In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.
Lincoln as Challenge and Opportunity for Public Historians
Like all texts, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln should be critiqued on several levels. Film scholars will analyze the script and cinematography, while popular press movie critics will judge the work as both a creative and commercial product. Being a historical film, Lincoln has also attracted the attention of academic scholars. But what about Lincoln as a piece of public history? And what are its implications for public historians? These are no easy questions–and their answers can easily morph into an unwieldy meta-narrative of aesthetics, commercial production, and speculation on reception. Here, I offer a just an introduction to the public history context of Lincoln and encourage any expansion or complications of these impressions in comments below.
Lincoln as public history?
Truth be told I am not completely comfortable applying the term ‘public history’ to a commodity. For certain, despite its lofty aspirations, Lincoln is foremost a money-making venture. Spielberg’s production company has designed everything from script adaptation, to casting, to editing, to promotion as a $65-million revenue generator. Also, the audience receives and interprets the movie in the context of commercialized leisure. Seeing Lincoln is an activity performed in strict market terms: spending money is an essential aspect of filmgoing. In order to drive home this message, ads now run on-screen up to the last minute (Teen in BestBuy ad: ‘It’s amazing how one little device can change your life!’). In a purist’s sense, public history should be more than a history-centered item presented for public consumption; it is a multivocal synthesis of public, institutional, and scholarly perspectives.
But, as public historians we should accept the reality that our publics receive even our ‘purest’ historical interpretations in market contexts–not only because the market has taken on a totalizing character in modern society, but also because public history sites such as museums and travel destinations are also sites of monetary exchange. These qualifications aside, let’s look at three themes that the (imaginary) average citizen-film goer might come away with, as well as the opportunities they present public historians.
Men, Doing Manly Things with Other Men
Lincoln portrays a male-dominant world of politics and war. At the risk of criticizing the film that was not made, I would argue that this view succeeds only by obscuring the agency of women (and non-whites–see below). This is not to say that politics and war were not male-dominant in the mid-19th century. In fact, this overtly masculine tone is a highlight of the film. The true weakness is how Lincoln presents masculinity. There is no legitimate gender analysis in the movie. That manly political behavior–all the pounding on desks during stirring speeches, all the verbal jousting in the House chamber, all the mansplaining about freedom–is depicted as sui generis. Historians have long since disposed of such vacuum-tight conceptions of gender. Instead, we view male subjectivity as a complex identity constructed by cross-currents of class, race, and femininity.
Opportunity: Public historians should take this opportunity to complicate Civil War Era male behavior. I’m envisioning, for example, some sort of project that also focuses on the women in the lives of the
Great White Men of Lincoln. But instead of some sort of men’s history/women’s history separation, such a project would present an intertwined narrative that will emphasize the reality that when men went to the office, they really never totally left the feminine sphere behind. Digital history, with its ability to offer narratives freed from strict single-perspective chronology, could be of immense value.
Washington’s Civil War-Era African Americans: Prelude to Chocolate City
Another scholarly dissent about Lincoln centers on its portrayal of African American characters. The handful of blacks generally serve to reassure the white male politicians that they really are saving them–literally nodding in approval from the House chambers or ridiculously answering questions about ‘their people.’ The good news is that such a depiction largely avoids the “Magical Negro” narrative conceit. The bad news is that it completely drains agency from most African Americans in the film. Black soldiers enjoy the only true impact in Lincoln. And even here, the mud-stomping of Rebs and psy-ops against Succesh politicians serves as a sideshow or pretext to what truly matters: freedom through legislation.
Opportunity: Who are all those African Americans that attended the House vote on the 13th Amendment? Can any Lincoln viewer know that slavery was legal in DC until April 1862? Kate Masur’s critique of Lincoln’s depiction of African Americans–linked above–provides ample historical evidence for the real impact of Washington’s black residents. Now would be a great time for a public history project highlighting this story against the backdrop of war and politics–an inverse of Lincoln’s focus. DC would be an ideal setting for such an effort, which could be ‘co-produced’ by voices from the area’s black community. On a related note, public historians should push for much more realistic depictions of the struggle for African American rights. After all, the 13th and 14th Amendments succeeded more in rhetoric than reality–as the USCT corporal subtly (too subtly) foretells in the opening scene. At least a century of struggle outside the halls of politics ensued after the amendments.
The ‘Twelve-Step Guy’ from That One Seinfeld Episode Steals the Show
As a credit to Lincoln’s script and performances, a number of minor characters come close to stealing the show. Obviously, Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens dominates when on screen–a legitimate reflection of one of the most compelling characters of 19th-century politics. Likewise, I would imagine that most in the Lincoln audience would love to see a sequel based on the exploits of James Spader’s WN Bilbo. And who is that big Indian with the bad-ass look that walks around with Grant all the time?
Opportunity: Was Bilbo the buffoon presented in Lincoln? What was his class position–and what does it say about the aggressively masculine political world? If you’re a public historian with access to materials that even remotely relate to these supporting characters, now is your chance to promote a much more diffusive depiction of political and social change.
Public historians work with audiences who come to their projects with a wide range of historical knowledge. When a major media event based on a historical moment reaches millions, we are faced with the type of challenges and opportunities that–I assume–relate to the essential reasons we are attracted to the field. I worry that Lincoln’s flat depiction of masculinity, its de-emphasis of black agency, and its tantalizing-but-peripheral non-elite characters will breath life into the Great White Man History that generations of historians–public and otherwise–have fought to problematize. However, public historians, with their willingness to engage the public outside of the occasional op-ed (or blog post), are uniquely positioned to take advantage of Lincoln’s weaknesses.
Now, back to work on my script for a cop buddy movie featuring WS Bilbo and Gen. Ely Parker…