One of the great effects of the spectacle of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has been the public space its release has afforded professional historians. While there are affirmative things to be said for a society that’s moved beyond restrictive reliance on the academically credentialed, it’s been a refreshing jolt to see qualified experts get their turn with the megaphone usually hogged by pundits and columnists in the appraisal of cultural events.
Among scholars weighing in on the film are two whose books on Lincoln we’ve published just this year. Lincoln’s Hundred Days author Louis Masur, writing in the Chronicle Review, assesses this new film’s corrections to a lineage of cinematic portrayals of Lincoln that reaches all the way back to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and also sees Lincoln as a challenge to a “decades-long scholarly, if not popular, vision of him as halfhearted and reluctant in his efforts to eradicate slavery.” He catalogs some of the reasons for the growth of that vision:
The civil-rights movement focused attention not on emancipation but on the disappointing results of freedom: poverty, disenfranchisement, segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. paid homage to Lincoln at the beginning of his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, but lamented that a century after emancipation, “the Negro still is not free.” Others were less generous to the Great Emancipator. In a magazine article in 1968, and again in his 2000 book Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony, denounced Lincoln as a racist and white supremacist whose actions against slavery were dilatory and halfhearted at best.
Parallel to the civil-rights movement was a shift in scholarly focus away from elites and toward the social history of ordinary people. Historians examined the lives of the enslaved and began to grasp the role they played in shaping their own destiny. That trend culminated in the 1990s with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which began in the 1970s and, over the decades, has unearthed tens of thousands of documents and published multiple volumes that have revolutionized our understanding of the lives of African-Americans in slavery and freedom. The voices of the supposedly inarticulate were being heard.
This new film, Masur writes, “restores for our time a vision of Lincoln as a tireless opponent of slavery and, in the process, speaks to the political problems we face as a nation today.”
In doing so, the film diverges from history on both minor details and, as some argue, in its depiction of the determining forces of abolition itself. At the Daily Beast, Spielberg’s willingness to take liberties with the historical record is somewhat amusingly highlighted by Harold Holzer, who served as a “Content Consultant” to the film. Holzer, author of literally dozens of books on Abe, including our recently-published Emancipating Lincoln explains that “not all of [his] suggestions were adopted.” Which affords us the strange pleasure of seeing one of the nation’s leading authorities on Lincoln fact-check the work of filmmakers who had his expertise at their disposal.
Most interestingly, Holzer takes aim at the veracity of the film’s very first moments:
As for the Spielberg movie’s opening scene, in which a couple of Union soldiers—one white, one black—recite the words of the Gettysburg Address to the appreciative Lincoln, who is visiting the front toward the end of the war—it is almost inconceivable that any uniformed soldier of the day (or civilians, for that matter) would have memorized a speech that, however ingrained in modern memory, did not achieve any semblance of a national reputation until the 20th century.
Despite such historical inaccuracies, Holzer, who also wrote the film’s authorized “companion book for young readers,” holds that “Spielberg has traveled toward an understanding of Abraham Lincoln more boldly than any other filmmaker before him.”
Elsewhere, historian Kate Masur joins many in taking issue with the film’s passive black characters, reminding us that those historiographic trends that Louis Masur sees the film as countering have actually taken hold for good reason:
[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.
Eric Foner, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book on Lincoln and slavery, responded to a David Brooks column on Lincoln with a critique of the film’s “severely truncated view”:
Emancipation—like all far-reaching political change—resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.
The film grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared more than three million of the four million slaves free, and Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, exempted in whole or part from the proclamation, had decreed abolition on their own.
Even as the House debated, Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.
Some of these very debates were anticipated by American Historical Association Executive Director James Grossman in the November issue of Perspectives on History:
Historians will disagree over whether this was Lincoln indeed. My friend and colleague Lerone Bennett will wonder what happened to the evidence that Lincoln never believed in racial equality. David Blight will no doubt scratch his head over the absence of Frederick Douglass. Others will question the accuracy of this Lincoln’s approach to the presidency and presidential power, or the portrayal of family dynamics in the White House; or the implications of a film about emancipation that elides the agency of slaves and ex-slaves (except for the role of black soldiers). Others will note that Spielberg seems to get the importance of manhood, but doesn’t really know how to use gender as a category of political analysis. This is what a film like this should do: stimulate discussion about history. I encourage colleagues to engage the film in the public realm—in newspapers and blogs and on the radio—in language that is accessible, and in a voice that speaks especially to people who might not readily accept concepts and perspectives taken for granted within the academy.
And, as we’ve noted, that’s precisely what many historians have done.
What we’ve seen during the current widespread commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial is a renewed scholarly debate over Lincoln’s abolitionist bona fides, a debate that Spielberg’s film is both amplifying and broadening. We should remember, though, that historians themselves are never actually the dispassionate documentarians sometimes imagined, a fact that offers its own pleasures as we observe them debating a Hollywood production that can afford to be up front about bending the facts to fit its narrative.