For All Its Strengths, 'Lincoln' Is Still a Comforting Fantasy

The eighth installment in a roundtable discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, A.O. Scott, Kate Masur, and Tony Horwitz about history and Steven Spielberg's movie

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Hi all,

I saw Lincoln for the third time on Tuesday, this time with a group of terrific Northwestern undergraduates. Each time, new aspects have come to light for me; on Tuesday I was thinking about the domestic side of the movie and the themes of death and mourning that Spielberg focused on in a recent speech. Few films are so multifaceted and well-conceived. It's damn good, as Ta-Nehisi says, but it's also got some problems.

It's not so much that historical films tend to be inaccurate. It's that they tend to be inaccurate in particular ways that tamp down pain, guilt, and ambiguity.

Yesterday, Tony (A.O.) Scott wrote that "the American movie industry continues to chase after a unified audience, which means airbrushing real conflict in favor of false harmony." Certain kinds of "real conflict," of course, have always been completely fine to show on screen. Take Birth of a Nation. In his quest for a unified (white) audience, D. W. Griffith had no problem showing the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan violently assaulting and disfranchising African Americans and thus redeeming the South and giving new life to the nation. The film portrayed real conflict to convey a message that white audiences of that era were glad to hear: Racist violence was justified and Jim Crow was natural and necessary.

It's not so much that Hollywood history films avoid conflict; it's that they tend to avoid the kinds of conflict that might make their imagined audiences uncomfortable. That's probably why historians of slavery and emancipation find Spielberg's Lincoln a bit frustrating. It's frustrating to see the violence of slavery represented only by photos; to meet an "airbrushed" Lincoln who seems never to have supported colonization or been swayed by abolitionists (as Tony Horwitz mentioned); and to see docile, patient black characters instead of multifaceted ones who would have challenged audiences' assumptions about how African Americans contributed to slavery's abolition.

In this context, I suppose it also shouldn't be surprising that the film helps audiences feel good about how Lincoln would have managed the peace—rather than uneasy about where all the strife over slavery and race might lead. When Thaddeus Stevens and Lincoln meet in the cellar of the White House to talk about cooperating on the 13th Amendment, for example, Stevens says that after the war, land owned by ex-Confederates should be divided into small tracts to be settled by a free people. Lincoln says "the people" will not support that. Stevens says "I shit on the people!" He represents them in Congress, he says, but he doesn't care what they think. On the one hand, this scene alludes to the reality that northerners probably wouldn't have favored confiscation of Confederates' land. On the other, by making Stevens look like a dangerous extremist and an autocrat, the film reiterates the interpretation of Reconstruction offered up by Birth of a Nation and the now-discredited "Dunning school" of academic scholarship. According to that interpretation, it was the radical Republicans who posed a threat to the peace—not the recalcitrant white South—and had Lincoln lived, we would have avoided all the ugliness of Reconstruction.

Presented by

Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. 

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