Steven Spielberg's Slavery Obsession Is Bigger Than 'Lincoln'

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The sixth installment in a roundtable discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, A.O. Scott, Kate Masur, and Tony Horwitz about history and Lincoln

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Lincoln, Amistad, A.I. (DreamWorks)

Dear Ta-Nehisi, Kate, and Tony,

Most historians are suspicious of counterfactuals as a matter of professional principle, and film critics have their own version of that bias, which is a preference for looking at movies that were actually made rather than speculating about movies that might have been made. In other words, it doesn't make much sense to me to fault Lincoln for not being a film about Frederick Douglass or Lincoln's political evolution over the course of his career. It's not as if there is a platonic shelf of possible motion pictures from which Kushner and Spielberg plucked this particular two-and-a-half-hour epic. Nor is there any guarantee that their Douglass or early-Lincoln movies would have been any good, or that this one would have been any better as a movie if the source material had been Eric Foner or James MacPherson instead of Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Spielberg has always been interested in—even obsessed by—the relationship between the human and the other, a category that includes classes of people defined as less than human.

I guess I'm saying that it's my job to look at the film for what it is, and for all its flaws I think Lincoln is a pretty formidable piece of work. The passage of the 13th Amendment strikes me as an intrinsically interesting story (and one I didn't know much about), and making the legislative process cinematically and dramatically exciting is no small feat, as the people at C-SPAN might tell you.

Yes, "better than Birth of a Nation" is a low bar to clear from our ideological perspective, but formalist critics would most likely render a judgment of "not remotely as great as Birth of a Nation," since Griffith's film invented much of the vocabulary of modern narrative cinema, including the cross-cutting that Spielberg loves so much. But the tension between formal and ideological approaches to film is a topic for another time and place.

The unhappy fact is that, for all its supposed liberalism, Hollywood has historically been laggard and timid on matters of race. The Production Code, in effect from the 1930s to the mid-'60s, forbade any depiction of "miscegenation," and studios were terrified of losing bookings in the South if they offended Jim Crow sensitivities. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner may look square to us now—it looked pretty square in 1968, for that matter—but it remains a watershed. A quarter-century later Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts still had to keep their Pelican Brief relationship professional and platonic. And in general, Hollywood depictions of American history have tended to be more about wishful thinking than scholarship. Consensus historiography may be a thing of the past in the academy, but the American movie industry continues to chase after a unified audience, which means airbrushing real conflict in favor of false harmony.

Lincoln is hardly immune to the imperatives of mass entertainment—it's a Spielberg movie, distributed by Disney!—which makes its refusal to falsify or dumb down the material all the more impressive. But I don't want to defend it just for not being as bad as it might have been. I think it's great!

And part of the reason is that slavery is connected to themes that have preoccupied Spielberg for much of his career. (It is also, more obviously, linked to the themes of social inclusion and historical change that you find in Kushner's plays). This is the second movie he has made explicitly on the topic of American slavery and the fight to abolish it. The first was Amistad, a clumsy movie in some ways but one that places a great deal of agency (and ferocious dignity) in the person of Cinque, the African slave played by Djimon Honsou. The Color Purple was not about slavery as such, but about African-American life under the heel of white supremacy, and it is worth noting that Spielberg came in for some grief for presuming, as a white male filmmaker, to tell a story about black women's lives.

One of the more facile slaps at Lincoln is that it's a movie about abolition that focuses on a white man, just as Schindler's List was a Holocaust movie with a German (a Nazi, for that matter) at its center. To isolate those two movies is to miss the deeper chord that connects them with other films. Spielberg has always been interested in—even obsessed by—the relationship between the human and the other, a category that includes classes of people defined as less than human. Sometimes, as in Schindler and Lincoln, he explores this relationship mainly from the perspective of a member of the empowered, fully "human" caste whose conscience is engaged by the plight of the other. The Righteous Gentile, or the Great Emancipator. But at other times he has gone the other way, most notably in A.I., which is a movie about the existential agony of being condemned to a state of servitude and social death very much like slavery.

The world of A.I. is divided into humans and sentient robots known as mecha. There is intimacy between the two groups, but also absolute domination. Humans live with mecha servants and surrogate children, have sex with mecha prostitutes, and depend on mecha labor, but mecha can be sold, discarded, or killed at any time, and "free" mecha are hunted down and rounded up by slave-catchers. The movie's hero, a young boy named David, refuses to accept this arrangement, and his journey is both a search for his lost origins and an assertion of his humanity in a society that is based on the denial of it. In effect, he is asking a version of the fundamental abolitionist question: Am I Not a Man and Brother? It takes him 2000 years to get the answer he deserves.

I've enjoyed this immensely. My thanks to all of you, and especially to Ta-Nehisi for organizing the party.

Previously

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Does 'Lincoln' Mean Hollywood Is Finally Catching up With History?"

Tony Horwitz: "'Lincoln' Would Have Been Better if It Had Told More of Lincoln's Story"Kate Masur: "Is 'Lincoln' Liberal? Depends on What You Mean by 'Liberal'"

A.O. Scott: "The Underrated Radicalism of 'Lincoln'"

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Why Aren't More Liberals Defending 'Lincoln'?"

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A.O. Scott is a film critic for The New York Times.

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