I WAS giddy to see two movies released on Christmas Day: “Django Unchained” and “Les Misérables.” I adored director Quentin Tarantino’s earlier Jews-kill-Nazis revenge fantasy and couldn’t wait to see how he would dispatch odious slavers. I also can sing every word of “Les Misérables,” the weepy musical about the 19th-century underclass.
I was, however, startled by my gut reactions. “Django” — in which slave fighters beat each other to death for their owners’ entertainment — left me uplifted.
Meanwhile, “Les Miz” — in which a man imprisoned 19 years for stealing bread spares the life of a police officer who hounded him for decades — left me with the kind of existential dread that characterizes French literature.
Both made me grieve that nearly 200 years after the depicted events we remain so far away from our dream of égalité. While justice is ostensibly colorblind, descendants of slaves continue to face insidious cultural, societal and legal barriers to sharing in our country’s wealth of opportunities.
“Django” made me hopeful that we can stop our hand-wringing about how to be fair to the genteel Southerners of the Confederate era, who systematically dehumanized people based on the color of their skin.
Surely even our divided society can agree on certain principles. Gassing humans in the Holocaust was bad. Shackling, raping and castrating human beings during slavery was bad. But I felt no angst about applauding while Nazis and slavers get their just deserts in Tarantino’s revisionist histories.
Ironically, “Les Miz,” with its soaring vocals and redemptive message, made me lament how unjust our world remains. Author Victor Hugo was a French legislator who championed the rights of prisoners and the oppressed. If he were alive today, he’d be horrified that on these issues, the United States resembles Bourbon Restoration France far more than it does other wealthy democracies.
We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners; more than 6 million in our country are under correctional supervision. With 753 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the highest rate in our history.
Sixty percent of U.S. prisoners are nonviolent offenders, many swept up in our failed, trillion-dollar war on drugs.
The injustices of the slave era continue in our prison system. Forty percent of U.S. prisoners are African American, and the number of African-American men in prison rivals the number in college. Scholar Michelle Alexander calls this “The New Jim Crow” — our drug laws and the legal debilities that glom onto released prisoners until death.
Without a decrease in public safety, our country would save $16.9 billion per year by cutting in half the incarceration rates of nonviolent offenders. That’s why Washington’s choice to legalize recreational marijuana use promotes both fiscal prudence and social justice.
I don’t advocate emulating the orgy of violence in “Django.” Quite the contrary. An eye for an eye assures mutual destruction. In real life, I believe that movements on behalf of minorities — from voting rights to marriage equality — succeed only when the majority agrees that our community should be expanded instead of contracted.
But I felt liberated watching the violence in Tarantino’s movie. Films are contemporary fairy tales to be discussed, shared and absorbed into our collective consciousness. As author Philip Pullman has noted, fairy tales lose their power when overburdened by vacillating nuance. Heroes are valiant, witches eat children and monsters must be slain.
That’s why “Django Unchained” is a triumph. In popular culture, our revenge fantasies demonstrate that we can name and vanquish abominations. Genocide. Slavery. One day we will vanquish mass incarceration of our brothers and sisters.
In the future, a movie may depict drug offenders pulling out a spliff to light a fuse that blows up a private prison. Perhaps then we will have reached a consensus that it makes moral and economic sense to close more institutions that confine our bodies and to open more that liberate our minds.
Harold Taw is a Seattle attorney and author of “Adventures of the Karaoke King.” He is writing a musical with the leaders of Seattle band Poland and co-authoring a graphic novel.