Consequently, there has been quite a bit of interesting commentary offered up about Spielberg most recent work. Some of the discussion consists of rank apologism for the film's blatant whitewashing of history (some of it by black conservatives); other folks have (correctly) taken Spielberg to task for the choices he made in presenting a woefully flawed depiction of both the historical moment and forces which drove the President to formally finalize the reality that chattel slavery was a dead and dying institution.
I saw the film. Daniel Day Lewis deserves an Oscar nomination for his uncanny channeling of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln itself was tedious, and could easily win an award for most sleep inducing film of the year. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in the relationship between popular culture and politics, Lincoln offers much to discuss.
Here are some provocative commentaries about the film.
Aaron Brady, at the Jacobin, calls out how the film is a costume drama of bad historiography in the service of the White Gaze:
We’re just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender...Brady gets extra points for his mention of DuBois' seminal and foundational Black Reconstruction:
Lincoln is not a movie about Reconstruction, of course; it’s a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people. And that’s exactly the point: this is not a movie about the long process of reuniting the country or black freedom.
In short, if you widen your field of view, you will discover that W.E.B. Du Bois argued a century ago—and as the historical scholarship has increasingly come to agree—that slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist, far less because the North gave slaves their legal freedom than because they had already effectively taken it, because it had become the new status quo that would have required force to dislodge. At the end of the Civil War, with the South defeated, the choice for the north was not to end slavery or leave it; the choice was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.Historian Kate Masur mirrors my concerns about the film. Lincoln could have been a far better movie if Spielberg chose to tell the truth, one that does not intentionally leave out the full contributions of Black Americans. In total, Lincoln would be much improved by rendering a more accurate and rich story, as opposed to a Whiteness centered hagiography and work of historical fiction:
In short, the idea that the white north “gave” freedom to the slaves draws from and reinforces an attractively simple and flattering myth, one which formed around the old historiography of the period like a noose cutting off oxygen to the brain: the myth that black slaves were rendered passive by their condition, and that—absent an outside force interrupting their state of un-freedom—they would simply have continued, as slaves, indefinitely. It’s only in this narrative that freedom can be a thing which is given to them: because they are essentially passive and inert, they require someone else—say, a great emancipator—to step in and raise them up...
Slaves were not and could not be “given” their freedom because they had always had it: it had required a great deal of violent force and political work to keep them enslaved, and when that force was removed—as the South collapsed politically and militarily—they began to act like the human beings they always already were, organizing, moving, and seizing their destinies in their own hands.
Corey Robin at Crooked Timber mixes up a lethal stew of insightful criticism. His essay is pure ownage of Spielberg and Lincoln. Do note the pithy use of the phrase "white man's democracy":But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them...This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr. Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April — these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets, markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,” where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he encountered on the street near the White House.In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes. The film conveys none of this, opting instead for generic, archetypal characters.
What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from Masur’s op-ed—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in it objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.There are apologists and defenders of Spielberg and his film Lincoln. Some of these folks are quite bright and literate. However, as in this piece from the Atlantic, they understate the power of mass culture to serve as a lens through which public(s) understand and mediate reality.
The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.
Lest I be accused—as I already have been—of imposing some kind of PC orthodoxy on a piece of mass entertainment, or of applying an anachronistic standard of inclusion to a film that marches under the banner of fidelity to historical truth, let me reiterate one point and add two others. Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role. Spielberg and Kushner are not being faithful to the historical record; they are distorting it. Not by lying but by constructing the field glasses through which they would have us look at, and misperceive, the past.
Moreover, as follows, Kevin Levin's use of the universal "we" and "us" is a tell and wink to the universal power of Whiteness and the white racial frame. Who is included in this "we?" What are Levin's unstated assumptions about the public and its relationship to this cultural text? I for one, would have loved to see basic questions about race, freedom, and the role of Black Americans in securing their own liberty, explored by Lincoln.
Beyond nitpicking specific moments such as the roll call in the House or whether Lincoln ever slapped Robert, my fellow historians have pointed out the lack of attention on women and abolitionists, as well as the free black community in Washington, D.C. Do any of these critiques help us to better understand the movie? No. They simply reinforce what we already know, which is that Hollywood will never make a movie that satisfies the demands of scholars. Nor should it...Ultimately, what does Spielberg's Lincoln tell us about the Age of Obama and the politics of the present? What does it mean that a film which tells a malicious lie wherein African-Americans are made mere spectators in their own history--and bystanders to events which they helped to force into being--can still be heralded for its greatness?
As historians, we need to be much more sensitive to the artistic goals of filmmakers and the limitations they face. In short, we need to stop critiquing them as if they were something they are not. They are artists, not historians...
I am not so concerned about these supposed shortcomings. It is not Spielberg's duty to fill us in on the whole history of emancipation and the black population of D.C. But the spirit of self-emancipation comes through clearly in the opening battle scene (as well as that silly scene where Lincoln is chatting with both black and white soldiers about the war)...
Spielberg may not get every historical detail right, but it is impossible not to watch this movie as commentary on our own political challenges. It shows us that the only way to get anything done in Washington is through compromise, but that this need not preclude embracing moral principles. Even when Spielberg misses the mark, he does what a filmmaker should do: He recreates the spirit of an era and inspires us to think more deeply about the myths and realities of a hugely important time.
How difficult would it have been, in the context of a 3 hour movie, to have included 5 minutes, or even 30 seconds, where black people are given some agency and voice in their own freedom struggle? In post-civil rights era America, do such basic gestures to the truth hold too much symbolic power? Are they too "radical" and "militant?"