Once More Into the Breech, Dear Friends

Brooks Simpson has expanded his remarks regarding Hari Jones and Kate Masur.  As usual, his observations are incisive.  Brooks suggests that Masur has not been given a fair reading.  Above all, I’d like to be fair, so first I wanted to revisit my original comments on her critique based on my viewing of the movie, before I had read Jones’ response:

“I have to disagree.  The movie starts with an African-American soldier standing up to Lincoln regarding equal pay and having black officers, essentially telling the President, “Yes, we’ve made progress, but it’s not enough and it’s not fast enough.  What are YOU going to do about it?”  At least, that’s the message I got from him.  Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley is no mere bystander.  She says what’s on her mind and isn’t afraid to confront Lincoln, respectfully of course.  Stephen Henderson’s William Slade is no shrinking violet, either.  When asked if he was beaten when he was a slave, he answers, “I was born a free man.  No man beat me without me beating him back.”  One thing I will agree with Dr. Masur on is it would have been nice to have seen a conversation with Frederick Douglass.  I also agree with her point that at the end, after Lincoln’s death, it might be confusing for those who don’t know their history to see Lincoln delivering a speech (it’s his Second Inaugural).  I think it might have been more effective to show him delivering the speech where it would be in the body of the movie, and then perhaps have a voice-over of it while the camera lingers on Lincoln’s lifeless body.  Of course, I have no Academy Awards for directing, so I’m probably off-base.  I really enjoyed the film anyway.”

Let’s go back to what Masur wrote:

“But 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.”  I have to disagree.  It’s not a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States.  It’s a movie showing Lincoln’s role in passing the 13th Amendment.

“Yet Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.”  Again, we have the soldiers in the beginning, which Prof. Masur acknowledged, plus Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade not being any mere bystanders.

“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.”  If a movie is viewed as a stand-alone educational tool, I would agree with this; however, I disagree with the view of a movie being a stand-alone educational tool.  A movie is for entertainment.  While it can be used as an educational tool, it isn’t one by itself.  I think it’s up to historians and teachers to be the correctives.  In a sense, I would agree this is something Dr. Masur is doing.  To the extent that she applies a corrective, I not only agree but applaud.  I think, though, she’s going a bit beyond that.

“It would not have been much of a stretch — particularly given other liberties taken by the filmmakers — to do things differently. Keckley and Slade might have been shown leaving the White House to attend their own meetings, for example. Keckley could have discussed with Mrs. Lincoln the relief work that, in reality, she organized and the first lady contributed to. Slade could have talked with Lincoln about the 13th Amendment. Indeed, his daughter later recalled that Lincoln had confided in Slade, particularly on the nights when he suffered from insomnia.”  This is what Dr. Masur would have liked to have seen, and what Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner, for whatever reason, decided not to show.  One possible reason, given neither is a historian, could be that they didn’t know about it.  For what it’s worth, after seeing the movie, I can easily believe that Lincoln confided in Slade.  While not part of the script, I think it was in the movie in the form of the emotional relationship between the two men that was not overt but rather in the undertones.

“Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together — reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role.”  Once again, Dr. Masur is approaching this as the story of emancipation, which it is not.

“The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is attentive to the language of the period and features verbal jousting among white men who take pleasure in jabs and insults. By contrast, the black characters — earnest and dignified — are given few interesting or humorous lines, even though verbal sparring and one-upmanship is a recognized aspect of black vernacular culture that has long shaped the American mainstream.”  The white men were members of Congress, mostly, where the 13th Amendment was being debated.  Their verbal jousting was integral to the story.  African-Americans at the time were not members of Congress, so they would have not been shown in the same light.

“A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.

“That, too, is the history of abolition; ‘Lincoln’ is an opportunity squandered.”  I would agree if the movie was about abolition.  It was not, though.

Brooks asks some very good questions of us.  “What does Robert Todd Lincoln have to do with the Thirteenth Amendment, for example? If Mary Lincoln is to be portrayed as lobbying for the amendment, why not William Slade? If one can make up dialogue between Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Smith, why not have a little of the same between Elizabeth Keckley (who sacrificed a son to the Union cause) and Abraham Lincoln?”  Robert and Mary were members of Lincoln’s family, which makes them appropriate for inclusion.  William Slade, I think, would not have lobbied Congressmen directly while acting as a servant in the White House, and if he knew Lincoln wanted the amendment to pass, what lobbying would he have done during the timeline of the story?  There was dialogue between Keckley and Lincoln in the movie already.  What would we cut to fit more in?  Would the movie have been enhanced or diminished?  I don’t know.

