A Few Words about “Lincoln,” the Movie

Posted By Levi

December 13th, 2012 7:32pm


I have not yet seen the film “Lincoln,” but plan to do so shortly. But many of my friends have done so and most of them believed that it is indeed a great film.

The movie deals with President Lincoln’s efforts to push the 13th Amendment thought the House of Representatives in January 1865.  The Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, had already passed the Senate a year earlier but passage in the House was uncertain. So Lincoln had to use all the methods at his disposal to get the bill through the House.

The Emancipation Proclamation setting slaves free on January 1st 1863 was regarded by Lincoln as a temporary measure that would be ignored by the Confederate states after the War. The Proclamation declared freedom only for those slaves living in the states that were in rebellion; it did not apply to the slaves in the Border States. To end slavery once and for all, the 13th Amendment was therefore necessary.

However, I would like to point out that several historians think that the film offers a truncated view of the events that took place at the time. The eminent Columbian University professor, Eric Foner, argues that emancipation came about, not only because of the effort of Lincoln, but other forces as well which the film ignores. He writes:

“Emancipation — like all far-reaching political change — resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.

The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Moreover, from the beginning of the Civil War, by escaping to Union lines, blacks forced the fate of slavery onto the national political agenda.

The film grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared more than three million of the four million slaves free, and Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, exempted in whole or part from the proclamation, had decreed abolition on their own.

Even as the House debated, Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.”

Writing in the New York Times, Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, also takes issue with the film. She believes that director Steven Spielberg took liberties with the historical record. She argues that the film downplayed the role played by the slaves themselves in bringing about their freedom. She writes:

 “. . .  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. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.

This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African-Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.

The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr. Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April — these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets, markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.

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