My analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

lincolnSpielberg’s film, Lincoln, opens on a battlefield in where a terrible, violent battle is taking place between a company of Negro Union soldiers and a company of white Confederate soldiers. It is particularly bloody, with the fighting hand to hand, merciless, with obvious hatred on both sides. We begin to hear a voice over describing the battle, the Black Union soldiers’ merciless retaliation for the Confederate army’s slaughter of captured black soldiers. The scene changes, and lands on two black soldiers standing before a seated Lincoln: Harold Green, an infantryman, and Ira Clark, a cavalryman. Abraham Lincoln sits on a bench facing the soldiers, listening intently as they speak about their military experiences, and holding a conversation with them. For me, this was the first moment in the film that made me wonder, is this accurate or plausible, that Lincoln would sit and hold this conversation with Black soldiers? As one of my areas of study, I decided to analyze the film Lincoln from the perspective of African Americans. Not being African American myself, I consulted contemporary, qualified African American scholars to assist me in reaching my hypothesis. Is the representation of African Americans in the film accurate and relevant, and what else, if anything, could have been added or changed to give more voice to African Americans in the film?

In the opening scene, Harold Green talks to Lincoln of the battle and Ira Clark interrupts him, “They (Green’s company) killed a thousand rebel soldiers, sir. They were very brave. (Hesitating, then) And making three dollars less each month than white soldiers.” Harold Green is a little startled at Clark’s bluntness and tries to continue talking of battle. Clark interrupts again, “Another three dollars subtracted from our pay for our uniforms.”(Lincoln Script, Page 2) Later, Ira Clark is heard reciting the Gettysburg Address in, as the script says, “in a tone of admiration and cautious admonishment, reminding Lincoln of his promise… Clark continues reciting in a powerful voice: “ – That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” ” (Page 6) In her Blog, In ‘Lincoln’: Slave Voices Unbelievably Silent, Sharon Toomer, who is founder and publisher of BlackandBrownNews.com and BBN’s Brooklyn Town Crier, an award winning news and information service in Brooklyn, expressed disappointment with Lincoln. Sharon states that although impressed with the acting, especially on the part of Daniel Day Lewis who played Lincoln, and the careful attention to detail, “My disappointment had nothing to do with the actors,” she was “disappointed with this presentation of history…” Sharon says, of the opening scene described above, “There is one scene in the beginning of the film, with “Corporal Ira Clark,” …exchanging intellectual thought with President Lincoln. That scene was not convincing. The film does humanize Lincoln. Still, it seems back then even Lincoln would have an inherent problem with a Negro sharing intellectual thoughts with him… It is as though, the filmmaker, through fantasy, wanted to channel Lincoln’s inner President Obama – a ‘cool’ president to have a chat with about political, humanitarian ideology.” (Sharon’s Stoop, November 26, 2012) Sharon’s issue with the plausibility of Corporal Clark “exchanging intellectual thought with Lincoln,” is up for debate, however, which I will discuss later in this paper. Whether or not the scene could have/would have happened, to me, is not as important as the fact that it didn’t happen.

Historian Harold Holzer, who consulted on the script and is author of the companion book, Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America: A Companion Book for Young Readers to the Steven Spielberg Film “Lincoln,” is considered one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the political culture of the time. Holtzer addressed this scene in his article on The Daily Beast website titled, What’s True and False in “Lincoln” Movie. Holzer, who admits to “no shortage of small historical bloopers in the movie” has only this to say regarding the opening scene, “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.”(November 22, 2012) Holzer does not address the issue of whether or not Lincoln would hold this conversation at all with Black soldiers.