Brooks then gives us a perspective that I confess I didn’t consider:  “What Masur’s suggesting, of course, is that choices have consequences. I didn’t take her essay as telling us how Spielberg should have made his movie, but how the choices Spielberg and Kushner made shaped the story they decided to tell, and what they decided to remember … and forget. Those people who are fond of David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion should understand that.”  That was not the message I got from her critique.  The message I received was in fact that she was telling us how Spielberg should have made the movie.  I freely admit I could be wrong, but I apparently am not the only one who interpreted her remarks in that way.

Brooks has some excellent questions toward the end of his post, which I will try to answer from my perspective:  “Given that the basis of the film is to tell a tale based on historical events, what obligation does the filmmaker have concerning historical accuracy?”  In my opinion, none beyond establishing enough verisimilitude to make the average viewer feel as though they are viewing events of the time.

“Are we supposed to dismiss every criticism of a historical drama by making the usual excuses … it’s the filmmaker’s story, you can’t do much in the time allotted, people really aren’t interested in having the details straight or not bright enough to understand what’s going on)?”  I don’t see any reason not to.  I’m willing to discuss, though.

“If there are legitimate criticisms that can be made, what are they?”  From a historical standpoint, I think we can make correctives, but in my opinion, it should be from the standpoint of, “Now that you’ve enjoyed the film, perhaps you’d be interested in what really happened.”

“At what point is the drama no longer historical?”  When it doesn’t deal with historical events and characters or enters another genre such as science fiction.

“Why market a film as enhancing our understanding of history if at the same time we agree that the relationship between film and history is problematic? Why not simply make it a historical fiction, an engrossing speculation?”  This I can’t answer.  I just don’t know why the producers made the marketing decisions they made.

Brooks ends with what I consider to be some good advice.  “But sometimes it pays to wait a bit, sift through what’s out there, and think a little before writing something a little more dispassionate and a little more reflective than much of what we often see in the world of quick analysis and instant response.”  That’s a point well taken.

I think historians can do great service in pointing out where the film deviates from the actual history, but I think making a claim that the filmmakers erred in making the choices they made goes beyond their expertise.  The filmmakers are trying to fill the theatres and enhance DVD sales.  It’s up to teachers and historians, in my opinion, to bridge the film to the actual history.

10 comments

  1. I don’t see Slade as lobbying Congress: I do see him as someone who was politically active, and someone who could have lobbied his boss.

    1. Certainly he could have done so, but I see Lincoln in that part of the movie as having made up his mind to get the amendment passed. Perhaps a Slade talking to Lincoln about the 13th Amendment would have fit in 1863, as in, “Now you’ve emancipated the rebel slaves, what are you going to do about slavery elsewhere?”

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed “Lincoln,” and agree with much of Brooks’ and Masur’s remarks. That said, and to be fair, my only real criticism of the final edit was the omission of a scene that I understand was shot, but failed to make the finished film–and oddly so, given that so much was filmed here in Richmond and in nearby Petersburg. It involved the landing of Lincoln and son Tadd at the foot of 14th Street, days after the fire so briefly glimpsed in the end-of-the-War montage (and brilliantly imagined by Spielberg using the Brady and Gardner post-Fire images as a guide). Lincoln and Tadd are rowed to the shore, Lincoln climbs Shockoe Hill to the Capitol & the Davis residence, and is mobbed by newly freed slaves in the heart of the Confederate capital. Five minutes of rather relevant imagery, I would think, that bolster much of what was shown before. Best of all, it happened that way (be mindful too of the outdoor statuary of Lincoln & Tadd seated on a bench, adjacent to the Tredegar RNBP headquarters– the installation of which was embarrassingly picketed by a local SCV Chapter).

    But….to the discussion at hand. To fault the film for offering more of “waiting for the White Man to give folks their Jubilee,” and dismissing the focus on what the War had done to Lincoln and his family as some sort of wasted opportunity, well, is a bit short-sighted. Yes, I agree that omitting Frederick Douglass was a mistake. And yes, a few more lines of dialog with Slade might have offered more telling detail. We must remember, though, that films like this work best as snapshots, given running time considerations, and not as doctoral dissertations–not to mention the inherent danger of putting too much 21st century thought into the mouths of 19th century characters. Subtlety and poignancy can easily be brushed aside, replaced by a bullet-pointed pageantry that offers a parade of talking heads, much like an old Encyclopedia Britannica film produced for schoolchildren.

