I just got back from watching two digitally remastered episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) Season Two here in Chicago. The second year of TNG is when things really get going. It introduced the Borg in the episode "Q Who", and also explored the nature of humanity and sentience in the classic episode "The Measure of a Man."
Both episodes were glorious on the big screen: the Season Two blu-ray is a must buy. As a bonus,"The Measure of a Man" included about 10 minutes of new footage. In all, the additions added little to the plot. But, I have to admit it was great fun to watch TNG with a hardcore audience that mocked Wesley Crusher, who laughed at the homoerotic relationship between Data and Geordi, and was titillated by all the hot Picard sexy action with his still hungry and desirous ex-lover in "The Measure of a Man."
This screening reminded me of how powerful Star Trek has been in terms of presenting a hopeful vision of the future that was progressive and inclusive along lines of race, gender, and sexuality. From "The Measure of a Man's" discussion of slavery, to Deep Space Nine's exploration of queer and lesbian identity (as well as black masculinity), and classic Trek's bold embrace of characters such as Uhura, Chekhov, and Sulu, the Star Trek franchise was well ahead of most mass culture in preparing the (white) public for a multicultural future.
The presence of black and brown folks in Star Trek--and the show's honesty in dealing with questions of social justice (both through the use of metaphor and explicitly) made their presence feel natural. In watching TNG tonight in the theater, I was reminded of how popular culture is at its core about the creation of meaning across and within communities. We all "got" why the show was special. All present "got" the inside jokes. We all had a common frame of reference, even as a given individual may choose to read meaning into the show in their own way.
The range of reactions to the whitewashing of the movie Lincoln is a similar phenomenon. However, there are some qualifiers and differences. We have not reached a consensus on the meaning of the film. A given person's political priors, investment in the whiteness of memory, and attachment to the hagiography mythos surrounding President Lincoln, is also a lens which colors how a given person reads the movie.
Lincoln is not really about 19th century America. It is actually a mirror for post civil rights Age of Obama America. As such, I would suggest that a given viewer's upsetness regarding claims to truth-telling in art, as well as Spielberg's surrender to the white racial frame, is actually a proxy for other political attitudes.
Those who defend the willful deception that reads black agency out of Lincoln, are invested in a post-racial colorblind lie of a dream where talking about race is itself racist. This is the polite racial chauvinism and new age racism of the New Right and the faux progressive multicultural Left.
Moreover, the defenders of Lincoln and Spielberg's whitewashed history of the events surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment are proceeding from the status quo ante in American popular film: black and brown people are largely absent in leading dramatic roles; as such, their presence, and an acknowledgement of black and brown folks as equals with white people in the filmic gaze, automatically becomes "controversial" or "problematic."
Conservative readings of race in popular culture instinctively rebel against the inclusion of people of color (and gays and lesbians, women, and the Other, more generally) as a surrender to political correctness and multiculturalism run amok. Spielberg's choice to eliminate the agency of African-Americans in their own freedom struggle is an active one. It was a decision to work against the historical record--and to make a less interesting and fully evolved movie. Spielberg surrendered his art to the normativity of Whiteness. Spielberg should be held accountable for that decision.
He did not have to invent Frederick Douglass' relationship with President Lincoln, and the former's role in influencing the President's decision about the Thirteenth Amendment. He did not have to leave out the role of black bondspeople in forcing Emancipation and freedom. He did not have to make the black characters who were abolitionists, and shown in the film, mute statue bystanders. Spielberg made these choices for the comfort of Hollywood, profitability, and the White Gaze.
Apologists for Lincoln, and those who instinctively defend other racist films such as The Help or The Blindside often want to dismiss popular culture as "just" ephemeral and unimportant. However, they are deeply invested in responding to any suggestion that such films may be enabling white supremacy. Their responses are a function of a type of team concept and group think around white privilege--said films may be the fantasies created by millionaires and billionaires for "our" entertainment, but those are "our" films and any suggestion that they may be racially reductive or chauvinistic is an insult to all of "us."
Once more, politics and popular culture are deeply and intimately intertwined. In thinking through Lincoln and the varied responses to it, the film "matters in a variety of ways."
Two quick thoughts. As the late James Snead observed and paraphrased, "film is ideology presenting itself to itself, taking to itself, learning about itself." Lincoln tells us something about our contemporary political moment.
Second, the absence of black agency in Lincoln is important because it is part of a long history where, as Snead further develops, people of color are negatively coded for in popular film and other types of media:
The third device is omission, or exclusion by reversal, distortion, or some other type of censorship. Omission and exclusion are perhaps the most widespread tactics of racial stereotyping but are also the most difficult to prove because their manifestation is precisely absence itself. The repetition of black absence from locations of autonomy and importance creates the presence of the idea that blacks belong in positions of obscurity and dependence. From the earliest days of film, omission was the method of choice in designing mass images of blacks.Are the defenders of Spielberg's whitewashed history proceeding from a position of bad faith, drunk on the white racial frame, well-intentioned naive and ignorant, or just deeply invested in White aesthetic priors that are indifferent to the truth, even it means a conscious decision to remove people of color and their agency from a movie such as Lincoln?
What is your theory?