So why invent a scene with African Americans that did not happen, instead of illustrating a documented, significant event that did? I consulted Dr. Lisbeth Gant-Britton, who is Professor of African American Studies at UCLA and Los Angeles Community College, author of Holt McDougall African American Studies, and Student Affairs Officer of the Afro American Studies Program at UCLA. Dr. Gant-Britton has a background in communications as well as academia, and besides teaching on the college level, has worked for television studios and magazines. Dr. Gant-Britton “has always been interested in communicating things of great importance to people,” and feels that “University and the Academy are great but are ivory towers,” so she has, “like Spielberg, felt the need to communicate through other means to reach a wider audience who may not otherwise have access to the material.” And so, Dr. Gant-Britton explains, she is looking at Spielberg’s project from two points of view; “From one point of view observing Spielberg as a general communicator to a very broad population, and as a historian I am looking at key historical African-American figures that would be prominent” during this time. Of the opening scene, Professor Britton had this to say, “There’s a scene at the beginning, which for dramatic purposes, young Black soldiers speak to Lincoln, one of them in a slightly confrontational way, with kind of a swagger, and demonstrates that he has memorized the Gettysburg Address. To me, this was more of a nod to contemporary youth, rather than an effort to show youth what really happened.” Dr. Gant-Britton expressed appreciation for the effort that went into constructing the film from the standpoint of “showing the incredible effort and behind the scenes interplay in getting one of the most significant pieces of legislation this country has ever known, and perhaps we can argue the world has ever known, actually passed, and great attention was paid to how close it came to not passing, literally up to the last second.” “From the standpoint of characterization however, all of the characters were static… the African-American characters even more static… Their role is not explained, there are no flashbacks; No dramatic moment to show how they got there or what their lives were like… the dramatic movement centered almost solely on the development of the legislation, rather than the development of the people…” (Interview, January 25, 2012) What about the people, the Historical African Americans who were present in the film?

One of the most prominent African Americans present in the film is Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and closest friend. She is present at Mrs. Lincoln’s side at the White House, sitting in the theater, and in the House Gallery during the debates and the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment. Towards the end of the film, she has a heartfelt conversation with Lincoln about the future for “her people.” However, as Dr. Gant-Britton expressed, “If you didn’t already know who she was, you would have no way of knowing the significance of her role.” Sharon Toomer also expected more from Keckley, “knowing Keckley’s back-story, I expected more of her voice in the film. She was an activist, educator and author, a woman who bought her freedom from slavery and worked as a dressmaker for Washington’s white elite. Keckley wrote a tell-all book about the Lincoln’s. That profile is not one of a silent woman.” (Sharon’s Stoop) In Elizabeth Keckley’s autobiography, Behind the Scenes; Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, she writes about her work with the “freedmen” in Washington including starting “the Contraband Relief Association.” When she told Mrs. Lincoln of the project, Keckley says, “She immediately headed my list with a subscription of $200.” (Ch.7, Page 32) This was a strong, busy woman. She was also very close to Mrs. Lincoln, who confided in and depended upon Keckley. (Page 57) Keckley gives an account of Mrs. Lincoln saying to her, “Lizabeth, you are my best and kindest friend, and I love you as my best friend.” (Page 64) It was Keckley that Mrs. Lincoln turned to in her grief after her husband died. (Ch.11) Elizabeth Keckley’s character had the capacity to communicate valuable information about her role, however, once again scenes were invented to include Elizabeth Keckley’s presence in the Lincoln family, instead of communicating real events. Elizabeth Keckley never wrote of attending the theater with Mrs. Lincoln, and according to Harold Holzer, “First Lady Mary Lincoln…never planted herself in the House Gallery to observe the final tally on the amendment,” let alone Mrs. Keckley. (What’s True and False in “Lincoln” Movie, November 22, 2012) In reading Elizabeth’s fascinating account of her experiences with the Lincolns, I did not note any long, meaningful conversations with the President about the future for her people, as was depicted at the end of Lincoln. Lincoln spoke pleasantly and respectfully to her, but on casual issues, and the only name she recorded him addressing her with is, “Madame Elizabeth,” not “Mrs. Keckley” as he does in the scene. (Behind the Scenes or, Thirty years a slave, and Four Years in the White House, p. 53-54) So yes, Elizabeth Keckley was present in the film, but her role was not very accurate or meaningful.

