A Filmmaker’s Imagination, and a Historian’s
November 30, 2012, 1:58 pm
By Kate Masur
As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, historians are raising different kinds of issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.
“You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction,” Steven Spielberg recently told the historians in a crowd gathered to commemorate the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Then the filmmaker drew a distinction. Historians “gather evidence” and produce “diligently reconstructed narratives.” By contrast, he said, “one of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places,” to “enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us.” The “resurrection” of the past by filmmakers, he continued, “is of course just an illusion. It’s a fantasy and it’s a dream.”
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.
This is not a quibble about facts. Nor am I advocating a politically correct or anachronistic interpretation of history. To the contrary, it is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”
On the issue of facts, Harold Holzer, an eminent Lincoln scholar, found plenty of scenes that have no basis in the known history. Yet in an article for The Daily Beast, he concluded that, “In pursuit of broad collective memory, perhaps it’s not important to sweat the small stuff.”
I agree. It’s acceptable (even inevitable) that artists depart from the empirical evidence in order to capture something human and profound. But it is also reasonable to point out how a work of art can reveal and reinforce deeply held beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions.
In Spielberg’s treatment, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade appear to be faithful White House servants who did little more than look after the comforts of their employers. They are archetypes rather than individuals. In reality, Keckley was a skilled dressmaker who had many different clients among Washington’s society women; she led an organization of African-American women that raised money to help needy runaway slaves; and she persuaded Mary Todd Lincoln to donate money to her cause. Slade, for his part, was president of an African-American civil-rights organization whose activities were known to members of Congress and, almost certainly, to Lincoln himself.
If evidence abounds of Slade’s and Keckley’s leadership and advocacy, then why didn’t the film allude to it? Perhaps because the filmmakers did not—or could not—imagine black servants who had lives outside their work and were activists in their own right.
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 supposed lover, 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.)
None of my fantastical scenes are any less accurate or more improbable than scenes that already exist in the movie. Any of them would have helped suggest that the black characters—though marginal to the film as a whole—had political views of their own. And any of them would have helped make the broader point that African-Americans participated in the abolition of slavery in a variety of ways.
Some critics argue that the film gives us powerful scenes of black men as soldiers and that these sufficiently demonstrate that African-Americans participated in the struggle for abolition. It’s worth acknowledging that there are black Union soldiers in Lincoln, though frankly, it would have been egregious if Spielberg’s vision of the military conflict in the winter of 1865 had not included them. In an appealing example of artistic license, an early scene shows two black soldiers talking with Lincoln and then, with two white soldiers, reciting the Gettysburg Address. I like how this scene lays out some of the stakes and possibilities of that historical moment. And the black soldiers’ speaking parts are probably longer and certainly more interesting than any other lines delivered by black characters in the film.
Another scene in which stoic black soldiers on horseback stare down the Confederate commissioners suggests more, I think, about the commissioners’ horror at black enlistment in the Union army than it does about the soldiers’ own agency. But I appreciate how the scene references the dramatic changes in Southern life that the Civil War would bring.
Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.
As the political scientist Corey Robin wrote, this film de-centers Lincoln, giving us a cacophony of voices on the subject of abolition, but almost every one of those voices belongs to a white person. It is because the movie’s dramatic tension focuses on civilian life in general and on politics in particular that its creators’ failure to imagine the activities of black civilians is so disappointing.
In the end, Spielberg’s proposition that historians live in a world of facts while artists trade in dreams and fantasies is useful but incomplete. Historians use their imaginations all the time. In fact, some of the best history writing and teaching happens when we insist on exploring how our imagined version of a story stacks up against the evidence of complexity and contingency that we find in the sources. Conversely, of course, it’s hardly the case that Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, don’t care about knowable facts. Why else would they go to great lengths to get their hands on Lincoln’s watch or to record the ring of the bells at Lincoln’s church in Washington?
Perhaps the relationship between evidence and imagination is the crux of the matter. Many readers objected strongly to the assertion that the film could have alluded to African-Americans’ abolitionist activities without diminishing the larger story. There is ample evidence that doing so would have been historically accurate and manageable in a few minutes of screen time. Yet such activities were not part of Lincoln’s world as these readers (or the filmmakers) imagined it.
Spielberg’s remarks at Gettysburg were profound on the subjects of history, loss, art, and memory; it’s clear that he and Kushner have thought deeply about their work and its meaning. But this only brings into relief their blind spots about race. By failing to portray independent and verbally astute black characters—even on the periphery—they ended up making a film that perpetuates the culturally authoritative but historically inaccurate idea that white men alone were the authors of abolition.
We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.
Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).