Thursday, November 29, 2012

A "Spielberg's Movie 'Lincoln' is an Exercise in Bad Historiography and Whitewashing of History" Roundup

Spielberg's historical epic Lincoln, which explores the political gamesmanship surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, is a work of popular film that desperately wants to be taken seriously as a commentary about American political life and culture.

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...

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.
Brady gets extra points for his mention of DuBois' seminal and foundational Black Reconstruction:
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.

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.
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:
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.
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":
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.

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.
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.

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...

 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.
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?

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?"


Shady_Grady said...

I wasn't crazy about the film. But the opening shot scene with black soldiers killing white confederates was quite unusual for any Civil War movie, as was the inclusion of black soldiers throughout the film.

I agree about Day-Lewis getting an award.

Anonymous said...

An earlier version of the script (before it was re-written by Tony K) was more concerned with Lincoln's friendship with Frederick Douglass. There were apparently many many re-writes, as is common in Hollywood, and the final product serves the "great man" view of history, where a handful of important (white) men guide the world.

The opening scene with the black soldier repeating Lincoln's speech back to him, and complaining about unfair wages... I saw it as Spielberg and Kushner's concession to what Kate Masur is writing about.

- Buddy H.

Anonymous said...

Down with "Senator" Lindsay Graham and his attack on Susan Rice. He figured he could get a good redboned girl surrounded by a group of white men to "admit" it was a terroist attack. Girlfriend may be redbonded but's she's all black inside she told the truth it was spurred by a video. They couldnt believe a mulatto married to a white man turned against them and upheld the agenda of her black male boss the President of the USA. Remember this is a no no on the plantation state of mind where Mr. Graham still lives. In the good ole days they would have gang raped her and then killed her. Susan Rice is the kind of mixed race negro that led the rebellions, stole away at night, killed her baby girl rather than seen her at the hands of white men in violation, and then kept on keeping on. Defend susan rice no matter what happens they are watching the way we treat each other. They are watching the way we treat our leaders. Stick together black folks and our progressive friends, stick together no matter what and we WIN. Demand justice for Susan Rice and Secretary Clinton as women fighting for us all.

Black Sage said...

How difficult would it have been, in the context of a 3 hour movie (Lincoln), 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? - ChaunceyD

Of course, any gesture that depicts Blacks as being at the helm of their own self determination and freedom is much too powerful a thought to place within the minds of a people who’ve been oppressed for centuries, sometimes, brutally done so. This former slave regime empire will never tell the truth about slavery. Why? They (Whites) will never tell the truth because they must reveal the loss of dignity and liberties, injustices, cruelties, destruction of culture, brutalities and inhumanity that was intentionally inflicted upon the collective Black psyche and bodies.

Therefore, there are no surprises here that Spielberg directed a shoddy movie that essentially depicts White men as benevolent, freedom loving saviors and adult Black slaves as docile and child-like.

Alternatively, a movie illustrating the atrociously brutal truth regarding slavery would require just the opposite of what Spielberg’s sanitized movie displayed. Hell,.... slave revolts occurred all the time.

In summary, it would be refreshing to see a movie circa the slavery era directed by either the Hughes Brothers or Spike Lee. I doubt that this will happen though, because it will undoubtedly stir the imagination of too many Blacks and strike fear within the hearts of too many Whites.

chaunceydevega said...

@Shady. You didn't find it forced?

@Buddy. The powers that be thought Frederick Douglass wouldn't be a draw. White audiences wouldn't be interested in seeing him is their calculation.

@Anon. Non sequiter.

@BS. Yes and no. There are quite a few white historians, some of the best in U.S. history, calling out the movie's mess. I think you are right more generally about palatable sanitized depictions of slavery and racism that allow white audiences to read themselves into the movie as good people and heroes. Old trope.

insipid said...

I really despise the term "apologist". I hate it when people use it against me when I'm defending President Obama and I also dislike it in this case. It is arrogant to suppose that the "truth" you are uttering is so self-evident, so irrefutable that anyone disagreeing with it is being an "apologist." If you want to have an adult conversation, let's have at it. Just don't try and pre-label me for disagreeing with your position.