Dr. Gant-Britton was disappointed in the portrayal of women in general in the film, “…even the white women, in terms of all the work being done for women’s rights, and women’s support for the 13th amendment; not even a single woman character is represented from that group… completely absent, and so the weight of the white women in that role, fell on Mary Lincoln, who was not even a part of that embryonic movement. And again, you would have no way of knowing that, if you had not already studied it.” She goes on, “Then the African American woman at the end with Stevens is not explained it all,” referring to the dramatic end scene, in which Thaddeus Stevens limps home after fighting the good fight and passing the Amendment, and crawls into bed with his African American “Housekeeper,” who turns out to be his common-law wife, and he gives her the signed Amendment. (Lincoln, Page 115) Dr. Gant-Britton goes on to say, “The black characters are almost anonymous, even though we know who they were historically, the information could have been provided without detracting significantly from the structure of the film. (Interview)

Elizabeth Keckley also recounts, although somewhat inaccurately, an event involving someone who I think is, by far, the loudest absent African American voice in the film, Frederick Douglass. (Page 45-47) I felt that the opening scene of the film, with Ira Clark, was Spielberg’s “nod” at Frederick Douglass, whose presence in the film I sorely missed. Although Keckley’s third-hand account of Douglass’ meeting with the President was inaccurate, she later witnesses a conversation between the Lincolns regarding the meeting, which she wrote about. “On the Monday following the reception at the White House, everybody was busy preparing for the grand inaugural ball to come off that night. I was in Mrs. Lincoln’s room the greater portion of the day. While dressing her that night, the President came in, and I remarked to him how much Mr. Douglass had been pleased on the night he was presented to Mr. Lincoln. Mrs. L. at once turned to her husband with the inquiry, “Father, why was not Mr. Douglass introduced to me?” “I do not know. I thought he was presented.” “But he was not.” “It must have been an oversight then, mother; I am sorry you did not meet him.” (Page 47) Douglass’ presence could have been added even indirectly, through a documented conversation with a character that was already present, Elizabeth Keckley. Frederick Douglass should have been there, because Frederick Douglass was there, both at the Inauguration Speech and at the reception following.

Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical account of the meeting is recorded in his book, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Douglass had been to the White House twice before, the first time to approach Lincoln about equal pay and rights for black soldiers who he was busily recruiting, and a second time when he was summoned by Lincoln, who charged Douglass with finding a way to get word to the slaves of their Emancipation. Of this last meeting, Douglass writes; “In the evening of the day of the inauguration, another new experience awaited me. The usual reception was given at the executive mansion, and though no colored persons had ever ventured to present themselves on such occasions, it seemed now that freedom had become the law of the republic, now that colored men were on the battle-field mingling their blood with that of white men in one common effort to save the country, it was not too great an assumption for a colored man to offer his congratulations to the President with those of other citizens. I decided to go, and sought in vain for some one of my own color to accompany me. I had for some time looked upon myself as a man, but now in this multitude of the èite of the land, I felt myself a man among men. I regret to be obliged to say, however, that this comfortable assurance was not of long duration, for on reaching the door, two policemen stationed there took me rudely by the arm and ordered me to stand back, for their directions were to admit no persons of my color. I told the officers I was quite sure there must be some mistake, for no such order could have emanated from President Lincoln; and if he knew I was at the door he would desire my admission.” The officers try to get rid of him, but upon seeing someone entering who knew him, Douglass asked the man to let Lincoln know he was being detained, and he was soon admitted. Douglass approached Lincoln, “Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” Taking me by the hand, he said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?” I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” “I am glad you liked it!” he said, and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man… My colored friends were well pleased with what had seemed to them a doubtful experiment, and I believe were encouraged by its success to follow my example.” (Loc. 5671-5679) Douglass also wrote of listening to Lincoln’s Inauguration speech, “It was my good fortune to be present at his inauguration in March, and to hear on that occasion his remarkable inaugural address…Reaching the Capitol, I took my place in the crowd where I could see the Presidential procession as it came upon the east portico, and where I could hear and see all that took place…I know not how many times, and before bow many people I have quoted these solemn words of our martyred president; they struck me at the time, and have seemed to me ever since to contain more vital substance than I have ever seen compressed in a space so narrow.” and also of visiting his friend, Chief Justice Chase, “On the night previous I took tea with Chief Justice Chase, and assisted his beloved daughter, Mrs. Sprague, in placing over her honored father’s shoulders the new robe, then being made, in which he was to administer the oath of office to the re-elected President… He (Chase) had known me in early anti-slavery days, and had conquered his race-prejudice, if he ever had any; at any rate, he had welcomed me to his home and his table, when to do so was a strange thing in Washington; and the fact was by no means an insignificant one.” (Loc. 5598-5619) How powerful it would have been to depict this important African American player, who not only attended this momentous event, but who was significantly impacted by the experience.

