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“Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into? “

Well, this is new.  I saw a Steven Spielberg movie this weekend that I loved – and yet I would not award it with the Best Picture Oscar, nor Spielberg with Best Director.

The movie, of course, was Lincoln, and don’t get me wrong; it is an excellent film.  The writing is clean and clever, the cinematography is spellbinding, and the story arch is compelling.  The cast is by far the best part,  and their accolades are well earned (if Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t win Best Actor, I’ll eat a stove pipe hat!).  I left feeling that my time and money had been well spent.

Yet I was also disappointed with the experience and here’s why: When the final credits were rolling, I scanned the departing crowd and there was not one non-white attendee among us.  I wondered about this for a moment, then watched the names scroll down the screen and formally noted the absence of any big name African American actors (the closest are Gloria Reuben and S. Epatha Merkerson, both of TV fame and both excellent in their roles, but neither what you would think of as a major box office draw).

Then I began to think on the marketing for Lincoln and realized what I feel to be its greatest (if not only) flaw: the creators had positioned the film well for winning Oscars, but not to win broad appeal culturally.  This feels like a surprisingly narrow approach, especially in this day and age, and especially from Spielberg.

To be fair, Spielberg has not claimed that he was trying to present a comprehensive view of the abolition of slavery, or of the Civil War, or even of Lincoln himself.  Instead, he referred to it as “…a Lincoln portrait, meaning that it was one painting out of many that could have been drawn over the years of the president’s life.”  Similar to the movie 1776Lincoln takes one crucial moment in America’s history – here the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – and explores all of the political machinations around it that made it happen.  It’s fascinating stuff.

Maybe it’s because I saw it over MLK, Jr. weekend – part of which this year will involve the second inauguration of our first ever African-American president – but I felt the movie to be at best incomplete and at worst dated due to its insufficient representation of African American players.  I mean, okay, there were no African American members in the House of Representatives and history doesn’t give us an account of any such players.  Any attempt to include them would be an exaggeration or embellishment on what we know from the formal record.  I get that.

Yet the story seems to have been already embellished somewhat for relatability, entertainment, and narrative structure.  Historians have suggested that the race against time aspect and frictions within the Republican party are not true to fact, and the personalities of the characters – plus the dialog itself – have been creatively developed without firm historical evidence. That’s all just part of the art of film and writing.  Would it have been so difficult to make one of the African American characters bigger, then to cast a big name so as to appeal to more than one audience – if only as a symbolic voice of the greater movement?

Not only that, but with the exception of Thaddeus Stevens (played exquisitely by Tommy Lee Jones) and a short anecdote by the president, we don’t see enough of the “why?” behind the characters’ stances to support or deny abolition – and there is always a why.  Who were the faces or forces that inspired these men on their paths?  What motivates a man to use his power to set another soul free, or to keep it in chains?

Absent these factors, Lincoln seems to reduce its relevance by supporting the idea of the president as the lone hero in abolishing slavery.  This not only goes against what we know to be true, but also alienates African Americans.  It limits the conversation to what happened amongst the whites, which is another injustice; slavery was never about us and history should therefore no longer be allowed to revolve around us alone.

I still enjoyed the movie and will likely see it again.  My complaints are not so much a condemnation of the film as they are a regret on its behalf.  With a slightly expanded perspective, this film could have facilitated a real life picture of victory resulting from the very acts it was depicting.  Instead, it will likely edify and educate a very limited audience, and we’ll have to look down the road for the story in its completion.

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5 thoughts on “Of Man and Myth (thoughts on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln)

  1. Fun fact: Thaddeus Stevens was not only an abolitionist, but, because of his background and disability, an advocate for equal opportunity and education for boys (and later, girls) of all backgrounds. He founded a college in Lancaster that to this day makes education accessible to students who don’t match up well to the traditional 4-year liberal-arts track. My son plans to attend there next year.

  2. I saw Lincoln and Django Unchained in consecutive weekends over Christmas break, and the demographics of the audience in both, and their reactions, were as interesting as the movies themselves. I saw both on a Sunday night. Lincoln was exclusively white, male, and I’m guessing an average age of 45. I was probably the youngest person there. Django had both white and black, men and women, and a lower average age, probably late twenties, early thirties. The reactions I noticed in Lincoln were mostly solemn, mainly in anticipation of his assassination and then the scene with Stevens at home after the amendment passes. In Django, one minute it was absolutely still with horror from its depictions of slavery, the next it was full of side-splitting laughter from the dialogue and plotting you expect from Tarantino. It felt wrong to laugh, but we all did anyway. Or at least I did. I would like to watch it again with the lights on to see if anyone else was laughing too. Of the two, Lincoln is obviously more faithful, more historically accurate than Django, but I also wondered in the days after, if Django and our reactions to it doesn’t perhaps have more to say about slavery and its legacy, in the past and present than Lincoln?

    • Ooh, that’s interesting, Phil. I plan to see Django next week, and I will definitely be reading the room with this in mind. Thank you!

  3. Pingback: Honoring Abe | Monomyth

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