The Underrated Radicalism of 'Lincoln'

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

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Kate and Ta-Nehisi,

In the weeks since I first saw Lincoln—which happened to be the day before election day—I've been struck by the fact that, among historians and political commentators, much of the criticism of the movie has been from the left, while some of the most vocal defenses have come from the right. Not from the ranks of white-nationalist, neo- or crypto- (or not so crypto-) Confederate conservatives, but rather, to take examples from my own paper, from writers like David Brooks and Ross Douthat. For them, Lincoln as imagined by Spielberg and Kushner heroically embodies the notion that, as Brooks puts it, "politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good." This Lincoln is a moderate, and since he also happens to be a Republican he may represent, to modern-day observers, an endangered, if not altogether mythic, species in our present political ecosystem.

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 writers 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.

Filmmakers also traffic freely in emotion, and it is hard for me to separate my thoughts about Lincoln from the feelings it provoked in me. I don't actually want to separate them, because for me the triumph of the movie lies precisely in the way it unites ideas and sentiments. I'd describe both the ideas and the sentiments as liberal. The ideas of progress, of tolerance, of human nature having "better angels" that might prevail are treated with a kind of grand patriotic fervor. I found that both moving and appropriate, and I think a lot of audiences have responded that way.

What fascinates me, as an amateur observer of politics and an exile from academia, is that while the movie (and maybe also certain recent real-world events coincident with it) demonstrates the robustness of liberalism as a structure of feeling, the response to it suggests that liberalism as a style of political thought does not enjoy much intellectual prestige. It seems easy enough to condemn the Spielberg-Kushner-Day-Lewis Lincoln as insufficiently radical, or to hail him as a moderate and a pragmatist, but much harder, somehow, to take him on his own ideological terms.

Next: Kate Masur: "Is 'Lincoln' Liberal? Depends What You Mean by 'Liberal'"

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