Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Representation of Slavery, Racism, and the like in the film Lincoln

First, I have to say that I am incredibly glad to have had the opportunity to have been learning about African American history all semester before my viewing of the new film Lincoln.  Not only did it help me to understand important themes presented on the screen and recognize important historical events and characters, but it also helped me to look at the movie from a critical eye and to evaluate the cinematographic representation of a dark, scrutinized portion of American history.  I believe that Spielberg had moments of brilliance in presenting this historical moment, but also did it injustice and portrayed some aspects of the era incorrectly.
I was surprised by a few things in the movie to say the least, but overall have only one major criticism: that they portrayed Lincoln in too godly of a manner and didn’t adequately address some of the conflicts he was dealing with as a President and some of his own, questionable racial ideals.
Interestingly the movie opens with two black soldiers speaking with Lincoln and sharing their desires for increased wages and fair treatment within their ranks.  Immediately two clearly comedic, juvenile, white soldiers approach Lincoln and are dismissed due to their lack of substance in talking to Lincoln and in merely reciting back to him words from one of his speeches.  I felt this was an interesting contrast that I haven’t quite figured out yet.
Also, I was surprised by how much of the movie focused on the legislative battle for the 13th amendment.  I feel like it was presented in a dramatic, yet realistic light.  Ideas thrown around that were stimulating during the movie were mainly opinions of different house members as expressed during their meetings.  The concept of compromise was presented several times throughout the movie and was crucial in convincing even slightly racist voters to back the 13th amendment, as leverage to end the war.  Lincoln himself powerfully says “compromise or you risk it all.”  Many characters in the movie also expressed their concern, not for the passing of the 13th amendment, but the universal enfranchisement that could follow for black people in the United States.  Lincoln, representing the truth and necessity for freedom, combatted this idea by saying “forget what comes after freedom, freedom needs to come first.”  Overall, it was really great movie and encouraged me to consider many different perspectives on the issues we discussed in class.
So, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, do you think it is appropriate to portray Lincoln with a god-like aura or to show him sticking up for freedom over all else supporting the rights of blacks with no reservations or hindrances? Do you think it’s fair to present Lincoln and the white people working for him as the workhorse that got the 13th amendment passed without recognizing any black voices in the issue?  Would it have even been possible to present this historical moment accurately or without offending anyone?


  1. We really have to consider that this moment in history was FRAUGHT WITH PERIL!!!

    But seriously, presenting a situation like the one portrayed in "Lincoln" from all sides is most likely an unrealistic task in terms of getting every side of the story or a completely unbiased picture. I wonder if the movie really changed our master narrative on the subject, or just elaborated on the one we can already find in our history textbooks. Personally, I enjoyed "Lincoln" from start to finish and was never bothered by the aura that the movie places on its protagonist. However, after reading your post, I can distinctly recall the exact feeling that you describe; one of Abe Lincoln as the tortured, yet heroic face of the early American race-equality fight.

    I imagine that this is what the makers of the movie intended. It would have been somewhat of a shock to see Lincoln portrayed in any other way, as he is generally regarded as a national hero of the highest caliber. Yet another argument for the consumer controlling what the "system" puts out (in light of our recent discussion of the Hip-Hop industry.

  2. Unfortunately, I have yet to make it out to see Lincoln. I hear it is a great movie despite the fact that he dies in end (Oh yeah, spoiler alert). In all seriousness though, I have heard that it is supposed to be fairly accurate representation as far as what actually happened. Of course it’s Hollywood, so accurate is a relative term. In any case, I think that not recognizing the African American voices and actions that led up to the passage of the 13th amendment is a little ridiculous, especially in the politically correct society that we have today. Despite most peoples’ thought that this movie was fairly accurate, that does not seem to be the case due to a couple of reasons: 1.) The portrayal of Lincoln with some sort of Godlike aura, which is obviously fostering the master narrative. I’m sure he was not as “godlike”, decisive, or as well-spoken as he was in the movie. 2.) The neglect to include the African American contribution to the North’s victory in the Civil War. I think that it’s an insult to not include the some of the efforts, like those described in “A War for the Union”. Clearly, the movie Lincoln has some merits, but as far as accurately portraying events as they actually happened, this movie does not come close to the mark.

  3. My only experience with the movie so far is hearing my mom rave about it, saying that actor Daniel Day Lewis perfectly embodied our beloved Lincoln. I asked her whether or not she thought the film was pro-Lincoln and she responded with confusion and horror. Could there be anything but a pro-Lincoln attitude? I realized at that moment that my mother, and most Americans are not watching this film with the same level of skepticism that we as students of African American History are. I agree with Henry that it would be unrealistic for the film to show Lincoln in all of his complexity. Unfortunately, as we have all learned, popular movies depend on a narrative that is not terribly complex. Can we simultaneously produce a popular movie with a compelling narrative and a complex representation of history? I guess that is getting into documentary territory...