Much of Dr. Gant-Britton’s comments revolved around the missing Douglass. “Clearly the most significant black abolitionist, who actually visited Lincoln at the White House, in the middle of this drama, was not only absent, but not even mentioned in passing. From a dramatic standpoint for the development of the film, there’s no reason that I can see, structurally, that it could not have been added. I don’t think it would have interrupted the narrative, (rather) it would have added to the narrative. Gant-Britton stressed the significance of Douglass. “You have a kind of very dramatic situation because here’s Douglass who is himself a fugitive slave who has the courage to speak out on the issues which is of course very significant. And you have Lincoln who, before he can even make his inaugural address, is slapped with this war that he didn’t want and tried very hard to talk about negotiations, but he wasn’t president yet. In the interval between getting elected and his inauguration, before he is even president, the states start seceding and the whole thing starts blowing up. The film does do an excellent job in dramatizing this incredibly delicate balance. Then you see a change in Douglass when Lincoln reaches out to him publicly; Lincoln does this publicly; if there had been a scene of that in the film, it would’ve been so valuable to show that this is historically documented.” Dr. Gant-Britton continues, “When Douglass (previously) meets with Lincoln, Lincoln says, “I don’t think as many slaves have run off as I thought they would.” Douglass replies “slave-owners are very good at keeping the Emancipation from them.” (Life and Times… Kindle Version, Loc. 5529) Then Lincoln requests Douglass go on this mission, underground. To me, this is the kind of behind the scenes heroism that would have been wonderful to have in (the film) to show the agency of black men, the agency of former slaves, and that it wasn’t just on the battlefield.” (Interview) It was Frederick Douglass who travelled all the way to the White House, to challenge Lincoln regarding the treatment of slaves, not some anonymous soldier in a battlefield; why was he not in the film?

Another missing element in this film, were slaves. As Sharon Toomer writes in her Blog, “I find it hard to believe, I really do, that Blacks, even in enslavement, were completely silent during this period in history.” She continues, “Sometimes creative liberties are just that – license to play around with the truth and reality. But in a historical presentation, creative license, for me, speaks more to the filmmaker’s self-serving interests… Understanding the film covered Lincoln’s last six months, the limitations of filmmaking and time constraints, a small scene, or a few, with slaves talking among themselves was warranted, given that Lincoln’s proposal to pass the Thirteenth Amendment was one of the greatest policy decisions to affect a slave’s life. Surely, there was chatter, intense discussion among slaves about this historical moment. One small scene, with two or more slaves, was necessary.” (Sharon’s Stoop, November 26, 2012)

So what could have been added? At this time I must mention my own qualifications, as a film-maker, to comment on this question; I spent over 10 years in film production in the Art Department and Properties, and 20 or so years in theater, so I am experienced at using visual means to communicate information. (L. Diamond Resume) During my research, history provided me with a number of accurate, significant events involving slaves, scenes if you will, which could have been at least alluded to, if not included in the film. The writing of Elizabeth Keckley provides a wealth of possibilities for added scenes, given her close proximity to the Lincolns. Aside from Keckley’s afore-mentioned conversation with Mrs. Lincoln regarding (the missing) Frederick Douglass, the addition of which deepens and legitimizes both of their characters, while making mention of a key missing member; Keckley, herself a freed slave, and President of the “Contraband Relief Association,” had a lot to say about the “freedmen” who flocked to Washington during this time. (Behind the Scenes… Kindle Edition, Ch. IX) In his companion book, Harold Holzer writes that Keckley even took Mrs. Lincoln on a “tour of one of the city’s crowded contraband camps” where she was shocked to see people “without even bed coverings” and donates to the cause. (Ch.10, Loc. 1536) Keckley also writes of accompanying Mrs. Lincoln to Petersburg after Richmond fell, and joining up with the President. She writes; “It was immediately arranged that the entire party on board the River Queen should visit Richmond, and other points, with the President.” She remembers “the Presidential party were all curiosity on entering Richmond” including she herself; “I picked up a number of papers, and, by curious coincidence, the resolution prohibiting all free colored people from entering the State of Virginia. In the Senate chamber I sat in the chair that Jefferson Davis sometimes occupied; also in the chair of the Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens. We paid a visit to the mansion occupied by Mr. Davis and family during the war, and the ladies who were in charge of it scowled darkly upon our party as we passed through and inspected the different rooms.”(P. 49) Certainly there is material here which would add to the storyline while giving voice to the slave, through Elizabeth Keckley.

