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

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!

Presented by

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

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