What is peculiar about the criticisms is that I haven't heard anyone say specifically that Spielberg got the history wrong. Their flaw, they say, is that Spielberg didn't tell the whole story or that he tried to sell the public on the myth of the "white savior". That he has some kind of gall to even suggest that white people had anything at all to do with the fight for equality. That we should look upon the history of white men as all negative, that there was no partnership at all in the struggle for freedom.

However telling the ENTIRE story of emancipation was NOT what Spielberg intended. In fact he didn’t even try to tell the entire story of emancipation in the Lincoln White House. His desire was to tell one story and one story only- the story of how the 13th Amendment got passed and the deals that were necessary to get them passed. Unfortunately that story involves mostly white men.

The strange thing about this criticism is that it seems to fault Spielberg for being an insufficient white savior. They’re not saying that he ignored black contributions to the struggle for equality- the opening scene was one featuring black soldiers in a battle for their lives. They’re just saying he didn’t tell it enough. It pre-supposes a certain helplessness on the critics part to tell the story THEY’D like told. If you want a movie about the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, make the damn movie yourself. If you want a movie dealing more with the military struggle black men and women made against slavery, tell that story yourself. Spielberg is not the only person capable of wielding a camera.

The movie struck me as a defense of the Obama administration from his critics on the left. There are those that thought Lincoln a “sell out” for not demanding full negro suffrage, or the right for negros to hold office etc. Just as today there are those that thought President Obama was a “sell out” for not trying for Medicare for all, or pounding the “bully pulpit” for the public option etc. Lincoln thought then as Obama believes now, that politics is the art of the possible, not the perfect.

Someday they may very well make a movie about the passage of health care. I only hope i live long enough to hear critics of that movie complaining about the depiction of Obama as "The Black Savior".

insipid said...

Blacksage said:

"Therefore, there are no surprises here that Spielberg directed a shoddy movie that essentially depicts White men as benevolent, freedom loving saviors and adult Black slaves as docile and child-like".

That's a totally inacurate depiction of the movie. The white men depicted in the movie were largely either self-centered and greedy or outright racists. There were no slaves in the movie and the most memorable depiction of blacks was those of black soldiers fighting for their lives against the South. I've never seen a man stabbing another man through the heart with a bayonet as "docile and child-like". You can't accuse Spielberg of being "shoddy" while having a shoddy depiction of what was there.

insipid said...


I think you are right more generally about palatable sanitized depictions of slavery and racism that allow white audiences to read themselves into the movie as good people and heroes. Old trope.

You're forgetting that there were millions of black people at the time and even now that thought of some white people as heroes. Abraham Lincoln is held as a hero by our current great President. Frederick Douglass went to his grave believing that the one man whose hatred of slavery eclipsed his own was a white man by the name of John Brown.

And here's what Frederick Douglass had to say about Abraham Lincoln:

Fellow-citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.

With due respect, I think that some of the criticisms of Lincoln wreaks of the "foul ingratitude" Douglass spoke of. Black peoples efforts in the cause of freedom was indeed essential, but they did it with the partnership of some good and great white people. Telling the story of one of them does not preclude you from telling the story of the other.

chaunceydevega said...

@insipid. my, whiteness is defensive tonight.

i think it has enough soldiers to carry on without your help.

re: your point about making your own movie if you don't like it. That is silly and trite. A movie or any other cultural text is subject to criticism. So by that logic black folks and others should not have protested Birth of a Nation? If you don't like it just shut up is your claim?

Film making involves a series of choices. Spielberg chose to make the movie he did in a way that marginalizes black people and makes this an intentionally white washed story. He should be held accountable for those choices. Not that complicated. He chose to not have Frederick Douglass not at all present. He chose to have a nameless group of black folks in the gallery who are mute. He chose to not even mention the role of black abolitionists--one of whom was his personal aid. He chose to have a mouth vomiting seen with Thaddeus Stephens in bed with his black mistress reading the bill for the 13th Amendment to him. Damn, the codes there are deep and I am sure lots will be written about it down the line.

