The “Lincoln industry,” through which Abraham Lincoln has become the most-written about American, used to be confined to historians and other writers. But between the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009 and the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 2013, a period during which the nation’s first black President continuously paid homage to the sixteenth President, Lincoln has come to reign unchallenged in popular culture too, nowhere more so than in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was considered by many an Oscar favorite. Perhaps historical criticism has proven to be a kiss of death for the film’s chances.
Hollywood has long made movies about Lincoln and the Civil War, few of which have reached the blockbuster status of Mr. Spielberg’s version. Those “historical” films that became legends owed their inspiration more to contemporary prejudices than to history. The cinematically accomplished yet historically pernicious The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind seemed to vindicate Plato’s warning of the seductive power of art, a world of shadows, to obscure truth. One can only shudder at the arrival of a mini-series based on right-wing, Fox-talk-show-host Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, which is riddled with errors. Civil War historians have a love-hate relationship with movies and television series that poach on their turf. We mostly admire the path-breaking series on slavery, Roots, and the movie Glory. Despite taking some artistic license with facts, they, we all agree, served history well. On the other hand, the neo-Confederate Gods and Generals, like the cause it champions, belongs to the dustbin of history.
As a whole, history seems to lend itself better to documentary series like the American Experience on PBS. But even the much-admired Ken Burns’s The Civil War privileged the voice of southern historian Shelby Foote who romanticized the alleged military prowess of the Confederacy, making it, in my opinion, unusable in the classroom, unlike the similarly acclaimed Eyes on the Prize. Most historians of the Civil Rights movement regularly use the latter in their courses. Historical documentaries that portray their subjects in filmic fashion have a harder time passing muster. The recent series The Abolitionists¸ shown on US TV in January 2013, did an admirable job of rescuing at least the five prominent individuals it showcased from historical obscurity, but could not possibly tell the full and complex story of abolition in three short hours (I was one of the many talking heads in the series). One hears similar criticisms of Amazing Grace, the film on the abolitionist Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, made to commemorate the bicentennial of the British abolition of the African Slave Trade. Spielberg’s Lincoln, with its self-proclaimed attempt to stay true to history, belongs much more to this genre than to the Hollywood films discussed earlier, with the possible exception of Glory.
Spielberg and his scriptwriter Tony Kushner have been praised by some scholars and severely criticized by others for acts of omission and commission in the film. Kate Masur, in The New York Times, faulted the movie for its depiction of “passive” black characters while Jim Downs in The Huffington Post more implausibly called it an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of a largely enslaved people. Historians have also debated the kind of history Spielberg and Kushner have chosen to portray: a Lincoln biography providing a snapshot of his life in the months before his death, revolving around the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery, rather than a social history of emancipation that would give equal screen time to the many other actors in this historical drama, especially African Americans enslaved and free. Starting with a somewhat unlikely scene, which has a last minute “add on” feel to it, of Lincoln talking with black Union soldiers, one enslaved and the other an articulate free black man, the movie portrays African Americans, especially those in Lincoln’s personal life, his valet William Slade and his wife’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, in a nuanced and complex fashion. The problem with Spielberg’s Lincoln is not that it portrays “passive” black characters but that it presents all its characters, including Lincoln himself, completely devoid of their proper historical context: the abolitionist activism of which they were a part. The opening scene with the black soldiers, for instance, ends with one reciting the Gettysburg Address. This presents Lincoln as the prime mover of emancipation instead of, as Frederick Douglass put it, a man at the head of a great antislavery movement that included the enslaved, abolitionists, and Radical Republicans in Congress. Like most moderate antislavery Republicans, Lincoln came late to emancipation, prodded and pushed by members of his own party and abolitionists outside the halls of political power.
