Oscar weekend gives me an excuse to go back and comment on Stephen Spielberg’s film Lincoln, which I thoroughly enjoyed but which is being roundly trashed by liberals throughout social media. The complaint is that it shows a distorted picture of the ending of slavery by depicting Lincoln as a “white savior” while leaving out the role played by African Americans in ending slavery.
And I say this is not a valid criticism. Let me explain why. But let me start by explaining why historical films usually annoy me.
As a history buff I often am frustrated by historical films, because the stories they tell are never as fascinating as What Really Happened. But to fit some sweeping historical narrative into a standard feature film running time, important details and significant characters are cut, and then plot twists that didn’t happen must be added to make the story “work.” As a writer I appreciate why the script writers have to do this, but I still don’t like it.
Spielberg’s Lincoln doesn’t try to tell a big, sweeping story, but instead focuses tightly on events that took place in the last days of Lincoln’s life, as his attention was focused on getting the 13th Amendment through Congress before the Confederacy collapsed and the Civil War ended. This focus enabled Spielberg to create a detailed and intimate portrait of Lincoln, not as a plaster icon but as a man who made under-the-table deals, told bawdy stories, and argued with his wife. Daniel-Day Lewis embodied this role nicely. Even the high-pitched voice was true to how contemporaries described Lincoln’s voice. I don’t believe the accent was quite right, but that’s a minor quibble.
Many people, many liberals, are slamming Lincoln for telling a distorted story of how slavery ended. Pay attention:
This is not a film about how slavery ended. I repeat, this is not a film about how slavery ended. It is a film about the last days of Abraham Lincoln. Attention is focused on the 13th Amendment because that is, in fact what Lincoln was most focused on in the last days of his life. Attention is focused on the machinations to pass the amendment in the House because it was what was happening in the last days of Lincoln’s life, and this also provided the most dramatic tension in the film. It also provides a lot of relevance to our current political, um, situation.
In one especially annoying criticism, a historian named Jon Weiner wrote,
The end of slavery did not come because Lincoln and the House of Representatives voted for the Thirteenth Amendment.
The best work I know about the end of slavery is Eric Foner’s unforgettable book The Fiery Trial: Lincoln and American Slavery, published in 2010, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. Foner and many other historians over the last couple of decades have emphasized the central role played by the slaves themselves, who are virtually invisible in this movie. During the three weeks that the movie deals with, Sherman’s army was marching through South Carolina, where slaves were seizing plantations. They were dividing up land among themselves. They were seizing their freedom. Slavery was dying on the ground, not just in the House of Representatives. You get no sense of that in the movie.
If this were a film about how slavery ended, that might be a legitimate criticism. But it isn’t a film about how slavery ended, so it isn’t.
And I say “might,” because what the former enslaved persons were doing in South Carolina didn’t end slavery, either. Not by itself. After the war, after Reconstruction sputtered to a halt, the old plantation class got their land and power back, and the former enslaved persons became their sharecroppers. Were it not for the 13th Amendment, no doubt the former enslaved persons of South Carolina would have been returned to slavery eventually, at least for a while. That’s the truth of it.
If you wanted to make a film about how slavery ended, you’d have to go back several decades, at least to Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, if not earlier. And you’d have to talk about Dred Scott, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and a host of people who did a great many significant things over a period of more than 40 years. I imagine this film as something like John Ford’s How the West Was Won, except with black actors. They could get Halle Berry for the Debbie Reynolds role.
Speaking of Frederick Douglass, I’ve seen people gripe because Frederick Douglass wasn’t in the film. That may be because he wasn’t anywhere around Lincoln in the last days of Lincoln’s life, and to write him in as a token seems to me to be gratuitous. And Douglass might object, anyway, since he had supported another candidate in the 1864 elections and had expressed disappointment when Lincoln won a second term. People, did you expect Douglass to be the Magic Negro and mysteriously appear to give Lincoln wise counsel, or what? Talk about cliches …
People who are slamming Spielberg for not including more African-American roles don’t appreciate that wherever Spielberg did go over the limits of What Actually Happened, he did it to include more African-American roles. At the beginning, the President of the United States was chatting casually with two African-American soldiers, one of whom was complaining about not getting equal pay. Very unlikely that could have happened, ever, in 1865. Mary Lincoln’s (Sally Field) African-American seamstress and confidant Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) was written into as many scenes as Spielberg could squeeze her into, including a scene in which Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley were in the House gallery, which didn’t happen. At the end of the film, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, who really does deserve an Oscar) is in bed with his mulatto housekeeper and alleged love of his life, Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). I’ve long believed that relationship was a settled historical fact, but now I’m reading there’s no concrete proof of it. So there’s another fudge.
People complain that it’s mostly a film showing white people doing stuff, but the fact is that in 1865 pretty much only white people were allowed to do stuff. Again, that’s the truth of it. This is a bit like the complaints that none of the soldiers storming Normandy Beach in Saving Private Ryan were African American. But the army was segregated then, so that’s pretty much how it was.
I saw one gripe that the film didn’t include anything about suffrage. That’s because the President who supported the 15th Amendment and got it into the Constitution was Ulysses S. Grant, not Abraham Lincoln. We don’t know for sure if Lincoln would have supported the 15th Amendment, had he lived.
Instead of making some big, sweeping, fuzzy, not-really-what-happened film to tell a story about the ending of slavery, Spielberg was giving us an intimate glimpse into the last days of Lincoln’s life. And of course, this can never be perfect, because we’re always going to project our own ideas onto the fading story of What Really Happened.
But except where he was fudging a bit to fill in historical blanks or get more African-American actors into the film, Spielberg was true to small details in ways that are almost unheard of in a historical film. So instead of being constantly jarred by characters and plot twists that didn’t match what I know to have Actually Happened, I found myself recognizing little details that made the story very real. We even get a quick glimpse of the Native American (Seneca, to be precise) officer on General Grant’s staff at Appomattox. Did you notice that? Yes, that is What Actually Happened. I wanted to cheer.