War reporter Charles Carleton Coffin in an article in Boston Magazine, Civil War Atlantic, described Lincoln encountering a sea of freed slaves when he reached Richmond, after it fell. Coffin reports of Lincoln’s arrival in Richmond, “There were forty or fifty freedmen, who had been sole possessors of themselves for twenty-four hours, at work on the bank of the canal, securing some floating timber, under the direction of a Lieutenant. Somehow they obtained the information that the man who was head and shoulders taller than all others around him, with features large and irregular, with a mild eye and pleasant countenance, was President Lincoln. “God bless you, Sah!” said one, taking off his cap and bowing very low. “Hurrah! hurrah! President Linkum hab come!” was the shout which rang through the street. The Lieutenant found himself without a command…” Coffin describes an old Negro tipping his hat to the President, and Lincoln returning the gesture, “The President removed his own hat, and bowed in silence; but it was a bow which upset the forms, laws, customs, and ceremonies of centuries. It was a death-shock to chivalry, and a mortal wound to caste. Recognize a nigger! Faugh! A woman in an adjoining house beheld it, and turned from the scene in unspeakable disgust.” (Late Scenes in Richmond, June 1865, theatlantic.com) Harold Holzer included this event in his companion book, How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America. (Kindle version, Ch. 14, Loc. 2116) Masses of freed slaves were in Lincoln’s path, but we never saw them in Lincoln.
Sharon Toomer expressed that perhaps the relationship between Thaddeus Stevens and his “housekeeper,” Lydia Smith could have been expanded, but on that point I don’t entirely agree. Toomer writes, “A few scenes, with telling dialogue, between Senator Thaddeus Stevens and his housekeeper, Lydia Smith… could help fill in his story gaps in a way that only that relationship could do.” Though Stevens’ relationship with Lydia Smith is accepted by most historians, alluded to by 1860’s journalists as well as in numerous personal letters to Stevens, and the source of gossip all over Washington society, according to historian Fawn M. Brodie in her 1959 Biography of Thaddeus Stevens, Lydia’s influence over Stevens was not evident. Brodie wrote; “How much Lydia Smith influenced Stevens’ life and thinking must remain a matter for inference and speculation.” (Scourge of the South, Ch. 7, Page 92) As a viewer and a filmmaker, I didn’t mind the dramatic surprise of Stevens’ relationship. I could perhaps see adding a scene in Stevens’ home, witnessing family members warmly, but respectfully addressing Lydia as “Mrs. Smith,” (Page 88) while she remains ambiguously the housekeeper. This would enhance our surprise at the end, when he climbs in bed with Lydia and we finally understand why Stevens fought so hard for the Amendment. We still would need to know history to know who Lydia Smith was, but at least we would have a more rounded, accurate, picture of her.

