Slightly Longer Thoughts on 'Lincoln'

Thinking more on this, and reading on the critiques, I am more of the mind that Lincoln is great though deeply flawed. To repeat, I measure it by Hollywood's ugly relationship with The Lost Cause. Two of the industry's most revolutionary films—Birth Of A Nation and Gone With The Wind—are right out of the neo-Confederate school. Besides Glory, Lincoln is the first big-budget film I've seen repudiate that idea. In fact, the opening and closing scenes are the antithesis of the Lost Cause.

There's also something deeply beautiful about how the film is shot. There are moments in the Congress when you feel like you're peering into a painting. When Lincoln is seated talking to four soldiers—two black, two white—he feels ghostly, wraithlike. It's not so much that that these people seem to be talking as they seem to be in communion. Lincoln maintains that beautiful, walking-dead sense throughout the movie—so much so that I was actually disappointed we get that final shot of him walking down the long hall at the end. It felt like the heavy-handed version of something the film had, for much of its running time, handled with a light touch: Abe Lincoln the bluesman.

With that said, the movies take on radicalism is a problem. And it's not just a political problem, but an artistic one. I think we should steer away from dictating to artists which stories they should tell, but once someone commits to a story, then it becomes fair to then judge them on it. The story Kushner and Spielberg commit to is the legislative process involved in passing the 13th amendment. Lincoln at that point is at his most radical, but you don't get any sense at all that he was once a conservative, who was actually wrong about stuff.

It was pointed out to me that by the time portrayed in the film, Lincoln had abandoned his love of colonization. That's true, but Lincoln's support of colonization—which he held to for vast majority of his political life—is an insight into who Lincoln was. There's no sense in the film that Lincoln, for years, tried to push compensated emancipation on the loyal border states and got nowhere. Lincoln fashioned himself a disciple of Henry Clay, so it's no surprise that he evinced Clay's twin positions on slavery. But those positions proved to be wrong in every way—morally and practically. One of the most instructive scenes in Eric Foner's biography of Lincoln, The Fiery Trial, is the president upbraiding a group of black leaders and trying to sell them on colonization and having his words disseminated by the press. This was the original Sista Souljah—except it utterly failed.

What Lincoln doesn't want to admit is that the radicals were right, morally and politically. When it comes to wisdom, better late than never, as they say. But it was radicals like Frederick Douglass—long before Lincoln, and long before the vast majority of white men charged with leading the war—who understood that this was war against slavery. Lincoln was late on that one. We don't need to see these events depicted for the script to evince some awareness of them. When Lincoln upbraids Thaddeus Stevens for offering bad, overly idealistic advice on how to end slavery, Stevens could just has easily upbraided Lincoln for shocking naiveté regarding how much the South depended on slavery.

This inability to countenance the fact that radicals actually have reasons beyond stubbornness, reaches its most problematic when it touches the black characters in the story. I think Kate Masur basically gets it right:

In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who'd sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes. 

The film conveys none of this, opting instead for generic, archetypal characters. Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben) is frequently seen sitting with the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field), in the balcony of the House of Representatives, silently serving as a moral beacon for any legislator who looks her way.

Part of the problem here is that people like Keckley and Slade were--by their nature--radicals. If you were black during the Civil War and favored freedom--as most black people did, and most humans in the same situation would--you were a "radical." You had no choice in the matter. The film elides this tension by nodding at race, through its black characters and attempting to surprise us by revealing that Stevens had a black common-law wife. It would have been nice to know this earlier, and get some sense of Stevens' deeply personal stake in full equality, instead of rendering it merely as the stubborn need to be right. 

Instead we get a fetishization of compromise, and I think you see that not just evinced in the film, but in Kushner's own erroneous comments on Reconstruction:

"I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. 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.

I can not stress how very wrong this is. The idea that the Klan and "self-protection societies" which the rest of the 19th century, raping, pillaging and killing black people could have been avoided by compromise renders moderation, not at a tactic, but as a religion.

The way forward isn't to do the same for radicalism. It's not so much that Lincoln was "wrong" as it is that he was not God, that no one--radical, moderate, conservative--is. I found myself thinking of Matt Wiener and David Simon, two story-tellers who--on their best days can name something as wrong, and at the same time make you feel like might do the exact same thing.

In that sense, Lincoln lets its audience off too easy. It's comforting to feel that we can always find great wisdom in the middle. For the slight cost of waving away those who carry radicalism in their very blood, it reaffirms our great faith in democracy. It's much more terrifying to consider how democratic compromise can be disastrous and how zealotry can be perceptive. Lincoln should have been harder on us.

And I still loved it. And it still left me weepy. And you should still see it.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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