Race and Spielberg’s Lincoln

I at last had the chance to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln this weekend, so I can finally join the small army of scholars and other commentators who have chosen to share their thoughts on this film. Simply as cinema, it was enjoyable with excellent performances, especially Daniel Day Lewis in the title role. My only complaint about the film as a movie was it lasted about twenty minutes too long. The film centered on Abraham Lincoln’s final lobbying push in early 1865 to pass the 13th Amendment (legally ending slavery) in the U.S. House of Representatives, which it depicts colorfully but more-or-less accurately. Lincoln should have ended with the final triumph of the amendment passing in the House. Instead, the film goes on for twenty minutes after that covering briefly in turn the fall of Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln’s assassination, ending a bit awkwardly with Daniel Day Lewis re-enacting an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. I am sure Steven Spielberg had good reasons in his own mind for organizing the film the way he did, but my main concern is not Lincoln as cinema, but Lincoln as history.

The Lincoln establishment among historians, that see their mission as defending and bolstering the 16th President’s reputation, have embraced the film, and little wonder, since Lincoln presents Abraham Lincoln in a highly positive light. The film clearly depicts him as the Great Emancipator, the indispensable man in the passage of the 13th Amendment and the final end of slavery in the United States. Steven Spielberg also clearly courted these scholars, hiring as a consultant, Harold Holzer, dean of the Lincoln establishment (to be fair to Holzer he has written about what he considers historically accurate in the film and what is not). Spielberg also gave “based on” credit to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and also used her as a consultant, even though the movie’s subject is only about nine pages in Goodwin’s book. Recently, Holzer and Goodwin even joined Spielberg on stage at the celebration of the 149th anniversary of the delivery of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Yet the acclaim of the film among scholars has not been universal. Eric Foner, of Columbia University, perhaps the most distinguished academic historian of the Civil War era, has pointed out on CNN that emancipation in the United States was a much more complex historical process than Lincoln would suggest (hat tip to Albert Mackey for bringing Foner’s remarks to my attention), a criticism that many academic historians (including this one) would agree with.

Kate Masur, of Northwestern University, also took the film to task in a New York Times op-ed essay, asserting Spielberg in Lincoln depicted African Americans too passively. She writes:

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. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.

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.

Kate Masur represents the reaction to Lincoln of decades of scholarship aimed at revising the interpretation of African Americans in the Civil War era from an acquiescent race waiting to be freed by white Americans to active and important players in their own liberation. This scholarship began with historians inspired by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s to recover the history of black people in the Civil War and American history more generally. My mentor, Ira Berlin, and his associates at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland played a heroic ground-breaking role in this scholarship, sifting through mountains of federal records to find those relevant to emancipation. Other scholars joined the effort with other works, and Masur’s An Example for All The Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. (2010) is a more recent specimen of what detractors incorrectly call the “self-emancipation thesis.”

Yet as Kate Masur correctly asserts this scholarship  has had a tough time making its way into popular culture. Masur mentions Ken Burns’ documentary series on PBS in 1990 as a partial exception. I also would add Glory (1989), which told the story of the 54th Massachusetts, as another. I will not speculate as to why this scholarship has not caught on more with Hollywood and other dream merchants, except to say that Americans, like the rest of the human race, generally want to feel good about themselves and their nation’s past, and revisionist scholarship on the Civil War while often revealing hard truths about American history does not tend to produce many inspiring, feel-good stories.

This is not to say the revisionist scholarship itself is without fault. In recent years, one historiographical thread that has developed is the recovery of nineteenth-century black political activism. Perhaps the most seminal work in this regard is Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet (2003), which explores the rise of an African-American politics in the South from emancipation through to the Great Migration of African Americans to the North that started during World War I, and how it contributed to later forms of black political consciousness.

Other scholars have followed Hahn’s lead looking at black political activism in the nineteenth-century United States. For example, I am presently reading for a book review, David S. Cecelski’s The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War (2012). It is a fascinating exploration on black political activism in North Carolina during the Civil War anchored by the story of Abraham Galloway, an escaped slave who returned to his home state during the conflict where he became an important African-American leader, powerful enough to deny the Union army the military service of black men there until he was satisfied they would be fighting for the freedom of their race and not merely for the preservation of the Union.

Yet as influential as Galloway and other black activists were at that moment when they held the keys to black enlistment in the Union Army in North Carolina, David S. Cecelski too often is left to speculate about the exact nature of Galloway’s activities simply because of the lack of historical sources. Or to assert the historical significance of events that have remained obscure probably because their historical significance in the bigger picture of American history was questionable to begin with. That is, while Kate Masur in her New York Times op-ed is quite right to question seeing African Americans as passive players in their own liberation, it is equally legitimate to question the limits of their influence as historical actors.

Hence, if Steven Spielberg can be criticized for largely ignoring African Americans as active and influential in emancipation during the Civil War (although this was certainly not the case with his depiction Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s black seamstress, whom he shows lobbying Lincoln with forceful dignity), the burden falls on to Kate Masur, David S. Cecelski, Steve Hahn, and other scholars of black political activism in the nineteenth century to suggest specifically ways that Spielberg might have rewritten his script to portray African American more actively in the context of the film. That is, if they had been the historical consultants instead of Harold Holzer or Doris Kearns Goodwin how would they have advised Spielberg? How during the five week or so period portrayed by Lincoln did African Americans make a difference in pushing the 13th Amendment to ratification in the U.S. House of Representatives? How might Steven Spielberg have translated this to the screen?