Historians accuse Spielberg of reinforcing the mythic ‘great man’ version of history instead of uncovering the complex history of emancipation, which is now understood as having been initiated by the flight of slaves to Union Army lines at the very start of the war. Quite deliberately, Spielberg decided to focus on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime. By doing so, he showcases Lincoln at his best, at a point when he had already become the heroic Great Emancipator, rather than the conservative, hesitant Lincoln of the pre-war and early war years. If he had chosen to focus on the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln called the central act of his administration, Spielberg would have had a better shot at telling a more compelling story about emancipation and Lincoln. The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by a lame-duck Congress in January 1865 was something of a non-event, as Eric Foner has noted. Everyone knew that the newly elected Republican super-majority in the Congress which would begin sitting in March 1865, would pass the amendment a few months later by the constitutionally required two-thirds vote if it was defeated at the moment the film portrays. Kushner adds salt to the wound by incorrectly showing two fictitious Connecticut representatives voting against the amendment when their historical counterparts, one an antislavery Republican, the other a War Democrat—a supporter of the North in the Civil War–voted for it.
This is not to detract from the importance of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, an idea that abolitionists had first proposed, but the do-or-die scenario presented by Spielberg is implausible, and Kushner’s suspenseful voting scenes simply false. It is also true that Lincoln, his cabinet, and Congressional Republicans moved heaven and earth to secure the passage of the amendment, a political lesson perhaps for modern day Republicans, who have avidly adopted the role of the racist Democratic obstructionists in Congress in 1865 portrayed so well in the movie. Historically however the story does not hold much water. Even on Spielberg-Kushner terms, a more dramatic and accurate telling of the origins of the Thirteenth Amendment would have shown the abolitionist petitions for emancipation and the amendment to Congress. One such petition, initiated by the abolitionist National Woman’s Loyal League led by Susan B. Anthony, was so long that it had to be unfurled by Congressional pages. Now that would have made for a dramatic representation in the movie. But sans abolition and free black activism, women are mainly housewives and housekeepers, while African Americans, with the exception of a few arresting scenes with black Union soldiers, domestic servants. The slaves are represented as merely an essential moral prop for Lincoln’s decision rather than as architects of their own liberation.
In fact, shorn of the historical context of slavery and antislavery, Spielberg’s Lincoln is also less interesting. Lincoln’s greatness lay not in some innate God-given virtue but in his ability, as the leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said, to grow in office, especially on the question of abolition and black rights. In the 1850s, Lincoln went from supporting the Fugitive Slave Law to denouncing the Dred Scott decision, although both were based on the premise that African Americans were non-citizens. During the war, Lincoln went from a policy of opposing any extension of slavery into ‘free states’ to declaring slavery’s abolition; from gradualism and compensating slaveholders to immediate military emancipation; from the idea of ‘colonizing’ black people out of the country by sending them to Central America or Haiti to endorsing partial black suffrage. Not only do we miss Lincoln’s changing views on slavery but also the fact that he would become the first President of the United States to endorse black citizenship after explicitly disavowing any such intention during his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, the northern Democratic candidate for President in the 1860 election, when both were running for the Senate in 1858. When Lincoln recommended voting rights for black soldiers and the educated in his last speech from the balcony of the White House in April 1865, his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was in the crowd below, reportedly said, “That means nigger citizenship. That will be the last speech he will ever make.” Booth shot Lincoln the next day at Ford’s theatre. Would that scene have been a better tribute to the historical legacy of the slain President than the inaccurate Christ-like half-clad body of the dead Lincoln sure to pull at the heartstrings of audiences? To give Spielberg his due, he did recapitulate Lincoln’s greatest speech, the Second Inaugural Address, when Lincoln evoked the “unrequited toil” of generations of slaves and equated the blood drawn from their backs by whippings with the blood drawn by the sword in the war as God’s judgment on a guilty nation. But the abolitionist content of that speech was lost on the audience, delivered as it was in Daniel Day-Lewis’ pitch-perfect mimicry of Lincoln’s high voice. If the words had been boldly displayed on the screen instead they would have been more effective in driving its message home. Spielberg’s Lincoln then does a superb job of getting the small things right, in portraying both people and scenes from the Civil War era, but in some cases ironically even that does a disservice to the historical significance of its subject.
