Defending “Lincoln”

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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.

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27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 23, 2013 @1:26 pm

    I haven’t seen “Lincoln” yet, but people need to remember that it was based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” and not some book from a parallel universe, called “Team in Desegregationists.”

    Ms. Goodwin is a popular historian, and a damn good one, and stuck closely to Lincoln and what he did and didn’t do – she didn’t try to cast too big a net and try to capture the entire Civil War, or even the end of it.
    It was a wondeful read, and detailed – but not overly so. She’s more in the school of Shelby Foote, than Bruce Catton. In other words, more of a novelist, than a military historian.

    I’ll have to check out that book by Eric Foner though, it sounds very interesting.

  2. paradoctor  •  Feb 23, 2013 @4:04 pm

    Another factor in the abolition of slavery; the invention of the steam engine, and the consequent obsolescence of human muscle power.

  3. Swami  •  Feb 23, 2013 @4:29 pm

    Sometimes I think slavery hasn’t really ended…I think maybe it just put on a new face by changing some of the particulars and incorporating all races. I know economic bondage and slavery aren’t the same thing, but there is a very close similarity in a lot of respects.

    Massa done gived me an Earned Income Credit! Swing low sweet chariot…comin’ fore to carry me home.

  4. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 23, 2013 @4:51 pm

    paradoctor,
    Which was ironic, because it was the invention of the cotton gin that kept slavery very profitable long after it would have been, had it not been invented.

    I remember reading a book about that, oh, about 30 years ago.

  5. Lynne  •  Feb 23, 2013 @8:11 pm

    And the boll weevil, which ended the growing of cotton in large portions of the deep South. I once had a very interesting discussion with a southern landowner in Georgia, whose family farm turned to cattle raising as a result.

  6. Paraquat  •  Feb 23, 2013 @8:51 pm

    I asked a friend to see if she could find the DVD and she came back with “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” Since we had it we watched it, but let me just say that it wasn’t exactly my idea of a great historical film.

  7. AMS  •  Feb 23, 2013 @10:32 pm

    How The West Was Won had three directors for different segments if the story.
    John Ford (segment “The Civil War”)
    Henry Hathaway (segments “The Rivers”, “The Plains”, “The Outlaws”)
    George Marshall (segment “The Railroad”)

    John Ford’s was the shortest contribution.

  8. erinyes  •  Feb 24, 2013 @6:57 am

    “historical films usually annoy me”
    I know what you mean. The Film “Men of Honor” annoyed the hell out of me.
    My old business partner in Los Angeles, a former L.A. County Lifeguard, had a real problem with “Bay Watch”. Part of the power trip in “Hollywood” is being a “creator”, but if the film ain’t fun and over the top, the profits aren’t there.

  9. c u n d gulag  •  Feb 24, 2013 @7:41 am

    “…but if the film ain’t fun and over the top, the profits aren’t there.”

    erinyes,
    I think a lot of that’s due to the special effects craze of the last 30-40+ years.

    Hollywood told some great stories pre “2001 – A Space Oddessy,” and then”Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
    Ever since then, it’s seems like it’s harder and harder to find a movie without out-sized characters, and chase scenes, and special effects.
    And, yeah, I know, “Metropolis,” one of the greatest special effects film of all time, was made in 1927, but Hollywood didn’t follow that up with “Gone With the Solar Wind: Scarlett and Rhett, and the Civil War in Space.” ;-)
    Special effects were part of the story, or used to enhance the story – now, it seems like half the time, they ARE the story.

    I guess I’m getting old.
    Hey you kids – GET OFF MY DAMN LAWN!!!” :-)

  10. maha  •  Feb 24, 2013 @9:16 am

    How The West Was Won had three directors for different segments if the story.

    One of the reasons it’s such a dippy movie. The Civil War segment is the least objectionable, IMO.

  11. maha  •  Feb 24, 2013 @9:19 am

    but if the film ain’t fun and over the top, the profits aren’t there.

    Lincoln has done pretty well, I believe. Another recent historical film I really liked was Young Victoria, which is a great chick flick. Highly recommended. It’s accurate as far as I know, but I don’t know British history as well as American history, so a Brit might disagree.

  12. gene108  •  Feb 24, 2013 @10:07 am

    I don’t get the beef with the movie. It was riveting. It was well done. It was like a window into the past.

