Spielberg Lays Bare the Ugly Politics of Emancipation
Smithsonian.com has a long feature by Roy Blount, Jr. on the making of Spielberg’s Lincoln, in particular the way it challenges common tropes about the 16th president. The film focuses on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment in early 1865. Blount’s entire piece is worth reading, but I’m especially impressed that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner seemingly pull no punches when it comes to the pervasive, casual bigotry of 19th century Americans and the hard-nosed, carefully-crafted political maneuvering necessary to pass such a measure in 1865:
[The film] provides no golden interracial glow. The n-word crops up often enough to help establish the crudeness, acceptedness and breadth of anti-black sentiment in those days. A couple of incidental pop-ups aside, there are three African-American characters, all of them based reliably on history. One is a White House servant and another one, in a nice twist involving Stevens, comes in almost at the end. The third is Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante. Before the amendment comes to a vote, after much lobbying and palm-greasing, there’s an astringent little scene in which she asks Lincoln whether he will accept her people as equals. He doesn’t know her, or her people, he replies. But since they are presumably “bare, forked animals” like everyone else, he says, he will get used to them. Lincoln was certainly acquainted with Keckley (and presumably with King Lear, whence “bare, forked animals” comes), but in the context of the times, he may have thought of black people as unknowable. At any rate the climate of opinion in 1865, even among progressive people in the North, was not such as to make racial equality an easy sell. In fact, if the public got the notion the 13th Amendment was a step toward establishing black people as social equals, or even toward giving them the vote, the measure would have been doomed. That’s where Lincoln’s scene with Thaddeus Stevens [Tommy Lee Jones, above] comes in. _____ Stevens is the only white character in the movie who expressly holds it self-evident that every man is created equal. In debate, he vituperates with relish—You fatuous nincompoop, you unnatural noise!—at foes of the amendment. But one of those, Rep. Fernando Wood of New York, thinks he has outslicked Stevens. He has pressed him to state whether he believes the amendment’s true purpose is to establish black people as just as good as whites in all respects. You can see Stevens itching to say, “Why yes, of course,” and then to snicker at the anti-amendment forces’ unrighteous outrage. But that would be playing into their hands; borderline yea-votes would be scared off. Instead he says, well, the purpose of the amendment— And looks up into the gallery, where Mrs. Lincoln sits with Mrs. Keckley. The first lady has become a fan of the amendment, but not of literal equality, nor certainly of Stevens, whom she sees as a demented radical. The purpose of the amendment, he says again, is — equality before the law. And nowhere else. Mary is delighted; Keckley stiffens and goes outside. (She may be Mary’s confidante, but that doesn’t mean Mary is hers.) Stevens looks up and sees Mary alone. Mary smiles down at him. He smiles back, thinly. No “joyous, universal evergreen” in that exchange, but it will have to do. Stevens has evidently taken Lincoln’s point about avoiding swamps. His radical allies are appalled. One asks whether he’s lost his soul; Stevens replies, mildly, that he just wants the amendment to pass. And to the accusation that there’s nothing he won’t say toward that end, he says: Seems not.
If Blount’s recounting of the film is accurate, then this movie may end up doing a tremendous service to the public’s understanding of that pivotal moment in American history. It may well do for the public’s understanding of Lincoln what Glory did, a generation ago, for recognition of the role African American soldiers played in that conflict. The popular image of Lincoln pure and unblemished saint-on-earth has always been a false and ultimately damaging one, as much as the “Marble Man” has been for Lee. Lincoln’s contemporaries didn’t see him that way. For all that Lincoln was branded as a radical abolitionist in the South, real abolitionists knew he was not one of them. According to Blount, Stevens called Lincoln “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler,” and even Frederick Douglass, who overcame a deep mistrust of Lincoln and the Republicans in the winter of 1860-61 to become one of the president’s strongest allies and supporters, understood that Lincoln was a man who retained his own biases, yet constantly challenged himself to move beyond those. Lincoln was also a man who, regardless of his personal beliefs, had to work (like all presidents before and since) within the constraints of the political realities of the day. It was Lincoln’s willingness to work the political angle — to cajole, to flatter, to intimidate, to compromise when he had to — that allowed him to accomplish things that a firebrand like Stevens never could have, no matter how righteous his cause. As Blount says, “Stevens was a man of unmitigated principle. Lincoln got some great things done.”
There’s a saying that’s been thrown around quite a bit in the last few years, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, don’t pass up an opportunity to get most of what you want, for the sake of not being able to get everything you want. That’s good advice now, and it was undoubtedly a notion Lincoln — smart lawyer and brilliant politician that he was — would have agreed with.
When the movie hits theaters in a couple of weeks, I’m sure it will be lazily denounced in some quarters as just so much Lincoln mythologizing. A few more industrious folks will likely cite scraps of dialogue from the film to “prove” that ZOMG those Yankees were racists!. They already seem to be priming themselves to denounce it as a failure if it fails to smash every box-office record, ever. In truth, though, I think they may have a lot more to worry about with this film than the prospect of it being a big-screen affirmation of the caricatured, saintly Lincoln. If the movie is anything like Blount claims it is, it will depict Lincoln and those around him as gifted, resolute but often flawed and complex mortals who struggled and bickered and fought, and eventually accomplished great things — things like the 13th Amendment that seem so obviously right now, but were anything but assured then. If the audience takes away that understanding of the events surrounding the close of the war, it will do far more good than any exercise in hagiography might.
I can’t hardly wait.
UPDATE, October 29: Over at Civil War Talk, a member asks why Frederick Douglass is not depicted in the film.
It’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. But there’s no point in having a blog if one can’t speculate a little, so here goes:
It may be in part because Douglass was not physically present during the events depicted in the main part of the film, which focuses on passage of the 13th Amendment and the Hampton Roads Conference, which took place in January and early February 1865. I believe Douglass resided in Rochester, New York during the entire period of the war, and as nearly as I can tell, Douglass and Lincoln only met face-to-face on three occasions: in August 1863, when Douglass met with the president to urge him to equalize the pay between white and black Union soldiers; at the White House a year later, when Lincoln summoned Douglass to reaffirm his (Lincoln’s) commitment to ending slavery and to ask Douglass to use his connections to get as many enslaved persons within Union lines in the event he lost the election that fall and a new administration would end the war before decisively defeating the Confederacy; and in early March 1865, when Douglass was ushered into the president’s presence briefly at an inaugural reception to congratulate him on his reelection. This last event, though close to the time frame of the Spielberg film, was not really a substantive meeting that would have particular bearing on the story of the film.
So if my understanding of the structure of the movie is correct, there’s an easy (if not especially satisfying) explanation for his absence from the screen. What will be most interesting to see is whether Douglass’ presence is nonetheless felt in the film — if his words, his writings, his agitating — show up in the script, in allusions by other characters, in the dialogue, or elsewhere. (Elizabeth Keckley’s character [right] would be the obvious opportunity to do this, film-wise, as she admired Douglass and wrote of his being brought to meet the president in March 1865.) The real Frederick Douglass didn’t attend cabinet meetings or negotiations with representatives of the Confederate government aboard River Queen, but he nonetheless exerted a profound influence behind the scenes in both the decision to enlist black troops for the Union and in the struggle to make emancipation permanent in the closing months of the war. If Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner can pull that off — making Douglass and his influence a character in the film without his actually being in the film — that will be remarkable.
I can’t hardly wait.