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.

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.

Later scenes in Lincoln affirm that fantasy. Lincoln rides past bodies of Confederate and Union soldiers mingled together on the Petersburg battlefield. He is moved by what Tony Scott earlier called "the terrible tragedy that pitted brother against brother" and immediately afterward tells Grant to go easy on the Confederates. As Lincoln departs for home, Grant tells him he must now lead the nation into peace. We all know that Lincoln won't make it, so we mourn for him and all that we imagine he would have done to avert the bloodbath of the postwar period. Then comes the assassination and the Second Inaugural.

As historian Nina Silber put it: "As the movie ends, we are presented with a nation ready to live under Lincoln's charitable and malice-free directive."

The real history of the months after Appomattox contradicts this "reconciliationist" narrative. White southerners' continuing malice became clear in 1865 and early 1866, well before "radical Reconstruction" began. As President Andrew Johnson generously pardoned all but the highest-ranking ex-Confederates, white southerners in the states rejected the 13th Amendment, passed state-based "black codes" that sought to restore slavery in all but name, and elected ex-Confederates to state and federal offices. It wasn't the federal government's unbending stance toward the white South that brought forth a reign of terror; it was white southerners' own refusal to come to terms with black freedom.

Tony Scott argues that we can't really expect Hollywood to offer informed interpretations of history or deal with tough issues, especially race. Ta-Nehisi holds out hope that Lincoln may be the beginning of something new. Regardless, it seems clear that historians need to keep telling the hard stories to anyone who will listen. It's not so much that historical films tend to be inaccurate. It's that they tend to be inaccurate in particular ways—in ways that reinforce comforting myths and tamp down pain, guilt, and ambiguity.

In a short work of literary criticism called Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison considered the black characters who populate canonical American fiction, usually at its margins. She argued that African American characters in the work of Twain, Hemingway, Cather ,and others reveal not just how authors imagined African Americans, but also how they imagined themselves and American culture writ large. "The fabrication of an Africanist persona," she wrote, "is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious." I've been interested in reading Lincoln and its reception the same way: It's a story about Lincoln and—from the margins—a story about our collective fantasies of race, power, and reconciliation.


Tony Horwitz: "'Lincoln': Does Knowing the Ending Blur Our Understanding of the Story? "

A.O. Scott: "Steven Spielberg's Slavery Obsession Is Bigger Than 'Lincoln'"

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'?