I just now saw Lincoln. Spielberg is a masterful filmaker and it’s a very enjoyable movie, but I have to agree with Kate Masur’s assessment in the New York Times. The film manages not to be Birth of a Nation, which is a really good thing, and it was really fun for me to see Thaddeus Stevens portrayed so well by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens to my mind is one of the great neglected figures of American popular history. But it’s an entirely conservative movie in that white men, and white benevolence or lack of same, are at the core of the thing.
It’s a historical fact that black Americans were insisting on their freedom in 1864 in thousands of large and small ways: leaving plantations, crossing Union lines and demanding to serve: fighting in the USCT, organizing themselves politically to lobby for their rights. Elizabeth Keckley was a far far more impressive woman than Mary Lincoln; she overcame the greatest disadvantages and succeeded on her own terms. She ran a small business; she founded an effective relief organization for freedmen. She was smart, strong, capable, resourceful, principled. But the movie mostly relegates her to watching, doe-eyed, while Lincoln bestows a gift.
And in fact, that’s exactly how Stevens puts it when he goes to his mistress with the bill in hand: he has a gift for her. The camera lingers not on her, the recipient, but on him, the giver. Yes, I know, it’s the story of Lincoln and Stevens and the passage of the bill. That’s my point: it’s an extremely conservative film, telling the story of how white people decided to give freedom to black people.
Yes, white men voted for the 13th amendment, and the film rightly celebrates the passage of the 13th amendment as one of the greatest accomplishments in US history. That white men passed it happened, but that’s not all that happened, and it’s not the only way to tell the story of slavery’s end. The men who passed it had the example of the black men and women who were working to free themselves and to constantly pressure Lincoln to do more. Where is Frederick Douglass, a man every bit as intimidating an rhetorically forceful as Stevens?
The movie opens in a promising way, with black Americans fighting for themselves, and then asserting their presence to Lincoln himself. But that’s pretty much the end of it. A few scenes of Keckley being hopeful, Slade, the valet, looking fondly at Lincoln; some African Americans in the gallery as the measure passes.
It’s not a bad movie by any means, but there’s nothing at all surprising about it. It prefers sentiment to complexity, and in the end it reinforces the view that history as the thing that great white men make. And it ends by suggesting that had Lincoln lived, Reconstruction might have gone better. There’s no evidence at all to support that, other than the fact that Lincoln was a masterful politician. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Lincoln might have been happy to sacrifice the expectations of freedmen and women on the alter of “reconciliation.”
I enjoyed it very much. Daniel Day Lewis is always compelling. The congressional Democrats were appropriately and delightfully nasty. The squalor of politics was well displayed. I wish, given the talent involved, that the film could have freed itself from an outdated model of history.