There is much to laud in the recently released film “Lincoln,” and Participant Media, which produced the film, points a principled way forward for fellow filmmakers, and their audiences, who care about social action. Participant Media is relatively new to Hollywood, but it has done much to draw attention to issues of social, economic and environmental injustice, with “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Help,” “Waiting for Superman” and “Food Inc.” among its notable calls to action.
However, in telling one of America’s most poignant civil rights stories, the film falls short in the most ironic of ways.
All of the protagonists in the film, portrayed nobly in their push for the abolition of slavery, are white — from President Abraham Lincoln to congressman Thaddeus Stevens. All of the African Americans presented in the film are in peripheral supporting roles — so peripheral, in fact, they would not be eligible for an Academy Award for the best supporting actor. Their casted and assumed roles are negligible.
The two strongest African Americans in Lincoln are Thaddeus Steven’s partner and confidante, Lydia Hamilton Smith, and Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley. But even they are shortchanged.
Keckley was a leader in her own right, starting a Contraband Relief Association to gather funds and clothing for former slaves seeking refuge in the Washington area.
Smith was a powerful businesswoman, owning and managing a number of properties in Lancaster, Pa., Philadelphia and the District. Her portrayal in the film has angered historians, including members of the Thaddeus Stevens Society in Pennsylvania, who felt this dehumanized and cheapened her position in society.
They have a point. It was no doubt commonplace in the mid-1800s for white men to have sexual relations, most often forcibly, with black women, and the Stevens-Smith business partnership has been documented to be something far different from the slavery era’s status quo. On this front, the film does little to distinguish a difference, despite showing Stevens and Smith in amicable conversation.
But here’s the real rub: Where was Frederick Douglass? While his Cedar Hill home in Anacostia may perch prominently above the District’s highest heights, his life and his impact on Lincoln was nowhere to be found in the film.
It is ironic, in fact, that “Lincoln” opens with a close-up of black soldiers in conversation with the president. It was Frederick Douglass who not only recruited black soldiers for the Union army, but he also ardently advocated to ensure these very black soldiers had equal pay, were treated equally, especially if captured, and received the same promotions as white soldiers.
Frederick Douglass made this film scene feasible. He found it absolutely inexcusable that black soldiers who served in the Army during the Civil War – totaling nearly 200,000 by the end – were being treated as second-class citizens, despite dedicating and ultimately sacrificing their lives for the country. Director Steven Spielberg or screenwriter Tony Kushner could have placed Douglass in that encampment encouraging black soldiers. The idea that the role of Frederick Douglass wasn’t afforded an historical fit in the film, as some have intimated, is utterly fallacious.
What a missed opportunity to educate American audiences about the myriad black leaders that inspired, instigated and were involved in Lincoln’s leadership on the issue of civil rights.
Douglass, a former slave and a friend of Lincoln’s, was an ambassador, educator, landowner, musician, linguist and, among many other assignments, the first recorder of deeds for, and U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia. He should have been in the film.
If Ford’s Theatre understood this — producing a two-hour, two-man play showcasing the Lincoln-Douglass dialogue — then so should have Participant Media.
For it was Douglass who knocked tirelessly at Lincoln’s conscience.
And even after Lincoln’s assassination, at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, after a good dose of modest praise for the president, Douglass noted that “Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.”
That is perhaps why “Lincoln” kept Douglass out of the picture (despite Lincoln, the man, often ensuring that Douglass was in it). Spielberg and Kushner wanted to keep the film a favorable treatise on Lincoln’s civil rights leadership and forego the Lincoln that Douglass described as “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.”
Unlike “Lincoln,” we cannot ignore Douglass’s critique in the current conversation over equality, or lack thereof, of opportunity, access and mobility in this country. Douglass would be deeply disappointed with the District’s income disparities and educational achievement gaps that disproportionately affect communities of color.
Douglass would be even more devastated that few leaders living in the District, serving at the city or federal level, seem to care about these gross inequalities of pay, of parity, of promotion — the very concerns on which Douglass pressed Lincoln for his soldiers.
This is where the film, and Participant Media, does inspire social action, as the parallels today are painfully apparent. In leaving out Frederick Douglass, “Lincoln” illuminates just how much more work we need to do on equality, whether in Hollywood or Washington.
Douglass once called the District “the most luminous point on American territory” where the ablest and best in America are sent to “shape the destiny of the Republic”. Lest that destiny be doomed by inequality, it is time we do better by, and for, all Americans, not just some of them.
Michael Shank, a resident of Anacostia, is adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.
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