Though Steven Spielberg’s latest cinematic offering has received wide critical acclaim, its portrayal of President Lincoln is inaccurate and heavily flawed
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If true, then how many millions of words’ worth is a moving picture lasting two and a half hours? And to whom?
How many – and which ones – of those millions of words contain information, misinformation and disinformation?
Recently, I watched Lincoln (2012), the latest historical blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg. I used to enjoy Spielberg productions. However, this recent ‘humanistic’ output focusing on historical events connected with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – or that should be his-story-cal events since it is Spielberg’s selection and interpretation of facts that the viewer is presented with – leaves me somewhat cold. In this connection, I refer to Amistad and now Lincoln.
As one has come to expect of a Spielberg production, Lincoln looks good; it has great sets, costumes and moves at the right pace for a film dealing with a topic of this nature. It also features a number of fine actors and actresses who deliver impressive performances – specifically, Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, Sally Field as his wife, and Tommy Lee Jones as radical Republican abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens. In my opinion, it is a film worth watching, but perhaps as much as for what it doesn’t say, as much as for what it does. It is also important to consider how it goes about saying what it does and, ultimately, for whom.
Firstly, it is important to understand where a writer is coming from when reading any of their works. My ‘reading’ of Lincoln is informed by what might be referred to as a “critical race-theoretical” perspective – more specifically, a “counter-racist” stance which holds that the modern world system was historically established and is currently being maintained by people who self-classify as ‘white’ and who stand in a relation of dominance to others who they classify as ‘non-white’.
That said, let me proceed with a critical race-theoretical review.
Lincoln is based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Pulitzer Prize-winning American biographer, historian and political commentator, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Although the film has been widely praised by film critics (and as a critical race theorist, I should want to enquire as to who these critics are), academic historians (ditto my previous comment) have been more ambivalent in their reaction. For example, according to the Wikipedia entry for the film, “Eric Foner (Columbia University)… claims… that the film “grossly exaggerates” its main points about the choices at stake in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment… [and] Kate Masur (Northwestern University) accuses the film of oversimplifying the role of blacks in abolition and dismisses the effort as “an opportunity squandered”.
But the problems and criticisms with Lincoln don’t – shouldn’t – end there.
I’m no Lincoln scholar. In fact, until recently I was barely aware of the different positions in the debate about the so-called “Great Emancipator”. Like most people, I was simply and naively taught to memorise the following convenient bite-sized chunk of (mis/dis)information: Abraham Lincoln was the kindly US president who freed the black slaves.
However, I stand by the view that knowledge is better obtained from books than from the silver screen, and used this as an opportunity to investigate some of the more ‘critical’, ‘radical’ and ‘revisionist’ takes on the historical Lincoln to see if they have any basis. (Interested readers are referred to the Bibliography below for some examples of this ‘controversial’ literature.)
I won’t get into the details of the Lincoln debate here. What I will say is the following: on the matter of slavery and ‘emancipation’, Lincoln was, if anything, a gradualist, not a radical. Unlike Thaddeus Stevens, the militant John Brown and others, he wasn’t an abolitionist; most importantly, it is possible that he was only partially anti-slavery (opposing its expansion, not its elimination), and that he did not believe in racial equality. Consider the following statement of Lincoln’s which does not appear in Spielberg’s film:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
According to Lerone Bennett Jr., author of the controversial 1968 Ebony magazine article ”Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” and the later work, Forced into Glory (2007), Lincoln believed that blacks were inferior to whites; he supported segregation in the North; he told racist (‘darky’) jokes and used the N-word in public and private; he reluctantly embraced Emancipation halfway through the Civil War only after Congress enacted it and slaves voted with their feet for freedom by escaping to Union lines; and he persisted to the end of his life in the belief that colonisation – that is ”deportation” of blacks to South America or Africa – was the best solution to the race problems that would follow Emancipation.
Bennett has been heavily criticised by a number of historians for some of his claims – in particular, his insistence on Lincoln’s lifelong commitment to the colonisation thesis and his refusal to accept the latter’s capacity for growth. However, it is somewhat telling that the black abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, had this to say in his “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln” at the Unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1876:
“President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. (…) His great mission was to… save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. (…) Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.”
During the same speech, Douglass had earlier stated the following:
“It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.
He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. (…) He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty… The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.”
Which brings me back to the questions I began with: How many millions of words’ worth is a moving picture lasting two and a half hours? And to whom?
Join the dots and the (moving) picture should become clear.
Bennett, Jr., Lerone (1968) Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist? Ebony, pp.35-42.
Bennett, Jr., Lerone (2007) Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.
DiLorenzo, Thomas (2007) Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe. Three Rivers Press.
Dirck, Brian. (2007) Changing Perspectives on Lincoln, Race, and Slavery. OAH Magazine of History, pp.9-12.
Fredrickson, George M. (1975) A Man But Not a Brother: Abraham Lincoln and Racial Equality. The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 41, No.1, pp.39-58.
Magness, Phillip W. and Sebastian N. Page (2011) Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement. University ofMissouri Press.
Zilversmit, Arthur (1980) Lincoln and the Problem of Race: A Decade of Interpretations. Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 2, pp.22-45.
Image from: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=36143
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