Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2012

Paternalism and ass-kissing in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Filed under: Civil War,Film — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition Nov 30-Dec 02, 2012

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.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/30/paternalism-and-ass-covering-in-spielbergs-lincoln/


  1. I remember seeing Speilberg’s “Amistad” many years ago, and it suffered from the same problems related here. The ship rebellion served as an opportunity to tell how us great John Quincy Adams, Jr. was, as Spielberg subjected us to an over the top scene chewing performance by Anthony Hopkins. “Amistad” is, in a way, a prequel to this one.

    Beyond this, I can’t aesthetically stand Spielberg’s epic, implicitly sentimentalized style. I’ve heard that it is not so prominent in this film, but it does, I believe, serve an ideological purpose of romanticizing the paternalism that you rightly find so objectionable.

    While he’s not as overtly ideological as Loach or the late Pontecorvo (a personal favorite), I believe that John Sayles would have have been a great choice to deal with this subject, particularly because of his narrative ability to engage working class situations (“Matewan”, “Eight Men Out”, “Lone Star” and even “Sunshine State”).

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 30, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

  2. Day-Lewis is such an interesting actor to watch it’s advisable to take
    a bit of history along to the movie. I suggest this quote from Lincoln’s speech in Illinois of 1858: “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races–that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” 


    Comment by Peter Byrne — November 30, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

  3. Byrne’s point is excellent. Lincoln’s fight against slavery in the South was akin to FDR’s fight against Fascism in Germany — a reluctant necessity.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 1, 2012 @ 3:07 am

  4. I expected nothing else from Spielberg and I appreciate Richard’s comments. I am sorry to see a great actor like Day-Lewis making crappy films with big names instead of making good films with talented directors.

    That said, have you ever thought what might have happened if there had been no civil war? If the South had designs on Latin America, the North could have held those in check. African-Americans could have escaped to the North in droves — hmm, might this have something to do with why we went to war? Samel Tilden tried to talk reason to Lincoln, to go slowly in his response to the firing on Fort Sumter, but the man who ran one of the most corrupt administrations in American history would not listen.

    Comment by Tobysgirl — December 1, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

  5. good piece and I have to agree but I have not seen the film yet. It is a valid point to the producers that they wish to produce a movie that will make a shit load of money in todays market thus they produced this. Just take a look at how Lucas’s film on the tuskegee airmen went over. Like a ton a bricks. In the end it is called the film business for a reason. It is business and the bottom line is dinero…….. cold hard cash, the film business is not about art no matter how Spielberg wishes to paint it. That is why we have documentaries. They tell the history far better than a hollywood production every could or would. Unfortunately many americans mistake a movie such as this for art or history when it is really simply entertainment. I will wait for the movie to be uploaded on one of the many boot leg web sites around the glob and then watch it. At least in that sense I did not contribute to the business!

    Comment by vince — December 1, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

  6. “We understand that there are class affinities between someone like Steven Spielberg and Barack Obama. Spielberg donated $1 million to Obama’s Super-PAC, the same committee that attracted $300 thousand from Sam Walton, the Walmart boss whose company Michelle Obama shills for. One big happy family.”

    I fail to see how that’s possible since Sam Walton died in 1992.

    Comment by Wendy Rebecca — December 2, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

  7. Sorry for the confusion. I was referring to an heir, not the founder of the company:

    The super PAC backing President Obama raised $15 million last month, including $300,000 from Samuel Rawlings Walton, an heir to Wal-Mart, a traditional Republican-leaning organization.

    Also contributing $1 million to Priorities USA was filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg is an Obama bundler and gave $1 million himself. Fred Eychaner, who has raised at least half a million dollars from acquaintances for the Obama campaign, gave $2 million personally to the super PAC.

    Read more: http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/inside-politics/2012/oct/20/wal-mart-chairman-gives-1m-obama-super-pac-bundler

    Comment by louisproyect — December 2, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  8. I’m wary of over-simplifying events surrounding the Civil War. The note about Robert E. Lee wishing to emancipate slaves (to use them as soldiers) has its limits. Lee’s Autobiography laments the difficult times for his son after the war, destitute, having lost his all. The irony is that there is no mention of the former slaves who never had their all and have little “all” after the war. I had thought to write about Lee but didn’t want to go inside the head of a man so blind. Yes, he was loyal to the state of Virginia when he declined Lincoln’s invitation to serve the Union, choosing secession over conscience (having liberated his own slaves). His notion to use slaves as soldiers late in the war was less than emancipatory. I am merely pointing out a conflicted situation, a desperate situation, to sustain a way of living for the South.

    Comment by Tony Wolk — December 4, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

  9. I’m sure someone’s ranted about this here before, but if you want to know why Spielberg should not touch a historical subject, ‘Munich’ is exhibit A. I really despise how every Palestinian in the movie is not really a person, but a walking political point. Okay, that goes for all the characters, but the Palestinians are used to make especially disingenuous claims about the humanity of Israeli assassins. The piano playing girl whom the squad purposely botch their attempt so as to not kill her (though they succeed in killing the target later) and the only adult conversation any Palestinian has in the film is one guy who says Palestine will be liberated, before he is killed by the very man he is talking to. Then there’s Avner’s silly epiphany about the futility of killing terrorists because they’ll be replaced, like that was supposed to be some profound insight. There are probably other detestable things but those are the standouts (Of course I only saw the movie in bootleg form).

    Schindler’s List is not as overtly loathsome, but there are some stupid things about it (What was the deal with that scene leading you to expect it would be a gas chamber, when it turns out to be an actual shower?).

    Another movie that I only bothered to watch the very end of (again from a video upload site), ‘Waltz with Bashir’, also explores the beauty and angst of fighting for Israel and treated the Palestinians as a prop in the human drama.

    Comment by andrew r — December 11, 2012 @ 1:16 am

  10. this has never happened before it was as if you read my mind!!! re: Thaddeus Stevens (and Lydia Hamilton Smith I wrote a post describing how disgraceful their treatment how marginal it was I have been in tears since I heard about Mr. Guyot–I knew Mrs Hamer I loved her.I never knew him I knew what happened to him– back to lincoln i said they may as well have re made birth of a nation the only thing you left out that was spielberg’s oozing sentimentality which is pathological, Oddly the only film of his that I thought useful WAS munich because it employed a strategy similar to the one here me out. John Le Carre uses in Little Drummer Girl–I remember arguing with Edward Said about it. Edward said essentially what andrew r above said. But I have discussed this with Palestinian friends. The sentimental western mindset is so deep so ill that you have to use what works. Edward was completely wrong about Le Carre who is an ardent supporter of Palestine –now spielberg is nowhere in that league but I can tell you from teaching–all the pictures of murdered Palestinians does nothing!!! Edward said the Palestinan case was put in an Israeli voice–so what!!!–Spielberg employed the same conflicted Israeli strategy. It works!! it changed people’s minds. Le Carre created real cognitive disonance Spielberg just enough so that the movie was pulled The stupid thing about schindler was the ending which was typical spielberg crap what Schindler really said was “get me the hell out of here fast!” But spielberg cannot do it. Look we can be pure or we can make progress the two don;t go together to andrew r from a radical perspective OF COURSE you are right–but it might be useful to think about what is going to affect an 11th grader not you or me, one final thing about the goopy wilberforce movie–it was clarkson who did the work. frederic douglass met him in his extreme old age–equiano’s book is problemicatic though i teach it next to swift

    Comment by Robert Alpert — December 11, 2012 @ 9:38 am

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