Responses to the film’s historical critics have argued that historians have failed to engage the film on its own terms, that they have sought stories that Spielberg and Kushner have chosen not to tell. But given that Spielberg wants to distribute DVDs of his movie gratis to schools all over the United States, historians must become film critics. Even if we do not take Spielberg and Kushner to task for excluding or relegating to minor roles the people at the forefront of emancipation – slaves, free blacks, and abolitionists – we can certainly fault them for their assessment of the main subject of their film. It is quite clear that they are both enamored of Lincoln’s “moderation”. The movie abounds with scenes highlighting the President’s statesmanship vis-a-vis Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. In probably the most absurd scene in the movie, Mary Todd Lincoln snarkily reminds Stevens that her husband is more popular than he. In fact, the Radical leader Sumner was a close friend of the Lincolns, and especially of the isolated First Lady, and Lincoln said admiringly of the Massachusetts Senator that he was just a month to six weeks behind “the Sumner lighthouse.” In another scene between Lincoln and Stevens, Lincoln is portrayed as the far-sighted politician and Stevens as the short-sighted radical. In fact, Radical Republicans like Sumner and Stevens were not only far ahead of Lincoln on abolition and racial equality but pressured him to take the most momentous and consequential decisions of his Presidency. In short, Lincoln’s moderation was not some wise plan to mature public opinion on emancipation, but part of the political inertia that African Americans and abolitionists had to combat.
But then Steven Spielberg does not care too much for radical abolitionists. This was apparent in his movie about the shipboard slave rebellion, Amistad, which portrayed white abolitionists who took up the cause of the slave rebels in an unflattering manner. That film also invented a fictitious black abolitionist from whole cloth when the real-life historical figure of Reverend James W.C. Pennington of Hartford was readily available. In Lincoln the absence of abolitionists like Douglass, Anthony, Wendell Phillips, who addressed Congress and met Lincoln, the popular war-time orator Anna Dickinson, and Garrison, whom Lincoln credited with starting the movement for abolition and personally invited to the flag-raising ceremony at Fort Sumter to mark the end of the war, is all the more glaring when small-time politicians are given starring roles. Even Stevens’s commitment to racial equality is shown springing from the bedroom rather than from his long history of defending fugitive slaves in the courtroom and involvement in the abolition movement. Most egregious is the movie’s implicit suggestion that had the “moderate” Lincoln lived he would saved the white south from the wrath of Radical Republicans during Reconstruction, an idea that Kushner brazenly went public with in an interview on National Public Radio. Here, he is peddling a long-discredited interpretation of Reconstruction as northern vengeance on the prostrate white south, which at this time was busily forming the Ku Klux Klan and perfecting the art of inflicting mass terror on black people. In fact, Reconstruction was a bold experiment in black citizenship and interracial democracy. Indeed, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which established black civic and political equality, were even more historic than the Thirteenth, which made emancipation permanent and irreversible. It is also highly doubtful, given Lincoln’s last words on African American military service and black citizenship, that he would have acquiesced in “home rule” for southern whites or lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement that made a mockery of black freedom.
Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln thus gives us a mythic rather than a historical Lincoln, a serviceable political-cum-morality tale rather than a complex historical story, and in the end, a progressive, liberal, Whiggish, story of black freedom. It may have its heart in the right place, but its historical instincts are all wrong. In an odd sort of way, I enjoyed watching Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which makes no pretense of being historically accurate but manages to capture the horror of slavery, more than Lincoln. There is a reason why the NAACP honored the actors of Django and not those in Lincoln with its Image Awards. A little known fact revealed at that awards ceremony is that Kerry Washington, who played Brunhilde, the damsel-in-distress character in Django Unchained, insisted on getting whipped to “honor her ancestors.” The film did not bother developing a full blown portrait of slave labor but it did showcase the brutal commodification of black bodies that made possible the rise of the world market and early capitalism. As far as many black people are concerned, pace Spike Lee, Django gets the Oscars.