Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Debate on Lincoln continues...

I've covered some of the responses to Lincoln here on the blog over the past few weeks - including Kate Masur's initial comments in the New York Times, Hari Jones's response to her critique, and Eric Foner's thoughts as well.

It seems that Masur's critique of the portrayal of African American characters has sparked quite a debate. A hat tip to Al Mackey, who has nicely compiled some of the best of these writings over on his blog, including a second piece written by Masur - a response to those who critiqued her critique. I find her argument fairly convincing and well-argued.

The most interesting read I found in Al's post was written by Aaron Bady, who sees the film as an attempt by Spielberg and Kushner to praise pragmatic moderation over radicalism, hinting at connections to modern politics, and in particular President Obama:
Steve Spielberg and Tony Kushner's Lincoln is about Obama, we are told, or don't need to be told. It is about the triumph of a political compromiser, and it argues that radical change comes about by triangulation, by back-room deals, and by a willingness to forgo ideological purity. Kushner has said this quite explicitly, not only likening his Lincoln to Obama, but arguing that there are general principles to be drawn from it; "too much impatience can make it impossible for anything to happen," he said in response to Chris Hayes' question about whether the movie favors moderates over radicals.
I still have not moved off of my initial impressions of the film. Spielberg and Kushner tell a very narrow story, and through the microscopic lens that they use, they manage to tell that story in a historically accurate fashion. By making this interpretive choice they assuredly do not convey the complexities of emancipation, and leave many major players out of the story - not the least of whom are escaped slaves and black activists, as well as white abolitionists.

But movies are incomplete stories, and anyone expecting something more would do well to save their money the next time a historical film comes out.

The film contains a great deal of historical accuracy. Does it overstate the importance of the passage of the 13th amendment and its role in ending slavery? Absolutely. Does it overplay the drama surrounding the passage? Yes again.

Did the white legislators who debated the amendment overstate its importance when it passed in 1865? Yes. Did they overplay the drama surrounding its passage in their own time? Likely. Slavery was dead for all intents and purposes, yes - but adding an amendment to the Constitution, much less one that seemed so impossible only a few years earlier - was a momentous and dramatic occasion.

If one truly wants to learn about the whole story - they should read Eric Foner's history of Reconstruction, or The Fiery Trial. They should pick up W.E.B. Du Bois. They should not take Hollywood as the final word. Most will not do this, and that's O.K. For the average viewer, they now know a little more about the history of emancipation, even if it's an extremely incomplete story.

The success of the film for me is this - some of those viewers will read Eric Foner, and will read W.E.B. Du Bois. They might choose to learn more about the abolition movement, or Thaddeus Stevens, or Frederick Douglass, or Robert Hamilton. Some of those viewers may be in middle school or high school right now - and this film might start them on a journey that sends them off to become historians.

My final word for now, though, is on the quote Tony Kushner gave to NPR regarding his views on Reconstruction:
The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote 'noble cause,' and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.
Mr. Kushner wrote an excellent screenplay for Lincoln, but it is well that his film did not focus on Reconstruction. Kushner's film rescued Thaddeus Stevens from his frequent role as Hollywood villian, and yet this quote reads like it came directly out of the mouth of D.W. Griffith.

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