Horse-Trading Versus Struggle
Paternalism and Ass-Covering in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”
Which film about the abolition of slavery was intended to burnish the reputation of a contemporary President? If you answered that it was Spielberg’s lavishly praised “Lincoln”, you were right. When asked in a November 15th NPR interview whether he saw parallels with the Obama administration, screenwriter Tony Kushner replied:
I think Obama is a great president and I feel that there is immense potential now for building – rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it. And I think that it faces many obstacles, and one of its obstacles is an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people, with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.
But you would have also been right if you guessed “Amazing Grace”, the 2007 biopic about William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who opposed slavery. Its producer Philip Anschutz, the rightwing billionaire who also recently unleashed the toxic defense of charter schools “Won’t Back Down”, clearly intended to promote the agenda of the Christian right and the Bush administration it supported. By turning the abolitionist movement in Britain into a Church-based enterprise, Anschutz sought to legitimize new missionary operations in Africa all too familiar to people with painful memories of the bible and the gun.
The paternalism embodied in both screenplays transcends narrow party affiliations. It is wrapped up in the idea that “good people” on high delivered Black people from their oppression. The chief difference between the two films is Kushner’s decision to eschew hagiography and portray Lincoln as a kind of down-and-dirty dealmaker. This Lincoln had more in common in fact with LBJ than Barack Obama whose pugnaciousness is most often directed at his voting base rather than the billionaires who financed his campaign.