Thursday, May 30, 2013

Spielberg's Lincoln: A great character study (even if the history is flawed)

Spielberg's Lincoln

I finally saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  It’s a great movie, with fantastic acting, as everyone in the world knows. I love Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the president. So compelling and moving, almost eerie.

On one hand, I can see why many historians, like the Pulitzer prize- winning scholar Eric Foner, have taken issue with the film. It's not considered "great history," or even "good history."

On the other hand, I see it as a great character study, a masterpiece. Millions of people have seen the film, commercially very successful even though it is heavier on dialogue than action. These are viewers who for the most part don't read Eric Foner or the hundreds of history books written about the Civil War, a vast historiography over time.  

With this in mind, and coming into the picture a little late, as it were, I'd like to add a few points to the story. First of all, president Lincoln in reality was not as singly focused on the 13th amendment at the time as the movie portrays. He brought all his oratorical and persuasive skills to bear on its behalf, but military strategy took precedence.

Afterall, Sherman was marching through the South destroying everything in his path, a "total war" strategy approved by Lincoln.  Slaves followed Sherman in droves across Georgia to the sea, hoping for "40 acres and a mule," their dream of freedom.   Events were fast moving toward Appomattox, with General Ulysses Grant planning his final battle and preparing for Robert E. Lee's surrender, the friends from West Point in a scenario they could not have imagined as young men.  Slaves were fleeing plantations or taking them over, declaring their own freedom, not waiting for the president or Congress to act. Congress was in a lame-duck session, a sideshow really to more important events, playing political games that were more limited in their scope than they seemed, but providing a colorful cast of characters (all men) for a movie.   

I understand. Speilberg's Lincoln doesn't attempt to present a history of the 13th amendment, or the Civil War. It's a study of political leadership under the most trying of times. It focuses on the meaning of the Civil War, which was about freedom.  On this level, it's a brilliant and fascinating study.     .

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The real social history is equally fascinating. Lincoln was not the author of the 13th amendment, or even its chief advocate. That honor belongs to women abolitionists such as Lucy Stone, the Grimke sisters, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in cahoots with Senator Charles Sumner, who introduced the anti-slavery amendment into Congress in 1863.  

The women didn't stop there. They founded the National Women's Loyal League to organize a petition campaign to ensure its passage. Imagine! Under the leadership of the indefatiguable Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two of America' greatest civil rights reformers, intellects, and activists, the Loyal League gathered 400,000 signatures in 15 months, an incredible feat then, as now.  If anyone has tried to get names on a petition, pre-internet age, you''ll know what this means!

On February 9, 1864, according to Eleanor Flexner in Century of Struggle, her classic study of women's suffrage, two freemen, tall and stately, symbolic figures, "carried enormous bundles made up of petition rolls into the Senate Chamber and placed them on the desk of the Senator from Massachusetts."  It was a dramatic moment. The women who did the work for the 13th amendment, who did not even have the vote at the time, watched silently.  Sumner rose to speak 
"Mr. President, I offer a petition which is now lying on the desk before me.  It is too bulky for me to take up.  I need not add that it is too bulky for any of the pages of this body to carry....It will be perceived that the petition is in rolls.  Each roll represents a state.  For instance here is New York, with a list of 17,000...and Massachusetts with 11,700....These petitions are from all parts of the country and every condition of life....Here they are, representing a mighty army...the advance guard of a yet larger army.” (Flexner, 104)

And, indeed, the "larger army" is the real story:    
*An army of abolitionists and reformers who spoke out before, during and after the War.
*An army of women who fought for freedom for slaves and discovered they needed to fight for their own as well, creating a women's suffrage movement.
*An army of slaves who defied servitude, joined the Union army, put freedom on the war's agenda, fled farms and plantations to seek out family members, and played a central role in their own emancipation.
*The larger army of people, movements, and grassroots reform that together created the multi-layered process necessary for social change.
*The mighty army, including 4 million freed people in the South, that then carried the process forward, beyond the turbulent Reconstruction years, beyond the Black Codes and massive injustice, and into the 20th century and the rebirth of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. 

Of course, the complex history of the transition from slavery to freedom cannot be told in a two-hour commercial movie.  Ken Burns tried to tell it in an 11-hours documentary series, which took 6 years to make, aired on public television for five consecutive nights in 1990, was viewed by 40 million people (the largest audience ever for a PBS program), and led to hundreds of educational programs. The Burns documentary, moreover, was based on the latest scholarship available, making it a remarkable achievement in bringing historical scholarship to large public audiences.  

Spielberg's character study of Lincoln compliments Burns' documentary.

Sometimes it’s better to get history in small doses, and in popular formats.   It reaches more people.  Historians can use the opportunities to add their voices.  In that sense, Lincoln the film is an important slice of history that provides insight into the character of a great president. Viewers can't help but come away from this movie with a sense of the meaning of the Civil War--a heroic struggle for freedom on many levels--and a grand model of the kind of president America needs, then, now, and always.

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