Historians Need to Give Steven Spielberg a Break

Spielberg also chose to build his story around emancipation rather than the preservation of the Union. Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln as the central actor in this drama, making the president worthy of his place in our collective memory without mythologizing him. Indeed, one of the movie's strengths is that it depicts Lincoln as one player (albeit an important one) in that not-so-well-oiled machine that is the legislative process. Lincoln does his best to help to steer the amendment through Congress with the help of Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed persuasively by Tommy Lee Jones. We see the messiness, but we also get a sense of Lincoln's and Stevens's sincere interest in ending slavery once and for all.

Spielberg may not get every historical detail right, but it is impossible not to watch this movie as commentary on our own political challenges.

Eric Foner recently criticized the film because it failed to show that it was the abolitionists, and not Lincoln, who were the driving forces behind the Thirteenth Amendment. Kate Masur also takes issue with what she sees as a narrow understanding of how emancipation came about. For Masur, more attention could have been given to the activities of slaves in freeing themselves and to free blacks in the nation's capital. The criticisms of both historians should come as no surprise given their recent scholarship. Foner recently published a wonderful biography of Lincoln and slavery and Masur's book on emancipation in Washington, D.C., is a must read.

I am not so concerned about these supposed shortcomings. It is not Spielberg's duty to fill us in on the whole history of emancipation and the black population of D.C. But the spirit of self-emancipation comes through clearly in the opening battle scene (as well as that silly scene where Lincoln is chatting with both black and white soldiers about the war).

I am more concerned about Spielberg's overall portrait of Lincoln, which is tied directly to the timeframe of the movie. We see Lincoln at the end of a very long—and at times confusing—process that extended back to his early years, in which he expressed views about African Americans that may be shocking for some of us to hear today. But Spielberg doesn't give us any sense of these earlier views. At one point in the movie, Elizabeth Keckley asks Lincoln what he thinks African Americans should do once they are freed. If she had asked that question two years earlier Lincoln likely would have advised her that colonization was their best option.

In contrast, I loved the debate on the House floor. As a high school teacher, I've found it challenging to get across the pervasiveness of racism throughout the country at this time. Spielberg accomplishes this very well, showing politicians as they argue passionately about the consequences of emancipation for white Americans: the competition for jobs, the spread of interracial relationships, and the possibility that black people will be allowed to vote. This scene is not only great drama: It ensures that the discerning viewer will be left pondering the challenges the nation still faces, 150 years after slavery ended.

This is the real value of a film like Lincoln. Spielberg may not get every historical detail right, but it is impossible not to watch this movie as commentary on our own political challenges. It shows us that the only way to get anything done in Washington is through compromise, but that this need not preclude embracing moral principles. Even when Spielberg misses the mark, he does what a filmmaker should do: He recreates the spirit of an era and inspires us to think more deeply about the myths and realities of a hugely important time.

Presented by

Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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