In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.
Memory and Reimagining in Lincoln
As I walked into the movie theater to see Steven Spielberg’s newest movie Lincoln, I was struck by the audience in the packed theater. An audience of silver-haired White people filled nearly every seat. It came as a shock to me considering my location in a Chicagoland suburb where the residents are mostly Black and Latino Americans. Eventually, along with my family and me, a few Black people trickled in (also of an older crowd). It was a stark sight to see and I considered the topic of Lincoln and the memory of the man. Who was Abraham Lincoln to this audience? I cannot presume to fully know.
I turned my focus to the film, based largely on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which concerned itself with the last months of Lincoln’s life and the Thirteenth Amendment. My analysis of the film involves no “fact-checking”, that is better left up to a plethora of other reviews and those with more expertise on the subject than I. My argument is that Lincoln at once retains a substantial part of popular memory of Lincoln while Spielberg does reimagine Lincoln and the complexities of the Thirteenth Amendment issue in a way that the public has largely not encountered.
I think it is necessary to make my disclaimer in order to be more transparent in my analysis. I grew up in a generation when we — or at least I — did not put much thought to Lincoln. Ending slavery must have not been startling considering that in our contemporary America slavery is absurd. Years later I went to college in Springfield, Illinois, the center of Lincoln mania, and I found myself as an intern at Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum by senior year.
I never was a fan of making heroes of historical figures while ignoring historical facts, let me say. Although, most historians chagrin at intimacy with the past, admittedly Lincoln became a favorable memory in American history for me. Yet, my constant responsibility remains, like any good historian, that I question and challenge historical events and people – even Abe. For some people the memory of Lincoln personifies the self-made man who was ever noble and benevolent or, if you ask a modern Confederate sympathizer, Lincoln was perhaps the greatest tyrant America has ever seen.
Spielberg, aware of America’s popular memory of Lincoln, had to appeal to public sentiment; therefore there are the expected cinematic flourishes in Lincoln. Did Lincoln succeed in making all of the important historical notes that it could have or ought to? No. Is Spielberg a historian? The answer is still “no”. With this in mind, I turn to criticisms of Lincoln I have read concerning the treatment of Black historical figures, such as Elizabeth Keckley, and other Black characters in the film. I do agree that the abolitionist work of African Americans was sadly untouched. I wondered if perhaps Frederick Douglass could make an appearance or what about Keckley’s activism? The film admittedly focuses on White politicians; it is after all based on Team of Rivals. Yet in my personal opinion it is not so wrong that White people are depicted as suffering because of a moral and political conundrum based on the “peculiar institution” they instigated. Perhaps, that’s wrong.
As a historian, who happens to be a Black person, –may I not be taken as a token – I believe that Spielberg does increase awareness of Black Union soldiers. Unlike for historians, in popular memory Black Union soldiers are frequently absent from the remembrance of the Civil War (the most notable exception being the movie Glory) In fact, the first face seen in the film is not Lincoln but that of a Black soldier. The second face is that of a Black soldier indignant over inequality within the Union army. This second soldier recites the end of the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln with a mix of wariness and hope. In my opinion it was an interesting direction to depict the Black soldier before anyone else, even Lincoln. Lincoln does not give as much voice to Black people as it could have but it does repeatedly depict their physical fight.
The most significant broadening of popular memory in the film is the depiction of Lincoln as a manipulating politician, albeit with the purest intentions of course. Historians of this area surely are aware of Lincoln’s manipulation of the law but perhaps public is not. The film portrays Lincoln as acutely aware of his power: in one scene in a booming voice Lincoln proclaims that he is “clothed in immense power”. In popular memory have we seen the politician Lincoln fed up with his peers? The complexity of passing the Thirteenth Amendment is a bit more evident as well. A sampling of opinion about the abolition of slavery as well as views of slaves themselves provided a cross section of reasoning for or against slavery. The audience, if they pay any attention, learns that some Northerners were only for abolition if it would end the war not because they believed in “Negro equality” or that some Southerners, in this instance Alexander Stephens, defended slavery as a legitimate economic system. We should credit the film with dealing with this complexity.
Lincoln in historical terms does not even begin to deal with some issues that it could have but I urge historians and non-historians alike to remember that this film was after all just that, a film based on historical figures and events. The film was entertaining and thought provoking and historians should realize it will reach many people who will never read Team of Rivals or perhaps any scholarly book on the subject. Does that mean Spielberg has some responsibility to the public? In some way it does. I do not think he takes this responsibility lightly or frivolously. I am assured this film will lead some to discover more history, on their own accord. What I would like to see in the future are films that deal with significant but less commonly known historical figures of this era or any era. One such person could be Thaddeus Stevens who was almost a scene stealer in this film; before this film I had hardly heard of him and I doubt the wider viewing public had either. Even more intriguing would be a film that portrays Black abolition activists. Perhaps one day we will see a film with Keckley, Douglass, Truth or the like in the forefront and Lincoln in the background.