'Lincoln' as Radical Art

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Continuing our conversation, A.O Scott makes the liberal defense of Lincoln, to which I alluded yesterday:


The case against Lincoln (and I apologize for compressing and to some extent caricaturing arguments made by Kate, by Corey Robin at Crooked Timber, and by Aaron Bady in Jacobin, among others) is that the film's emphasis on Lincoln's leadership in pushing the 13th amendment through a recalcitrant and divided Congress narrows and therefore misrepresents the true history of how slavery was abolished. The problem is not only that there aren't enough black faces in the movie, but also that the African-American characters (notably William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley) are rendered passive and marginal, beneficiaries rather than agents of change. Abolition as a social movement—as, in effect, the revolutionary mobilization of an oppressed population acting in its own interests—is obscured by the theater of the white political elite. Change results from the action and vision of a charismatic leader, rather than from ordinary people demanding power and autonomy in their own lives. 

In this respect—let's say as a work of historiography—Lincoln could be called a conservative, or at least an old-fashioned narrative. It is Great Man, top-down history, of a kind still popular among commercial publishers and non-specialist readers that has long since gone out of fashion among scholars. But I don't think the movie is a work of biographical fetishism; it is decidedly and blessedly not a conventional biopic. And I also think that, within the history of American film and of pop-cultural depictions of the Civil War more generally, it is radical in ways that have not been sufficiently noted.

For one thing, Kushner and Spielberg leave no doubt that slavery is not only the cause and central concern of the war, but the defining issue of American politics in the 19th century, and that racial justice will continue to be at the center of the American story. For another, Lincoln is utterly devoid of any sentimentality about the Noble Cause of the South, any revisionist hokum about states' rights or the dignity of tradition, any sighing about the terrible tragedy that pitted brother against brother. In other words just about everything that has informed (with a few exceptions like Edward Zwick's Glory) just about every movie ever made about the War. There may be too few blacks on screen, but it may be more telling that there are virtually no Southerners. Robert E. Lee barely speaks a word, and the most visible representative of the Confederacy, Vice President Alexander Stephens, is played by the wonderfully creepy Jackie Earle Haley, whose recent roles include Freddie Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and the child molester in Todd Field's Little Children. 

I have no confirmation of this from any source, but it is my hunch that some of the intention in making Lincoln was to offer a corrective to Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, films that are hardly taken seriously as history but that nonetheless still constitute part of the fantasy life of the Republic. You could say that Spielberg and Kushner propose a counter-fantasy. I don't mean because they present a made-up picture of events but because fantasy (another name for which might be ideology, or just story-telling) is the basic idiom of cinema. The evils of Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind are after all not a result of their inaccuracies, and similarly the virtues of Lincoln don't arise from its fidelity to the historical record. Filmmakers and imaginative are free—are indeed expected—to compress chronology and heighten drama, to clarify motives and spell out morals to an extent that historians are not.

I'll say more about this tomorrow. (And Kate Masur will have more to say about all of this later today.) But I think what we're seeing is two lines of thought. The implicit message of Lincoln (the necessity of political compromise) isn't very radical. But when you consider the film, as a whole, against the backdrop of how America has handled the Civil War in popular culture, it is shockingly radical.

It may seem ordinary to those of who study the War to feature the USCT. Their role is simply a fact of history. But this is decidedly not the history presented in Birth Of A Nation, in Gone With The Wind, in Hell on Wheels, in Ride With The Devil

Lincoln says the Civil War is about slavery. Full Stop. No mealy-mouthed "brother against brother" nonsense. No vague whining about tragedy. Slavery is the tragedy. No homilies to states rights. The right at stake is the right to enslave. And the black people doing the killing and dying are not confused. Nor are the authors of the Confederacy. I have never seen these facts—basic history though they may—stated so forthrightly, without apology, in the sphere of mass popular culture.

A Frederick Douglass biopic, this is not. But hopefully it might be a step toward making that possible.
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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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