    There really is a class of liberals, who want to be “know-it-alls” first and then stick to actually trying to advance a political agenda or in this case enjoy a very well done movie.

    Maybe we should strip Lincoln of the epitaph, “The Great Emancipator” because he only abolished the legal framework upon, which slavery was allowed in the U.S. and sent Sherman through the South, which gave some level of military protection for slaves to start dividing up plantations.

    Even though Sherman wasn’t leaving troops back to protect former slaves, Sherman sucked away white Southern military muscle from defending plantations or else the 1860′s revolts probably wouldn’t have fared better than Turner’s revolt. When white southerners got their fighting men back, they took back whatever gains blacks made at the point of a gun. Hell, the elected government of Wilmington North Carolina was overthrown by insurrection in 1898.

    The only real question about Lincoln is how Reconstruction would’ve gone, if he hadn’t been assassinated.

    <blockquote cite="Another factor in the abolition of slavery; the invention of the steam engine, and the consequent obsolescence of human muscle power."

    I disagree. It wasn’t until 2-3 decades later that steam engines became economical enough and efficient enough to start effectively replacing human muscle in a lot of activities.

    From canal digging, to laying railroad tracks, to digging tunnels and mines, human muscle was still ahead of steam engines for at least a generation after the Civil War.

    The legend of John Henry is about a man beating a steam engine in tunnel digging in the late 19th century.

    The real irony about the Civil War is the South fought to protect slavery, but they sped up its abolition by starting the war.

  13. Bill Bush  •  Feb 24, 2013 @10:27 am

    I enjoyed the film and thought it avoided the frequent flaw of historical drama, which is turning into a poorly focused wideangle shot of everything and nothing at the same time.

  14. Pat  •  Feb 24, 2013 @2:46 pm

    Doesn’t everything you’re intimate with lokk like a cheap knockoff in a movie? …sort of dumbed down? I’m particularly amused at depictions of stereotypical surfers and southerners. Good poit made and there should be a corrollary–that just because one views any movie which touches upon history does not mean you understand the history.

  15. erinyes  •  Feb 24, 2013 @3:03 pm

    Gulag;
    My wife and I were at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood to see “Star Wars” the 1st week it opened. Just being at that theater was almost fun as the film. The line was backed up around the block. Just too kewl! Nobody left their seats until the credits were over.Then came the thunderous applause.
    Hooray for Hollywood!

  16. erinyes  •  Feb 24, 2013 @4:30 pm
  17. Spartacus  •  Feb 24, 2013 @5:20 pm

    “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.”

    Although I haven’t seen film, I have read reports about Spielberg’s fidelity to minor historical details. I’ve also heard that the film completely fabricates the conduct of the Connecticut delegation in passing the 13th Amendment. If that’s true, then I don’t understand the purpose of being so particular about minor, inconsequential details that no one could easily verify while, at the same time, getting something major like the CT delegation’s role so wrong.

  18. maha  •  Feb 24, 2013 @9:52 pm

    I’ve also heard that the film completely fabricates the conduct of the Connecticut delegation in passing the 13th Amendment

    Here is the scripwriter’s response to that.

  19. joanr16  •  Feb 25, 2013 @9:52 am

    This sort of criticism falls into the category-of-error of requiring any one story to tell all related stories at the same time. That’s not how storytelling works, of course, but then critics often are critics because they can’t do anything else.

  20. Spartacus  •  Feb 26, 2013 @1:35 am

    ” That’s not how storytelling works, of course, but then critics often are critics because they can’t do anything else.”

    I have no problem at all with the filmmakers taking creative license to fictionalize historical events. I do, however, find it ironic that Spielberg would go to great lengths to get minor, completely inconspicuous details like background props historically accurate while choosing to fabricate a significant plot point. There was no need to blame the close vote on the CT delegation; the vote was close in real life as a result of other states’ reluctance to support the 13th Amendment.

  21. maha  •  Feb 26, 2013 @8:00 am

    I do, however, find it ironic that Spielberg would go to great lengths to get minor, completely inconspicuous details like background props historically accurate while choosing to fabricate a significant plot point.

    That’s a point, although the scriptwriters thought it was necessary to add more tension to the plot. So you can go argue with them, if you like. However, some of us really, really, really enjoyed the “inconspicuous details,” because if you’re an aficionado of the period you know about them and expect to see them.

