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A historian’s take on Lincoln

By / 12.18.12

I did my best when I reviewed Lincoln, and it was pretty good because I’m a certified genius, but to a certain degree, my analysis of it as entertainment value doesn’t matter nearly as much as how accurate it was as history. Because while certain biopics about historical figures go more for historical fiction than literal history (Braveheart, say), the ones that do purport to be factual have a certain amount of responsibility. It’s scarily easy for popular myths to drown out actual truths in the popular memory, like that time Teddy Roosevelt ate three whole pheasants and still mollywhopped a Cossack. I’m not a Civil War historian, so I leave the historical analysis up to the experts, like Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College Jim Downs, who recently wrote a nice piece on Lincoln for Huffington Post.

Downs’ take on Lincoln is, predictably, nuanced. He refutes other historians charges that Spielberg portrayed blacks as passive, arguing that the subtlety of their objections to the proceedings in the movie actually seems period accurate. He praises Gloria Reuben’s performance as Lincoln’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Keckley, as “a masterful portrayal of subtlety and dissemblance” – a delicate balancing act of dual consciousness, fulfilling white expectations while maintaining an inner self.

Meanwhile, Downs takes Spielberg (or screenwriter Tony Kushner, depending on how you look at it) to task for failing to present Lincoln and others’ true motivations for wanting to abolish slavery, a good deal of which was economic. (This part involves some spoilers):

At that point, I wanted to jump up in the theater in the spirit of Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire and exclaim, “show me the money.” Were there no economic motivations for abolishing slavery? Economic concerns were integral in starting the war — the South wanted to move west to expand cotton production and needed slave labor to ensure its capital growth. The North feared that if slavery expanded to the West, then the Northern economy would crumble as a result of competition and the general desolation that slavery left in its wake. Yet Spielberg’s Lincoln never tips his stovepipe hat to economic considerations for ending slavery nor do any of the members of Congress who speak ardently for passage of the bill. In the film, the Speaker of the House, in an unprecedented move, interrupts the proceedings to announce that he wants to add his vote to the tally, claiming that he was breaking parliamentary procedure and voting for the bill in the name of history. Are we really supposed to believe that the whole of Congress voted to end slavery based solely on how they thought history would remember them, or did their economic self-interests play a part?

If Spielberg had presented the Congressmen supporting the amendment for economic reasons, [people] might well not have hailed the movie as an epic of American equality. The film might have become a rally cry for the Occupy movement and not a valiant story that most Americans would embrace. Spielberg played to that yearning many Americans have for narratives of redemption, and in this particular narrative, freedom plays a starring and mythical role. For these devotees of Lincoln, freedom seems like it was some kind of sacred chalice handed down from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, without ever realizing that freedom always has a subtext; it functions sometimes as Trojan Horse; and that freedom came at a cost.

I remember that chalice! Indiana Jones stole it from that knight dude at the end of Last Crusade. Sorry, one last blockquote, re: how emancipation really came to pass vs. the Spielberg version:

…the common dominator that links the history of Cuba, Guadeloupe and the United States is that emancipation never emerged purely based on the political decisions that powerful white men made in closed rooms. In each of these cases, enslaved people influenced the course of emancipation. Thusly for Spielberg to omit former slaves’ influence on Lincoln’s administration not only misrepresents emancipation in the United States history but also misleadingly distorts a worldwide phenomenon.

When the script does not portray Lincoln as divinely inspired abolitionist, the film lapses into other problematic formulations of why people fought to end slavery. Enter the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania and one of the 19th century’s most ardent champions of black equality. Stevens’ political biography reveals a long career of attempting to turn abolition, which for most of the 19th century was a fringe grassroots movement, into a polarizing national issue that compelled Americans to debate the question of slavery. Stevens and others radical Republicans succeeded in bringing the subject of slavery to the Congressional floor. Yet, the film reduces this long, turbulent history to a scene with Stevens handing the 13th amendment to his African-American housekeeper and common-law wife Lydia Smith, suggesting that Stevens fought to end slavery because of his interracial romance. It further implies that the only reason why a white man, who was not a Christ-figure like Lincoln, would be an abolitionist is rooted in sex, which unwittingly plays into the 19th century Southern proslavery argument that abolitionists’ sexual desires fueled their campaign to terminate slavery. Once slaves were free, Southerners taunted, whites and blacks would procreate and promote the 19th century crime of miscegenation. [much more here]

You didn’t have to be a historian to think the Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) “revelation” was a sh*tty scene. I think the SpielKush brain trust wanted to tack on some feel-good scene of racial understanding between Stevens and his lady so they could have a nice ending, but in the process, they unwittingly made it seem like the lone champion of full-blown equality was only doing it because he was banging a black chick. Which is about as offensive as one of me and Burnsy’s “Compton cookout” themed BBQ parties. (We’ve since made formal apologies to the NAACP).

That said, Lincoln was refreshingly non-bullsh*tty compared to what we’ve come to expect from Spielberg. He only managed to crowbar in one completely unnecessary cheesy family subplot, which is relatively light for his more recent work. I’m just happy he managed to make Jurassic Park without there being a Mrs. T-Rex who was always nagging her husband about stupid crap, taking up valuable devouring-everything-in-sight time.


TAGSFACT VS. FICTIONHistoryJIM DOWNSLincolnsteven spielbergTHADDEUS STEVENSTONY KUSHNER

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