The fifth installment in a roundtable discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, A.O. Scott, Kate Masur, and Tony Horwitz about history and Steven Spielberg's movie
I want to thank you guys for spending the week with us here at the Atlantic hashing this over. I actually was worried people were all Lincolned out, but judging by the comment section over at my house, people are as interested as ever. Anyway, in our second and final round, I know you guys all have perspectives you want to explore, but I'd ask you (in addition to your own points) to grapple with another question. I'm obviously somewhat mixed on Kate's critique of race in the film. But I think her point about the portrayal of Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade is pretty dead-on. I'm not really sure how it improves the film to place Keckley and Slade there and neglect to employ their background. One might as well just use nameless black servants. I differ from Kate because I think that is a flaw in the grand sweep of damn fine film. And I also think that afterlife of Lincoln the movie might well mirror the afterlife of Lincoln the man.
One of the great tensions I find in progressive conversation is the uneven way in which American history unfolds. When I first started blogging about the Civil War, it was fairly common for people to critique the War from the Left and say things like "Well, given that debt-peonage followed the War, nothing really changed." It's tempting form to fall into. The Civil War was followed by a strong effort to repress labor mobility among African-Americans. It was followed by the greatest domestic terrorism campaign in American history. The only coup d'etat in American history came about in the half-century backlash to the War. Against that backdrop, looking at the slaughter of the War, it's common to default to analysis such as this one offered by the late Howard Zinn and wonder why the war was fought at all.
But whenever I get despondent about the War, the thing I remember is that in 1860, you could legally put millions of people on the market. In 1866, you couldn't. Progress comes so goddamn slow, and the way it comes is utterly frustrating. I can't imagine how, say, a Frederick Douglass would have felt watching the rollbacks as a half-hearted Reconstruction was dismantled, and the white supremacist militias of the South took over. Moreover, the very activists who make emancipation possible don't really have the option of being pragmatic. Their job is to expand our imagination of the future, not to hew to the practical present. So from that position, it's very hard to take a long view.
With that said, I'd like us to try to take a long view of the Civil War in film and beyond. Again, I feel like I can throw a pebble at a map of pop culture history and hit yet another story about the poor old Confederate, who conveniently held no slaves, done wrong by Union soldiers. Is Lincoln going to help us get pass that? Is the movie an advance? Even a limited one? Does it make it possible for all those other radicals who were left out to someday see their stories? There's some opportunity. Solomon Northup's story is headed to the big screen. Django Unchained is coming. (Though my expectations aren't very high.) Is Lincoln actually the first in a new wave? Is Hollywood finally beginning to catch up with actual history?