Certainly, it also is legitimate to probe the degree of Abraham Lincoln’s power over emancipation even as the influence of black political activism on the same issue also is questioned. If I have a personal bone to pick with Steven Spielberg, it is like Eric Foner to complain about the over simplification of the process of emancipation in Lincoln. While the story of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives is an interesting and significant moment in slavery’s end in the United States, and effectively dramaticized by Spielberg, it was just a chapter of a much larger story that Civil War Emancipation has been seeking to describe one post at a time for nearly two years now. One in which Abraham Lincoln was a major player, but was just as often pulled along by events beyond his control as he was able to influence them.

If I had been Steven Spielberg’s historical consultant, I might have advised him to drop the last twenty minutes of the film, which are not really relevant to its main story and exist as an awkward postscript, instead ending with the passage of the 13th Amendment (an inspirational, feel-good moment in Lincoln if there ever was one). Those twenty minutes could have been devoted to some sort of dramatic montage at the beginning of the film depicting the key events in emancipation up to January 1865 to put into historical context the story of Abraham Lincoln and the ignoble methods he and others employed in favor of the noble end of  getting the 13th Amendment through Congress. This would have started the film much better from a historical perspective than the gory battle sequence that opens the film at present, followed by the awkward scene of Lincoln chatting with soldiers where they recite to him the text of the Gettysburg Address, something that other historians have pointed out would be far-fetched since this speech did not gain its present illustrious reputation until after the Civil War.

Still, I must confess to enjoying Lincoln. For all its faults it is one of the better Hollywood films on the American Civil War in quite a while, its predecessors generally having set the bar rather low (Gods and Generals comes in mind in that regard). For its laughable historical errors and marginalization of African Americans (which is not quite as bad as Masur would suggest), by calling the nation’s attention to the Civil War during the conflict’s sesquicentennial and by focusing on emancipation however imperfectly Steven Spielberg has done a valuable public service. While I doubt I would use Lincoln in a Civil War history class, neither would I tell my students it was not worth seeing.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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7 Responses to Race and Spielberg’s Lincoln

  1. Al Mackey says:

    Don, I think Bjorn Skaptason nails the opening scene and shows the difference in the two African-American soldiers, one an infantryman who fought at Jenkins Ferry, most probably a former slave, and the other a cavalryman, most probably born a free man in the North. His comment on Kevin Levin’s blog is here: http://cwmemory.com/2012/11/24/spielbergs-battle-scene/#comment-42094

    I think if we view the film with these comments in mind it puts the portrayal of African-Americans in a new light.

  2. Kurt Knierim says:

    Thank you, as always, for your thoughts Don.

  3. M.D. Blough says:

    Also, I think some of the critics are more guilty of wanting the movie to be history as they wish it would have been than as it was. It is very important, on the one hand, to make it clear that blacks were not passively waiting for white deliverance and their actions helped bring the issue to a head. However, this was not the first time the issue had come to a head. Black soldiers eventually were used by the US in the Revolution; slaves flocked to the British banner with the promise of freedom. One time after another, they were betrayed in the name of white reconciliation and their contributions were wiped out of historical accounts. Lincoln was never the mythic Great Emancipator wiping out slavery with his magic wand. What he was was a great leader who knew the critical difference about not being the captive of popular sentiment but not to get so far ahead of the public that he loses contact. If the 13th Amendment was going to have a prayer of passage and ratification, it had to happen when the war still raged and people still blamed the Slave Power for causing it. At a time when Lincoln had the momentum of winning reelection with victory on the horizon, he chose to use that political capital and the considerable clout the spoils system gave him, in the interests of ending slavery. One thing I think the movie made very clear was the nature and extent of the opposition and how bitter and blatant the racism behind it was. Even with all that Lincoln and his allies put behind it, the Amendment barely made it out of the House.

    No 2 1/2 hour movie can portray the complexities and nuances of an event that took many years and many people to bring about, but I think the movie did a first rate job of it. As for Lincoln, he had the help of many in bringing about the 13th Amendment, but I don’t think it ever would have seen the light of day without him.

  4. Edwin Thompson says:

    Don – After seeing the movie, and reading many reviews, Margaret’s comments sum up the movie well. I agree that many historians wanted the movie to be history as they saw it, not as a movie created by Hollywood that had no way of knowing the exact words used by these historical characters. Another good comment was that Lincoln was a leader who kept with the masses yet still captured the moment to push through the 13th amendment. He proved himself as a leader.

    I thought the movie accurately portrayed the times. That was reflected in Abe’s comment to Elizabeth Keckley: “I don’t know your people”. He didn’t. How could he understand black Americans who had been held in bondage. He was merely a man with empathy for all people.

    The end of the movie was a master stroke by Spielberg. It climaxed with his second inaugural address “Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”. Wow. After that I was glad to see the last 20 minutes. The movie needed something to bring us back down to the fact that he was just Abe Lincoln, a poor country boy who did well.

    If I had a wish, it would be that Spielberg make a movie about the 1860 presidential election up to the time of South Carolina succeeding. The fugitive slave act, the black Republicans, the Dred Scott Decision, free labor, Stephen Douglas, Fredrick Douglas, the slave states politics, Bell, Breckinridge, Buchanan, and my favorite speech, the Cooper Union Address. If there was criticism of this movie, imagine the howling from a movie like that?

    • Greetings Prof. Fabrikant. Many thanks for your extended and learned response to Allen Guelzo’s piece in WSJ. I have alerted Prof. Guelzo to it, and hopefully he’ll reply to you here or elsewhere. He has been kind enough in the past to write responses on this blog.

      Don Shaffer

      • robert fabrikant says:

        Mr. Shaffer, thank you for your kind message. I have jousted in the past with Prof. Guelzo. i did not receive an email alert of your message. how can i arrange that? btw, ykou’ve put in place the mother of all blogs, as far as i am concerned. congratulations. bob

      • Hi Bob. Many thanks for the kind words on the blog. I alerted AG privately. I think he’s been by to read your comments. If he chooses to respond, I’ll let you know.



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