (Jean Valjean) as a slave and convict. We witness him and many other prisoners who look exhausted, emotionally destroyed and hopeless partake in a monumental task. Slavery is portrayed as a punishment here, but it is still a cruel and life destroying process. Jean Valjean escapes his parole and stumbles upon a church where he comes to question his identity and then emancipates himself from his slave/convict past.

His unchaining from his past originated from introspection, ignited by a saint like gesture from a priest who treated Jean as an equal human being. Jean Valjean became determined to become something more, to become a better and humble man. The score and the singing create a great sense of pathos towards Jean Valjean and this plays a vital role in the relationship between him and the audience: throughout the film we know his past but at the same time we feel tremendous respect and love for him as a man who chose to better himself and others.

 In Django Unchained, the main character Django has made a deal with a German bounty hunter Schulz as Django needs him to find his wife and Schulz needs him to find his bounty targets. Django is offered freedom and money.

Here slavery is seen fit for negros just because they are black, we get a strong sense that in Southern America negros are seen as inferior beings and therefore should not be granted the freedoms and respect as white Americans. We witness slavery as a cruel production line as in 'Candyland' where the slaves are treated disgustingly by the white farmer. We are reminded of the completely injustiable and cruel nature that existed in the slave trade.

However, as in Les Miserables, with great suffering and constraint there comes (after some trouble) emancipation. The motivation for Django's emancipation is love, he risks his life to become reunited with his wife. Tarantino portrays the battle between love and cruelty, which reflects that the slave traders were all wrong, negros do feel love and are human like everyone else (which is obviously true). 

In Spielberg's highly anticipated Abraham Lincoln, the main protagonist is not a slave and is far from it. He is the 16th president of the USA. This completely contrasts the other 2 films. This means we get to see the topic of slavery from a political point of view and how it became fuel for electoral campaigns and debates. We see the intelligence and the rationale of Lincoln and the story that led to the thirteenth amendment  which abolished slavery. Slavery is seen as a macroscopic trampling on the freedoms of black people and a great step towards the defeat of this destruction of freedom comes from the dedication, the moral integrity, the care for human nature and the inspirational charisma shown by the great Abraham Lincoln. 


 It might be that in this part of history lay great untold stories of love, freedom and political revolution which there seems to be (as it was an extremely important time for the West in terms of the progress of liberty). I think however, that slavery and how cruel, degrading and disgustingly tortuous it is strikes the core of our moral sentiments. We feel so strongly against inequality and oppression in our modern world as it was built upon the fight against it. The morality in our modern society has autonomy, democracy and equality at its heart and we feel such empathy for those who suffered at the hands of oppression. These films reach out for the strongest of our emotions and morals be it the hatred of cruelty, or the love and complete respect for those who help fight injustice.  The stories told in these films remind us of the power of dedication for freedom, be it the freedom to love or the freedom to become who you want to become. 

Oppression, racism, inequality and political unrest still exists in the modern world. It exists in North Korea, it exists in many countries such as Syria and Libya where rebels fight the system which has restrained their nation for too long. 

These films, using the theme of slavery, will leave you reflecting on the importance of human rights and freedoms and will encourage you to deeply consider global unrest where the freedoms of humans are in peril.

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