    Perhaps it’s instructive to remember the title of the film: “Lincoln.” The race against time to pass the 13th Amendment with lame-duck votes, the monumental toll taken by the War on a panoply of participants, the state of below-the-surface social complexities amid the general catastrophe, the fate of the South and impending Reconstruction, all the while trying to avoid docu-drama characature……that’s a pretty tall order for less that three hours of film. The good news from all this, though, is that there’s a public appetite for the Age of Lincoln, perhaps now more than ever. Ken Burns opened the door some years back, and Spielberg has pushed through on his own. God knows there’s more than one story to tell here, and if we’re lucky, “Lincoln” won’t be the last. An imperfect film with moments of brilliance; I think that’s a fair judgement.

    1. Thanks for commenting. We do have to remember that this is Lincoln’s story, told about the last few months of his life, with the primary focus on his role in passing the 13th Amendment. As we can see through the discussion, there was a lot of dramatization while at the same time there was a lot of effort to get some details correct, e.g., the sound of the ticking watch being the actual watch Lincoln used. The decision on which parts to dramatize and which details remained concretely accurate belongs to the filmmakers, and they made their choices. Were they the right choices? The film’s success speaks to that. We’ll see if that deleted scene is included in the DVD to be released tomorrow.

      I’m not so sure that the changes suggested by Brooks and Dr. Masur would result in more 21st Century thought being put into the mouths of the characters, though. It seems to me that they are talking about things that actually happened, so the dialogue would have reflected those actual events. Having said that, movies are often reflections not of the times they portray but the times in which they are made. So the choices made in crafting the dialogue could be influenced to some degree by 21st Century thought.

      1. Thanks, Al, for sorting out what I’d hoped to say. Historical recreation via any fictive vehicle, whether film, prose, or what have you, can’t help but leave a contemporary footprint…it’s just the nature of the creative beast. A critical audience, like our own here, determines just what constitutes heavy-handedness–or epiphany, as the case may be. Is an imagined conversation a likely conversation, or does it matter? if dialog is a window into character, does it degrade into speechifying when we reduce a flesh-and-blood participant to simply a source of editorial bullet-pointing? When “Lincoln” is at its most realistic, you have what we’ve come to know as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” You believe the imagined conversations, you believe the props to be the real thing, you believe you’re catching history on-the-fly, as it were. Raymond Massey’s Lincoln offered the man most Americans wanted to believe WAS Lincoln some 70 years ago. The standard for verisimilitude is different now, we want the greater complexity–we welcome the Spielberg/DDLewis Lincoln as less starchy & closer to the mark. Not perfect, but at least it gets us out of the museum and into the field.

        On a slightly different tack, I still wish for a mini-series just on the Seven Days Campaign. All the ingredients of grand opera: Little Mac & his grand army, the rise of Lee, the tragi-comedy of all the failed efforts on both sides which yielded another 2+ years of back-and-forth. More than enough colorful characters–Steve Sears’ “To the Gates of Richmond” is the best roadmap. The Iliad of the CW is the gift that keeps on giving: intensely human, and always relevant to the American experience.

        1. Would you envision a 7-day miniseries to go with the 7-Day campaign? 🙂 Okay, maybe two or three nights at the most. It’s nice to wish for something like that, and I’d love it, too; however, unfortunately, it appears as though funding would not be available for it in the foreseeable future. Maybe Lincoln’s success will change that.

  3. I think you’re all wrong.

    The film was called “Lincoln”, not “The Half-Century Process to End Slavery” or “How the 13th Amendment Was Passed”. That is why Mary Todd and Robert Todd are featured prominently, since biography tends to privilege intimate relations and, in a movie, allows a fuller expression of emotions designed to humanize the GREAT MAN. Outside of historians and politicians, most criticism of the film focused on it being too long, not focusing enough on Lincoln’s internal emotional conflicts, and covering too much ground. In other words, the historians wanted more of what the critics said was already in overabundance. Nearly 20 million Americans have already seen the film, more folks than visited the cemetery in Gettysburg over the last two decades. The film attracted good audiences, many people I know are interested in the subject matter for the first time in their lives and see some relevance of an historic event to our own times.

    Win-Win. No?

    1. I think the film provides a great opportunity to educate people.

  4. Pat is right on the mark. If the academics had their way, the finished product would have turned into an eight hour movie and probably been as long as the War itself. In other words, it wouldn’t have been made. Better a slightly imperfect movie than none at all.

    1. I doubt that. If anything, I think some cutting would have made for a better movie.

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