The Demon of Slavery: Fantasy and Historical Truth in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Adam Thomas, Ohio State University
2012 witnessed the release of two much anticipated Hollywood treatments of U.S. history: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Tony Kushner’s script drew plaudits for creating a believable nineteenth-century world in Lincoln, but scholars pointed to the disproportionate emphasis the film placed on white politicians, rather than enslaved people themselves, as agents of emancipation. Many noted the irony when Kushner spoke in an interview of “untellable human suffering”—rather than black lives under slavery, he referred to Confederate experiences of Reconstruction. Tarantino explicitly claimed for his work the mantle of authenticity that critics bestowed on Kushner: “violence on slaves,” he stated, “hasn't been dealt with to the extent that I've dealt with it.” Yet in Django Unchained, black suffering is not just told but fetishized, rendered so overwhelming that only the lead character is able to challenge his enslavers. Jelani Cobb noted that with few exceptions, the enslaved in both movies appear as “ciphers passively awaiting freedom.”

Another 2012 film garnered less critical attention. Debating the accuracy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was unnecessary—the clue was in the title. Yet it is precisely its supernatural elements, this paper argues, that allow the movie to offer a compelling reading of slavery—one arguably more truthful than its more celebrated counterparts. The metaphor of vampirism evokes the physical destruction slavery entailed, recalling British abolitionists’ claims that sugar consumers sweetened tea with the blood of slaves. With slaveholders epitomizing harbingers of death, distinctions between resistance and survival are blurred. Rebellion and suffering appear not as exceptional or peripheral, but human. The paper concludes by asking what it means for contemporary understandings of ongoing black freedom struggles that popular memory must enter the realm of fantasy to convey what is otherwise truly untellable: black people’s roles in their own emancipation.

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