My wife and I went out on Thursday for just the third time since our son’s birth, this time to see Lincoln.
Several historians chimed in with their opinions and evaluations at film’s release. Kate Masur, a historian of
slavery race and Washington, D.C., critiqued the film’s portrayal of African Americans as passive and bland characters waiting for emancipation to be handed to them — even when the actual figures portrayed worked to support escaped slaves and were leaders of the District’s black community. Notably, she emphasizes,
It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.
This is true — “fact-checking” films is a cottage industry for historians great and small. But Masur makes another important point — that the way stories are told is important to how we respond to them. Whether White House servant Keckley had a poignant exchange with Lincoln (or whether her costume in the film was accurate) is really less important than her overall portrayal — whether the spirit of her character was right and represented her (and other African Americans’) own efforts to oppose slavery.
Historian Eric Foner basically validates DDL’s version of Lincoln but makes a similar point about interpretation — the audience is left with the impression that Lincoln was the sole force for passage of the 13th Amendment, rather than working within a broad set of movements and forces set against slavery (and, at times, stalling them). In essence, we see too much of the Washington inside game.
Timothy Burke responds to Foner’s critique and puts the issue as really a tension between accuracy and narrative. In service of narrative, screenwriter Tony Kushner made some interpretive choices that ring hollow for historians, but work to make a more watchable film.
If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.
This is a useful point, but a bit irrelevant to Masur and Foner’s kinds of points, that the content of historical films is worth debating and evaluating. Burke’s point is really more about the meaning of films, regardless of the accuracy of its historical content — the cultural historian’s assertion of the film as a historical fact or object, or machine for creating historical memory in its own right. There is a similar kind of debate over perspectives in public history (or reception, in classics, for example).
But my critique of the film, and de facto response to Burke, is that even taking the film on its own terms, it exhibits key failings. [Let's just stipulate that the anecdoting and speechifying was out of control and it seemed like Kushner was trying to outdo Aaron Sorkin's Jed Bartlett for erudite but down home wit. I mean, Jesus, did his dictation of a telegram have to be a grand speech? And his joke of a one-paragraph speech at the flag-raising to seem totally clever?] Lincoln was criticized by Radical Republicans (and others) for moving too slowly on emancipation, but Kushner ultimately redeems Lincoln’s caution. The president was wrestling with the moral and legal issues and, even when he made up his own mind, he had a keen sense of the politics — he was not about to move before the issue was ready to pass. So he waited for the lame duck session, faced down criticism from left and right, cajoled and log rolled Congressmen, and ultimately won the day. This is the essence of Lincoln’s heroic actions — caution, prudence, and conviction, but agency bounded by the limits of the political system of his time.
Congressmen are given no such consideration or charitable interpretation, though Lincoln himself had served in the lower House. Nearly every Congressman is presented as a racial reactionary or supremely self-interested — each choice is made simply on personal grounds revealing either nobility or lack of character. The lens of political history, I think, helps us understand that each of those Congressmen were going through their own deliberations and were pulled by a multiplicity of changing forces, personally, and within their district, just as Lincoln was facing. Sure, the 20 Democrats may have been lame ducks not running for re-election, but were they really free of political concerns? What if they were to face off in an election rematch 2 years later? Or were hoping for a non-patronage position in their district from a business leader? Or what if they had a law firm or some other professional enterprise that required staying within the Democratic mainstream in their district? We know none of this, though it must be true for several of the men, and the point is belabored when the audience considers Lincoln’s process (to his ultimate benefit). Fernando Wood, one of the nastiest opponents of the amendment in the film, fit this very description. A New York City machine Democrat, he lost in 1864, but ran again in 1866 and won — we might just as well blame the machine Democrats of New York City for his opposition, but again, we would have no idea that they might be a consideration in this personal, moral question.
Thus, the film uses two different lenses for different politicians, one sensitive for examining Lincoln, the other uncharitable and warped for examining the Congressmen. Though Kushner put words in their mouths and gave the politicians some agency, he did it so sloppily and lazily that I think he did violence to them. In that sense, I echo Kate Masur’s point rather than Eric Foner’s — it’s not that Kushner and Spielberg chose to foreground one perspective at the expense of another, it’s that they actually misrepresented a set of characters by violating their own logic of representation within the film. And this is the key issue historians should have with the film.