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November 2012, Week 2

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In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters 

By Kate Masur
The New York Times
November 12, 2012
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/opinion/in-spielbergs-lincoln-passive-black-characters.html

Evanston, Ill.

THE latest film by Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln,” which
opens nationwide on Friday, has the makings of an Oscar
shoo-in, particularly for Daniel Day-Lewis’s
performance in the title role. The first scene is
arresting: Two black soldiers speak with the president
about their experiences in combat. One, a corporal,
raises the problem of unequal promotions and pay in the
Union Army. Two white soldiers join them, and the scene
concludes as the corporal walks away, movingly reciting
the final lines of the Gettysburg Address.

Unfortunately it is all downhill from there, at least
as far as black characters are concerned. As a
historian who watched the film on Saturday night in
Chicago, I was not surprised to find that Mr. Spielberg
took liberties with the historical record. As in
“Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” his
purpose is more to entertain and inspire than to
educate.

But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to
explaining the abolition of slavery in the United
States, African-American characters do almost nothing
but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For
some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that
slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation;
however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The
Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to
the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln”
gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for
the day of Jubilee.

This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln”
helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have
offered little of substance to their own liberation.
While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes
of subservient African-Americans for which movies like
“Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it
reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated
assumption that white men are the primary movers of
history and the main sources of social progress.

The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration
of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but
you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr.
Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April —
these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets,
markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to
portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the
drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln
interacting with black passers-by in the District of
Columbia.

Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least
one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,”
where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the
singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the
president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered
Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he
encountered on the street near the White House.

In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and
highly politicized community of free African-Americans,
in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and
William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a
memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise
money and donations of clothing and food for the
fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was
a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical
Association, a black organization that tried to advance
arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting
data on black economic and social successes.

The film conveys none of this, opting instead for
generic, archetypal characters. Keckley (played by
Gloria Reuben) is frequently seen sitting with the
first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field),
in the balcony of the House of Representatives,
silently serving as a moral beacon for any legislator
who looks her way. Arguably her most significant scene
is an awkward dialogue with Lincoln in which he says
bluntly, “I don’t know you,” meaning not just her but
all black people. Keckley replies, as a representative
of her race, that she has no idea what her people will
do once freed. As if one archetype were not enough, she
adds that her son has died for the Union cause, making
her grief the grief of all bereaved mothers.

Meanwhile, Slade (Stephen Henderson) is portrayed as an
avuncular butler, a black servant out of central
casting, who watches in prescient sorrow as his beloved
boss departs for the theater on a fateful April
evening.

It would not have been much of a stretch — particularly
given other liberties taken by the filmmakers — to do
things differently. Keckley and Slade might have been
shown leaving the White House to attend their own
meetings, for example. Keckley could have discussed
with Mrs. Lincoln the relief work that, in reality, she
organized and the first lady contributed to. Slade
could have talked with Lincoln about the 13th
Amendment. Indeed, his daughter later recalled that
Lincoln had confided in Slade, particularly on the
nights when he suffered from insomnia.

Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith
(played by S. Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and
supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and
Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy
Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto”
housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes
in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.”
Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with
far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their
relationship — Stevens literally hands the official
copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two
head into bed together — reveals, once again, the
film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from
white people to black people, not as a social
transformation in which African-Americans themselves
played a role.

The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is attentive
to the language of the period and features verbal
jousting among white men who take pleasure in jabs and
insults. By contrast, the black characters — earnest
and dignified — are given few interesting or humorous
lines, even though verbal sparring and one-upmanship is
a recognized aspect of black vernacular culture that
has long shaped the American mainstream. Meanwhile,
perhaps the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century,
Frederick Douglass, who in fact attended the White
House reception after Lincoln’s second inauguration in
March 1865, is nowhere to be seen or heard.

It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble
with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue
is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A
stronger African-American presence, even at the margins
of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that
another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just
outside the frame — a world of black political debate,
of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the
liberation of body and spirit.

That, too, is the history of abolition; “Lincoln” is an
opportunity squandered.

Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at
Northwestern, is the author of “An Example for All the
Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in
Washington, D.C.”

___________________________________________

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