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Manisha Sinha: Lincoln Again

Manisha Sinha is a professor of Afro-American studies and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of “The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina” and the forthcoming “The Slave’s Cause: Abolition and the Origins of America’s Interracial Democracy.”

The “Lincoln industry,” through which Abraham Lincoln has become the most-written about American, used to be confined to historians and other writers. But between the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009 and the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 2013, a period during which the nation’s first black President continuously paid homage to the sixteenth President, Lincoln has come to reign unchallenged in popular culture too, nowhere more so than in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln,  which was considered by many an Oscar favorite. Perhaps historical criticism has proven to be a kiss of death for the film’s chances.

Hollywood has long made movies about Lincoln and the Civil War, few of which have reached the blockbuster status of Mr. Spielberg’s version. Those “historical” films that became legends owed their inspiration more to contemporary prejudices than to history. The cinematically accomplished yet historically pernicious The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind seemed to vindicate Plato’s warning of the seductive power of art, a world of shadows, to obscure truth. One can only shudder at the arrival of a mini-series based on right-wing, Fox-talk-show-host Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, which is riddled with errors. Civil War historians have a love-hate relationship with movies and television series that poach on their turf. We mostly admire the path-breaking series on slavery, Roots, and the movie Glory. Despite taking some artistic license with facts, they, we all agree, served history well. On the other hand, the neo-Confederate Gods and Generals, like the cause it champions, belongs to the dustbin of history.

As a whole, history seems to lend itself better to documentary series like the American Experience on PBS. But even the much-admired Ken Burns’s The Civil War privileged the voice of southern historian Shelby Foote who romanticized the alleged military prowess of the Confederacy, making it, in my opinion, unusable in the classroom, unlike the similarly acclaimed Eyes on the Prize. Most historians of the Civil Rights movement regularly use the latter in their courses. Historical documentaries that portray their subjects in filmic fashion have a harder time passing muster. The recent series The Abolitionists¸ shown on US TV in January 2013, did an admirable job of rescuing at least the five prominent individuals it showcased from historical obscurity, but could not possibly tell the full and complex story of abolition in three short hours (I was one of the many talking heads in the series). One hears similar criticisms of Amazing Grace, the film on the abolitionist Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, made to commemorate the bicentennial of the British abolition of the African Slave Trade. Spielberg’s Lincoln, with its self-proclaimed attempt to stay true to history, belongs much more to this genre than to the Hollywood films discussed earlier, with the possible exception of Glory.

Spielberg and his scriptwriter Tony Kushner have been praised by some scholars and severely criticized by others for acts of omission and commission in the film. Kate Masur, in The New York Times, faulted the movie for its depiction of “passive” black characters while Jim Downs in The Huffington Post more implausibly called it an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of a largely enslaved people. Historians have also debated the kind of history Spielberg and Kushner have chosen to portray: a Lincoln biography providing a snapshot of his life in the months before his death, revolving around the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery, rather than a social history of emancipation that would give equal screen time to the many other actors in this historical drama, especially African Americans enslaved and free. Starting with a somewhat unlikely scene, which has a last minute “add on” feel to it, of Lincoln talking with black Union soldiers, one enslaved and the other an articulate free black man, the movie portrays African Americans, especially those in Lincoln’s personal life, his valet William Slade and his wife’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, in a nuanced and complex fashion. The problem with Spielberg’s Lincoln is not that it portrays “passive” black characters but that it presents all its characters, including Lincoln himself, completely devoid of their proper historical context: the abolitionist activism of which they were a part. The opening scene with the black soldiers, for instance, ends with one reciting the Gettysburg Address. This presents Lincoln as the prime mover of emancipation instead of, as Frederick Douglass put it, a man at the head of a great antislavery movement that included the enslaved, abolitionists, and Radical Republicans in Congress. Like most moderate antislavery Republicans, Lincoln came late to emancipation, prodded and pushed by members of his own party and abolitionists outside the halls of political power....

Read entire article at History Workshop Online