Moviegoers and historians alike should pay attention. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of art, a film about morality, democracy, and human agency that tells us something about its creators and—since Lincoln will be watched and loved by millions—about ourselves. Like any other movie, novel, or painting, the film ought to be discussed and critiqued. Indeed, it should be subjected to a particularly searching analysis precisely because of its prominence and power.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the wake of an op-ed I wrote about the film for The New York Times, in which I pointed out the passivity and generic nature of the black characters in the film. I argued that the filmmakers’ “imagination” (to quote Spielberg) was one in which white men gave the gift of freedom to African-Americans.
A rich debate has developed among historians and in the greater blogosphere about this film. Some writers have agreed with my points wholeheartedly, arguing that the film underemphasized the role African-Americans played in influencing the abolition debate in Washington. Others have said that black characters are unimportant to the film’s larger goals. Some critics have claimed that I would only have been satisfied with an entirely different film—perhaps one focused on slaves’ struggle to get free, or on Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass.
To be sure, I’d like to see more Hollywood films that feature prominent and complex black characters. My point, though, was that the filmmakers’ artistic choices revealed assumptions about black passivity and white agency that are inaccurate, damaging, and difficult to dislodge.The conversation about Spielberg's movie Lincoln continues. There is so much going on here--and one main theme driving the controversy which has so far gone unaddressed to this point--regarding history, memory, and the politics of popular culture. In all, we have only scratched the surface of Lincoln's meaning and the public's relationship to the film.
Lincoln did not come out of the ether fully formed like Athena from Zeus' head. Like all filmmakers, Spielberg made choices about what to include and what to leave out of the movie. I am always surprised by how some in the public want to view a film as a settled matter, that was naturally formed, and is above revision and/or critical inquiry. There is something wonderfully "modern" about such a perspective.
As readers of We Are Respectable Negroes know, I like to play script doctor. Making suggestions to improve a film is a fanboy's dream; this responsibility is one of the sacred duties of we who are ghetto nerds.
Historian Kate Masur, whose essay about Lincoln's flattening of history and willful omission of black folks' agency, has been the subject of much discussion here and elsewhere. She kindly sent me an email about her followup piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.