Two of Hollywood's heavyweight directors are slugging it out for the prestigious best film award at the annual Academy Awards ceremony. The favourite is Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. Also in contention is Django Unchained, the latest offering from Quentin Tarantino.
Both films tackle the sensitive subject of slavery and have attracted considerable critical attention.
Tarantino has divided opinion ever since he exploded onto our screens with films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the 1990s. But recently he has been attacked for his approach to race, notably by black director Spike Lee. Having previously criticised Tarantino's repeated use of the "n" word in various films, Lee denounced Django Unchained for trivialising the experience of black people. He described it as "an insult to my ancestors" and urged people to boycott it.
Lee's comments echo a wider black nationalist message about what has been termed "white privilege". In essence, it is argued that because white people are supposedly the beneficiaries of racism, they cannot really understand and consistently challenge it. For his critics therefore, Tarantino is simply an opportunist who uses black people to boost his street cred and whose use of the "n" word reflects his lack of sensitivity.
Though I admire Lee's films, I cannot agree with him. Tarantino's approach is rarely subtle, and a spaghetti western is hardly the genre for sensitive storytelling. But it is crystal clear in Django Unchained where his sympathies lie. A scene in which a gang of hooded racists gather to confront Django and his mentor King Schultz is hilarious. Tarantino also shows us the sheer brutality of slavery. We see the manacling, whipping, sexual exploitation and finally the callous slaughter of those who are no longer profitable.
In another key scene, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a grotesque plantation owner called Calvin Candie, delivers a verbose diatribe which exposes the scientific racism that was used to justify slavery. But even here things are not quite so simple. Nobody is more suppliant than Stephen, Candie's old house slave, played brilliantly by Samuel L Jackson. His loyalty is unconditional - but he's not stupid. Finally, of course, the unchained Django, who bristles during Candie's racist rant, emerges triumphantly as a fighter who delivers payback in cold blood.
Spielberg is a far less divisive figure than Tarantino. Though best known for blockbusters such as ET and Jurassic Park, he has made two previous films that tackle slavery: The Color Purple and Amistad. This has not spared him from the criticism that he focuses more upon the moral and spiritual growth of white people rather than black experience.
Lincoln is clearly well researched and includes a characteristically compelling performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role. Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln as a man ravaged physically and mentally by the pressures of the presidency. The call of history hangs heavy on his shoulders.
The acting by a huge cast is impressive, but the strength of these performances serves to highlight the problem with this film. It focuses on a few weeks in 1865, when Lincoln campaigned to pass legislation through Congress. This intense concentration on the president reinforces previous criticisms that Spielberg promotes the view that it is primarily the actions of great white men that change history.
As writers such as CLR James have demonstrated, however, the history of slavery was littered with resistance by black slaves. In the US, the decisive struggle began in 1861, three years after the demise of the fictitious slaveowner in Django Unchained.
Far from being apathetic and servile, African-Americans realised what was at stake during the civil war. Slave labour had been the source of capitalism's original breakthrough in the US. Indeed, an exposure of the profit motive at the heart of this trade in humans is another of the great strengths of Tarantino's film. Slavery remained the dominant form of capitalism in the Southern states, but as the 19th century progressed it was superseded by the industrial capitalism of the North based on wage labour. This led to a bitter struggle which resulted in the secession of the 11 states that formed the Confederacy triggering the war.
The trickle of those slaves who had managed to escape north became a flood. Over 186,000 fought on the Northern side, many of them arriving straight from the plantations. It was in those circumstances and for these reasons that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 outlawing slavery. The 13th Amendment subsequently enshrined abolition in the Constitution.
Despite skilfully portraying the political intrigue of the congressional struggle Lincoln it is largely stripped from the broader context. There is just one exchange between Lincoln and a pair of black soldiers at the outset and a brief discussion with his wife's assistant about the sacrifices made by her "people" and their hopes for the future.
Both these films are worth seeing. Given its subject matter and narrow focus, Lincoln may be the more authentic, but Django Unchained is undoubtedly more fun.