Quoted: On Lincoln And Historical Whitewashing

Lest I be accused—as I already have been—of imposing some kind of PC orthodoxy on a piece of mass entertainment, or of applying an anachronistic standard of inclusion to a film that marches under the banner of fidelity to historical truth, let me reiterate one point and add two others. Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role. Spielberg and Kushner are not being faithful to the historical record; they are distorting it. Not by lying but by constructing the field glasses through which they would have us look at, and misperceive, the past.

Aaron Bady will be blogging about the film, too, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But he’s dug up two interesting factoids that are relevant: First, Spielberg was originally thinking of making a film about the relationship between Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This is a topic that has generated a large and growing literature. Spielberg opted not to go that route. Second, though Spielberg chose to base the film on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, he decided essentially to use three pages from the book as the basis of his story. It was his decision to focus on the few months that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House.

These unforced choices—his choices—effectively precluded the inclusion of blacks as political agents in their own right. It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

- From “Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy,” by Corey Robin

[h/t @SugarKovalczyk]

  • Anonymous

    I’ve heard rave reviews about this film. Beyond the whitewashing addressed by Corey Robin, I wonder if it covered Lincoln’s own racism. Not to say that he wasn’t a great man, but would be interesting to explore his faults as well.

    • Anonymous

      The film’s timeframe was small enough that the audience didn’t get to see Lincoln’s views on race evolve. Radical Republicans were shown to be concerned that Lincoln may have prioritized ending the war over ending slavery; one cites a Lincoln speech implying that blacks and whites were not equal, and another points out immediately that the quote was years old and that his views have changed. Lincoln’s personal racism was only covered in a few lines of dialogue and the film already begins with him holding personal anti-racist beliefs. The film did acknowledge that a lot of whites who favored emancipation were deeply racist, and they opposed slavery because of perceived economic benefits or that it would end the war.

    • Anonymous

      The film’s timeframe was small enough that the audience didn’t get to see Lincoln’s views on race evolve. Radical Republicans were shown to be concerned that Lincoln may have prioritized ending the war over ending slavery; one cites a Lincoln speech implying that blacks and whites were not equal, and another points out immediately that the quote was years old and that his views have changed. Lincoln’s personal racism was only covered in a few lines of dialogue and the film already begins with him holding personal anti-racist beliefs. The film did acknowledge that a lot of whites who favored emancipation were deeply racist, and they opposed slavery because of perceived economic benefits or that it would end the war.

    • piedra negra

      I just saw the film last night. I kept on waiting for Lincoln to talk about his plans to ship all black folks back to Africa. There was an opportunity to make that plain during a discussion about reconstruction, but Tony Kushner, elected an allusion. The opening of the film was ridiculous except for the Black soldier turning his back on Lincoln while reciting the end of the Gettysburg Address. It’s a beautiful film. Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Fields are magnificent. But, I left feeling frustrated and talking kinda loud about Lincoln’s racism and his plan, along with Francis Scott Keys, to ship all of us to Liberia and how Lincoln believed that white people would not be fighting if it weren’t for our presence in the country. Folks, white and Hispanic looked at me kinda funny, but I didn’t care. There’s enough lying about about history in the the U.S. … I think that’s one reason why we are so f’d up.

      What I did appreciate about the film is that it showed just how invested white Northerners were in keeping the U.S. a white supremacist nation and that right wing Republicans in 2012 are not that different from their 1865 conservative Republican counterparts.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    But…but…then there’d have to be black actors. And there’s only Morgan Freeman, after all, and he’s probably busy somewhere with penguins. THEY HAD TO DO IT THIS WAY.