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By Stephane Dunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Tuesday, December 11, 2012.

When I was in college, one of those too rare truly provocative discussions occurred over an assigned reading about the nineteenth century in America. I don’t remember the reading, but I do remember that it led to some discussion of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was discussed unquestionably as the ‘Great Emancipator.’ I dared to contradict, having not too long before read some books that gave me a history lesson I hadn’t gotten in all of my middle or high school years. I suggested that the Emancipation was less about a racially progressive Lincoln and more about saving the country and that Lincoln was no great supporter of racial equality or black folk generally. It got heated in the classroom. A girl actually cried she was so disturbed by what she saw as my blasphemy against noble Lincoln. I felt badly and was disturbed as well as further fascinated by the enigma that I think Lincoln remains. The classroom incident heightened my consciousness of Lincoln’s tall complicated, controversial historical shadow.

Steven Spielberg’s sojourn into representing Lincoln in the new movie of the same name automatically provokes major questions: Would he complicate the imagery of Lincoln or would he merely represent the mythology of the noble‘Great Emancipator’ draped in the spectacle of some arresting Civil War battle scenes? Would race and slavery be merely backdrop? Movies set within the Civil War don’t even necessarily guarantee that black folk will figure in or even appear save as a sort of décor to authenticate the southern setting of the times. To Spielberg’s credit, he does go there setting his film around the controversial House battle to secure the passage of the 13thamendment in January of 1865 though save for the opening scene, the voice of black folk really are eerily too muted even probably the most publicly prominent black figure agitating at the time, one Frederick Douglas.

This is not to say that Lincolnisn’t worth watching; it deserves some applause for several achievements—resisting merely draping a critical narrative of Civil War history in the spectacle of too many graphic battle scenes and instead concentrating on the plodding, pivotal politicking that of course was a part of the beginning and end of the Civil War for one and for another the physical incarnation of Lincoln in Daniel Day Lewis’s understated, nuanced Lincoln impersonation in masterful make up and costuming. The very physical portraiture of Lincoln—the thin, tall frame and of course that craggy, unforgettable face framed by that signature black top hat are a part of Lincoln’s enigmatic aura.

The silhouettes of Lincoln and the profile shots are striking. Lewis manages to convey a sense of what had to be the bodily trauma caused from having the responsibility of literally preserving the country’s unity sitting on those seemingly frail shoulders. While the portrait of Mrs. Lincoln played by veteran actress Sally Field wavers uncomfortably, if interestingly, between white southern lady stereotype and steel matriarch, Lewis’s performance, aided by some expert Spielberg positioning, pulls off that mysteriousness of Lincoln, that deceptively accessible, common man yet solitary persona that has never been able to be encapsulated by the well-known bio of the naïve country boy turned wily lawyer then unlikely president and preserver of the union. We get a glimpse of the savvy diplomat and political maneuverer whom his political allies and rivals sometimes underestimated and at points came to respect. Tommy Lee Jones as anti-slavery and anti-racism crusader Thaddeus Stevens provides a dash of comic relief and the vociferous House scenes remind us that Washington party politics have rarely placed nicely together. The direction of Lincolnalso reminds us that for all of his achievements with the spectacular technology that accompany his and many contemporary blockbusters, Spielberg is truly, as a movie buddy of mine put it, a traditionalist at heart when it comes to filmmaking and a storyteller whose intrigued more than anything by compelling stories.

The story that his Lincoln takes on us invites scrutiny about historical accuracy and about how he handles the controversial historical representation of ‘honest Abe’ and the ‘Great Emancipator’ versus Lincoln the politician and white man who shared the same racist views and belief in white supremacy as many of his peers and whose motivation with the Emancipation—(which only freed slaves in the seceded states if they didn’t cease their resistance by the deadline) was the preservation of the Union never the abolishment of slavery.

Spielberg bases his story on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals, which in truth doesn’t pay much attention to women or black folk as its primary point of focus is on the core group of white male politicians with Lincoln orchestrating the political maneuvers in Washington around the war and issue of slavery. This already limits how much Spielberg would possibly disturb set notions of who Lincoln was in relation to his true views on slavery and race relations. At times, he hovers dangerously at making ending slavery seem like merely a righteous mission of Lincoln that was more a matter of moral and Christian right [hence the overkill on the pained infatuation of Lincoln’s young, innocent son with the photos of slaves] at the expense of the other realities about Lincoln’s political motivations for his stance on emancipation. The film does not offer enlightenment about why he had the near abolitionist-like inclination it suggests he possessed.

The fact that Spielberg shows honest Abe engaging in some deception about Confederate offers of peace terms doesn’t in anyway bother the safe mythology of Lincoln the ‘Great Emancipator’ since it’s for a noble cause—not only the end of the war but the end, in Lincoln’s words of slavery ‘for all time’. Had the film been based on other books—say historian Leronne Bennett Jr.’s, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream—more of the viewing audience would leave the theatre as disturbed as me and that classmate years ago. What we end up with in Lincolnis a too safe, one sided version though an interesting portrait that resists the bells and treats us as an audience who can still appreciate a filmmaker taking the time to tell a story.


Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a writer and Co-Director of the Film, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas : Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press), which explores the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in the Black Power and feminist influenced explosion of black action films in the early 1970s, including, Sweetback Sweetback’s Baad Assssss Song, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown. Her writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, andBest African American Essays, among others. Her most recent work includes articles about contemporary black film representation


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