  22. joanr16  •  Feb 26, 2013 @9:59 am

    Spartacus, that’s Kushner’s choice, not Spielberg’s, which Kushner addresses in the link maha provided:

    The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is. I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.

    The link also explains that the manufactured outrage interestingly enough comes from a CT politician who received financial support from an Oscar rival of the Spielberg-Kushner team, Ben Affleck. (Ben won that round, anyway.)

    None of that had anything to do with my original comment, anyway. Critics frequently complain that creative work doesn’t address this-or-that aspect of its subject matter, some pet peeve of the critic’s; in which case, those critics should pick up pens or paintbrushes and do their own thing, and good luck with it.

  23. maha  •  Feb 26, 2013 @11:22 am

    joan — exactly. And it IS a historical drama, not a documentary. It’s just not a historical drama about how slavery ended, but about the last days of Lincoln’s life.

  24. BlueMoon  •  Feb 26, 2013 @6:15 pm

    My comment may be coming from outta left field, but I think the underlying issue is the role of media. Regardless of which details were left out of a film, history is still history. A historical drama is really just a distortion (with snacks if you see it in a theater).

    While I understand the claim that Douglass wasn’t around when Lincoln was shot, I do think it would’ve been something to see if he had been in that film. Steven Spielberg is such a fine, sensitive director, he could have portrayed Douglass as he really was: a statesman, and certainly not a “magical negro.”

    Many historical dramas came under attack this year. The situation has really got me wondering why we place so much emphasis on the accuracy of these films. I admit the inaccuracy annoys the daylights out of me, too. Hmmmm….

  25. maha  •  Feb 26, 2013 @7:29 pm

    While I understand the claim that Douglass wasn’t around when Lincoln was shot, I do think it would’ve been something to see if he had been in that film.

    Whatever he was doing at the time, he wasn’t part of the story that was being told. Writing him in just for the sake of writing him in would have been gratuitous, especially since the film wasn’t about the ending of slavery. It was about the last days of Lincoln.

    I agree that Frederick Douglass was an amazing person and worthy of feature film treatment. Just not that feature film. But that period of history was richly stuffed with amazing people who haven’t been treated properly in books and film. Instead of slamming Spielberg for making that movie and not another one, it would be better to encourage lots of filmmakers to use that period for inspiration.

    There have been shockingly few decent films about the Civil War era. Most are junk. Glory was very good, even though it took a lot of liberties with the real history of the 54th Massachusetts. The Red Badge of Courage with Audie Murphy stands up pretty well. In spite of several layers of cheese and liberties with facts, and the cheap fake beards, I rather liked Gettysburg, mostly because of Jeff Daniels’s portrayal of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Lincoln is going to be considered one of the all-time classic films, IMO. But those are the only CW films I’ve seen that I actually liked. When you consider how important the CW was in U.S. history — indeed, to U.S. national mythos — and the number of outsized characters who were involved in it, that’s rather shocking.

  26. BlueMoon  •  Feb 27, 2013 @12:58 pm

    I never said Douglass SHOULD have been added. In fact, I agree with your opinion that adding him just to have him in the film, with no real historical reason to do so, would have been gratuitous.

    Reading what I wrote, I see I was unclear. What I actually meant to say is that it would be interesting to see how Spielberg would portray Douglass. I feel that way about many of the historical figures of that era. I love Spielberg, and sometimes when I see a biopic (a film genre I usually despise) made by a mediocre director, I wonder how Spielberg and other filmmakers of his caliber would portray a particular figure.

    And now for a bit of nostalgia: I remember watching “Gettysburg” for a film class at NYU a few years ago. I wasn’t as enamored with it as critics seemed to be. Oh, well.

  27. maha  •  Feb 27, 2013 @11:23 pm

    And now for a bit of nostalgia: I remember watching “Gettysburg” for a film class at NYU a few years ago. I wasn’t as enamored with it as critics seemed to be. Oh, well.

    Gettysburg was something of a mess as a film. I understand it was originally going to be a TV miniseries, and at some point Ted Turner decided he wanted to release it in theaters. The script was half history and half southern mythology. If you pay close attention there are spots where you can see the shadows of statues (it was filmed at Gettysburg) and I’m told there’s a little blip where you can see a white minivan in the distance. And, seriously, you could see the wires on some of those fake beards. So great filmmaking it was not. Still, seeing Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain lead the charge down Little Round Top was nice.



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