What ‘Lincoln’ leaves out, and why it matters

November 30, 2012

After Nov. 6, listening to all the explanations for President Obama’s win, I was surprised at the surprise in some quarters about the enthusiastic participation of certain voters, and troubled by the way those votes were marginalized. It goes something like this: Look at all those blacks and Hispanics and Asians and women and young people who put President Obama over the top. How and why did this happen?


Left: Abraham Lincoln courtesy Library of Congress. Right: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln © 2012 – DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

It happened because Americans stood in long lines to exercise a cherished right, and shouldn’t everyone be happy about that? When strict voter ID bills are scrutinized, not because they might unfairly single out some Americans but because they don’t cull out enough of them, then that’s a problem. And when people are shocked that the powerless make their voices heard, then it’s time for a history lesson.

Mitt Romney adviser Stuart Stevens, in The Washington Post, spins his candidate’s defeat into a philosophical win, in part, because after all, he won voters with household incomes over $50,000 a year and a majority of whites. It makes me wonder where the dreams and ideals of those in a different zip code and tax bracket fit in the national imagination. America became the exceptional country Americans brag about because of those folks’ contributions.

While filmmakers are in the business to make profitable entertainment, not conduct civics classes, the former can include some of the latter, especially when that’s the point. That’s why I was ultimately disappointed in “Lincoln,” and why it meant more to me than it should.


I went in knowing that Abraham Lincoln was a towering president and man, that the great Daniel Day-Lewis looked a bit like him before the make-up and that, having been directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie would show a few too many endings before the credits rolled.

The story of the House of Representatives’ passage of the 13th amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, is a stirring one and an unusual subject for a major Hollywood project. Spielberg’s film is certainly a corrective to the fairy tale of “Gone with the Wind” and the downright slander of “Birth of a Nation,” with its heroic Klan and evil abolitionists, and it gets the smoky rooms and the wheeling-dealing right. 

But, as historian Kate Masur wrote in The New York Times, “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.” She writes, “It reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”

Masur points out that Spielberg need not have added scenes or made up dialogue to more accurately reflect the dramatic history being made in his own household. The two black White House servants, shown primarily in the film as helpmates and companions to the president and Mary Todd Lincoln, were so much more: the man, William Slade, a leader in a black civil rights organization and confidante to Lincoln, and the woman, Elizabeth Keckley, a community organizer who raised money and donations for the fleeing slaves who crowded the capital city, and prompted the first lady to help. Keckley published a memoir after the war.

In “Lincoln,” there is the voice of a black Union soldier who, at the film’s start, recites lines of the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln and, ironically, recounts tales of unequal treatment by the military as he fights. It rings true, and then fades for the film’s duration.

In 2012, when millionaires meet to complain that their donated dollars failed to translate into the desired electoral result, perhaps America needs a reminder of the diverse voices that built it.

No movie should have to bear the weight of authenticity – that’s why they call it dramatic license. But knowing that more people will visit the multiplex than a library, I wish that “Lincoln” had opened its lens to include all the forces that made the 13th Amendment – and so many other important steps to America’s greatness – a reality.

 

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

 

 

 

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3
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