Friday, November 30, 2012

Historian Kate Masur Plays Script Doctor With Spielberg's Whitewashed Movie "Lincoln"

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.

Here, Dr. Masur leverages her great mastery of the historiography surrounding President Lincoln, Emancipation, and the Black Freedom Struggle in an applied manner by making some concrete suggestions about how she would script doctor Spielberg's movie.

Her essay is smart and fun. To point. Here is a key section:
To those who insist that it would have required a PBS miniseries or a wholly different feature film to portray black characters with more complexity and to suggest that African-Americans played a role in their own liberation, I offer the following dreams and fantasies of my own.
Thaddeus Stevens could have talked about politics at home with his common-law wife, Lydia Smith, who was African-American. They might have discussed the tension between Stevens’s idealism and the president’s pragmatism; Smith could have given Stevens advice about how to handle himself during the House debate over the 13th amendment. 
Robert Lincoln, strolling around Washington and mulling his conflict with his parents, could have come across a meeting of black activists who, under leadership of the editor Robert Hamilton of New York, had assembled in the capital to lobby Congress for emancipation and equal rights. Some of these men could have been among the group of African-Americans who filed into the House chamber to witness the amendment’s passage. 
Keckley, in an effort to get the First Lady out of the house, could have taken Mary Lincoln to a meeting of her relief organization at 15th Street Presbyterian Church, the city’s most prestigious black church, where Slade was also a member. 
A Northern black activist or two could have visited the White House to lobby for the amendment or to discuss which Democratic representatives could be persuaded to back the amendment. For that matter, Lincoln could have been shown discussing his dilemma with Slade.
Instead of showing Lincoln interacting with (passive) photographic images of slaves, the film could have shown him meeting actual fugitive slaves who had come into the city. 
An escaped slave might have described her decision to leave home, her calculus of the risks versus the potential rewards, and her understanding of the war itself. The interaction might have been shown to touch Lincoln emotionally. (As it stands, Spielberg imagines that Lincoln decided to prioritize the amendment over peace talks, not because anyone or any thing persuaded him, but because he meditated on a Euclidean equation.)

Kate Masur's whole essay is well worth reading and reflecting upon.

For those of you who have seen Lincoln, what changes would you make? Alternatively, are there any other historical docudramas which you are particularly fond of that did not live up to their potential? How would you play script doctor with them?


insipid said...

I think that his not including Lincoln's visit to Richmond is just weird. I think that is the most stunning moment of the whole war and really set in concrete the meaning of the 13th amendment.

I also will agree that the scenes that Kate described would have been far superior to some of the other scenes he did include. There was no point in depicting the assassination as it had nothing to do with the 13th amendment.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Thanks to Google Books, I've been able to browse a lot of 19th Century political discussion about race, both before and after the war. Most of it is by whites, and whatever opinion they had, it took the form of What are "we" going to do about "them". But there are some books and magazine articles written by blacks to be found also, in those long-ago current events writings. In one of them I was struck by this passage:

The intelligent Negro traveller in foreign lands comes across four classes of Europeans. First, the class who are professionally philanthropic. These at the sight of the Negro, go into ecstasies over this 'man and brother,' and put themselves to all sorts of inconvenience to prove to this unfortunate member of the human race that they believe God hath made of one blood all nations of men, &c. The second class is composed of those who, at the sight of the Negro, have all their feelings of malice, hatred, and all uncharitableness excited, and who adopt every expedient and avail
themselves of every occasion to give exhibitions of their vehement antagonism. The third class regard him with contemptuous indifference and care to exhibit neither favour nor dislike, whatever his merit or demerit. The fourth class consists of those who treat him as they would a white man of the same degree of culture and behaviour, baaing their demeanour altogether upon the intellectual or moral qualities of the man- To the cultivated Negro, of course, the last class is the most interesting to meet, and if he had his choice between classes first and second, he would choose the second. Writers on Africa and the African race may be divided into very much the same classes; and the race has scarcely suffered more from the violent antagonism of its foes than from the false and undue admiration of its friends.

Anonymous said...

Any of Kate Masur's re-writes would have improved the film immensely. I really can't add to what she wrote.

I was charmed by Lewis's portrayal of Lincoln; it was more naturalistic than the overly dramatic films I've seen in the past, but Spielberg and Kusher omissions of Black activists remind me somewhat of how the aliens were handled in "Close Encounters." They exist, but the focus is on the "earthlings" reaction to them.

- Buddy H.

chaunceydevega said...

@Buddy. I love that Close Encounters quote. That is a brilliant summation, on many levels, of what is going on.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Chauncey. I discovered your blog from a link on the crooksandliars site, and I'm glad I found it. Yours is some of the best writing on the web.

@Insipid, at first I agreed with you about including the assassination in Lincoln, but then the more I thought about it the more I believe it was necessary to end the film that way. He pays the ultimate price for his "tyranny" .... It would have been a "cop out" not to show the price he paid at the hands of someone who glorified the old south.

- Buddy H.

Cavoyo said...

Whenever black people do something in a movie, like play football or protest their conditions in the Jim Crow South, there always has to be at least one white person tagging along for white people to empathize with. However, if white people do something in a movie, black people can be excluded even if they're central to the story.