Spielberg made choices to appeal to a certain set of political and racial sensibilities. He could have made a better and more powerful/rich/entertaining/critically insightful movie if he simply made other choices to tell the truth. Spielberg decided to keep with the Whiteness and white racial frame in Hollywood.

insipid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
insipid said...

Spielberg is subject to criticism. I am subject to criticism and so are you and so is everyone else. Except my mother, she's a saint i tell you, a saint!

I am not saying that I do not find fault with the movie. I am dumbfounded that Spielberg didn't include Lincoln's visit to Richmond. That was the scene I was most looking forward to seeing. What better way to illustrate the importance of the 13th amendment then to actually SHOW black slaves meeting their liberator? I also can’t understand why he had Lincoln’s death in there at all. It had nothing to do with the passage of the amendment or its aftermath. I also could have used less of the Williams Score.

You’re right, that film-making is about choices. My feeling is that having Frederick Douglas in as a bit character would have been disrespectful towards the man and his contribution. The story Lincoln told was of a time where Lincoln had ALREADY decided to pass the 13th amendment. Douglas’ role was to bring him to that point. There were MANY historical characters, pivotal to Lincolns life, many pivotal to the passage of the amendment, that were left out of the movie.
The story Lincoln told was one of deal-making more than anything else. So the characters in there were mostly the deal-makers.

I do agree with Kate Masur’s point that a scene of Lincoln having a conversation with a black person- be it a servant or a street vendor-would have enriched the movie. They should not have been depicted as disinterested third parties.

I disagree with the historian that claimed slavery was “all but dead”. At the time of the movie there were millions of people still in bondage. There were Southerners and Democrats that were trying to bring the South back in WITH slavery. Even if slavery's death was inevitable, THEY didn’t know that, or think that. Plus implying that the amendment doesn’t matter is just bad drama. It’s like Frodo saying “This ring? Aint Shit”. His criticism of the line regarding the “fate is in our hands” was petty. Lincoln was talking to his cabinet members about passing the amendment; he wasn’t talking to black soldiers going out to fight. Film reviews are not supposed to be gotcha games.

I think the last Thadeus Stevens scene was a direct answer to the scurrilous depiction of that same woman in Birth of a Nation. Far from Steven’s being under her evil control, Steven’s was- in all but name- married to her. I saw a loving, healthy, equal relationship that was not allowed to exist in law because of the racism of the time. As a gay man living in a less enlightened state, i can relate.

f. said...

I will probably still see Lincoln, while watching out for these issues. But in truth, all I ask is an epic Frederick Douglass or Robert Smalls movie!

Shady_Grady said...

@Chauncey, yes I have some of the concerns that you raised, although my main concern was that it was too long. And as I put in a review, the film veered toward hagiography. There could and should have been more explanation and examination of Lincoln's own racism.


How many dramas or action movies open up with black men KILLING white men? And with same black men later unapologetically saying we didn't take any prisoners? And the black men are the good guys?

Compared to your typical Civil War era movie, say "Gods and Generals", that's a big departure. For a mainstream white filmmaker like Spielberg I wouldn't expect much more.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments all around.

Mr D., your comment:

"a mouth vomiting seen with Thaddeus Stephens in bed with his black mistress reading the bill for the 13th Amendment to him."

contrasted with Inspid's comment:

"a loving, healthy, equal relationship that was not allowed to exist in law because of the racism of the time."

As a white man married for almost 25 years to a black woman, I've experienced a WIDE variety of reactions to our relationship, from Black and White. Some very negative, some positive, very few indifferent.

I just find it interesting how differently you both viewed the same scene. "Mouth vomiting" vs. "loving, healthy."

- Buddy H,

insipid said...

Well, if you like, Buddy, i'll be indiferent for the sake of variety.

Invisible Man said...


Thanks for saving me the price of the ticket

if I'm gonna see a Zombie Movie I'd rather see a move expressly designed to be a Zombie Movie, not for white liberal Zombies.

Anonymous said...

It's not as interesting as it is 'telling'.