Finally, regarding the issue of whether or not President Lincoln would, as depicted in the film, Lincoln, sit and hold intellectual conversation with African Americans, I must disagree with Sharon Toomer (Sharon’s Stoop). Sharon indicated history shows that “President Lincoln believed that Blacks were intellectually inferior, less than human,” and uses, as many critics have over the years, Lincoln’s speech during his debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, as evidence against him. (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3. Kindle) As I researched this topic, I turned to an African American whose opinion of Lincoln I respect as being critical and genuine, and changed drastically over the years, Frederick Douglass. In the books, articles, and letters of Frederick Douglass, I felt as if I could track an evolution not only of Douglass’ opinion of Lincoln, the man, but of the attitude and beliefs of Abraham Lincoln, the finale being recorded in Lincoln’s last public address. Harold Holzer writes of this final address; “…Then Lincoln dropped a political bombshell— his first comments on the hot topic of civil rights for free African Americans. “It is also unsatisfactory to some,” he (Lincoln) began, “that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I myself would prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve in our cause as soldiers.” To modern ears, these tentative words about black voting rights hardly sound generous. After all, Lincoln was suggesting that only educated black people and veterans of the army would be enfranchised. But to bigoted white people, even these cautious words seemed shocking almost beyond belief. For the first time, an American president was suggesting that black people were entitled to the right to vote.” (Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America: A Companion Book for Young Readers to the Steven Spielberg Film. Kindle Locations 2147-2153). It is important to remember that at this time in history, even (white) women were not allowed to vote and continued to be denied, even after Blacks were franchised. To me, it appears that Lincoln grew and evolved, and that it was due, in a large part, to his association with Douglass. In Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass writes about his second meeting with Lincoln, “I have often said elsewhere what I wish to repeat here, that Mr. Lincoln was not only a great President, but a Great Man–too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.” (Loc. 5560-5562) It is Lincoln’s attitude and behavior towards Douglass, and Douglass’ assessment of Lincoln, the man, that brought me to the conclusion that it is not far-fetched that Lincoln would hold a conversation with a couple of African American soldiers at the point in his life, in 1865, illustrated in the opening scene of Lincoln.

I realized, while researching the subject of Lincoln’s changing attitude towards African Americans, that an entire essay could be written just on this topic, so in the interest of time I will turn once again to the opinions of qualified, contemporary scholars to assist me. When I posed the question of Lincoln’s attitude towards African Americans to Dr. Gant-Britton, she pointed me back to Frederick Douglass, but also to the work of African American historian and Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The documentary, Looking For Lincoln, written and presented by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., addresses many of the controversies surrounding Lincoln, including race. Gates consulted with several historians, including Harold Holzer and Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, on which Spielberg’s Lincoln was based, along with many others who have studied the Life of Lincoln. In addition to the documentary, which was released by public media provider, WNET.ORG in 2009 on the eve of Lincoln’s 200th birthday, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. edited the book, Abraham Lincoln on Race and Slavery. (pbs.org/wnet/lookingforlincoln) In Looking for Lincoln, Gates has this to say regarding Lincoln; “The urge to judge Lincoln outside of his time is a strong one. Every decision was made (by Lincoln) in the context of the greatest crises ever known in our nation’s history; any misstep and it could fall apart.” Gates continues, “Through it all (his research) I have come to admire a man who, despite great odds, did the right thing.” Gates then comes to the same conclusion that my research had lead me, “If there is anyone who was deeply and personally affected by Lincoln’s capacity for growth, it was Frederick Douglass. In Douglass’ eyes Lincoln was transformed from “Slave-catcher,” to “true Friend.” James Horton, another African American historian who consulted on Looking for Lincoln, agrees, “Lincoln changes dramatically, and Douglass witnesses that change…As (Lincoln) learned more, he put his new knowledge into action…He started to think about slavery, the Nation, and even about Race, in a different way.” (Looking for Lincoln) I will leave it up to the reader to research this topic, if the reader chooses, and come to his/her own conclusion; I am satisfied that historians confirm, that Lincoln had evolved sufficiently by 1865 that he would have found it beneficial to hold a conversation with Black soldiers, as Spielberg’s Lincoln did, and would have treated them respectfully.

This brings us back to Lincoln’s opening scene; am I suggesting scrap it? Actually, I think the scene could have been left intact in all its dramatic battlefield glory, assuming other changes in the script were made, with one minor change in dialog. Had Corporal Ira Clark merely referred back to Lincoln’s “friend,” Frederick Douglass, from whence his radical ideas most likely originated, I would have embraced it as creative license.

In conclusion, it appears that while the film, Lincoln, gave a dramatic representation of the conflict and difficulty in freeing the slaves, the voices of those whose lives were hanging in the balance were all but ignored. As Dr. Gant-Britton worded it, (The film) appears to be a characterization of only white males. (Spielberg) has access to historians all over the country, I can’t see any reason why they would have made such a gesture, except for wanting to keep the emphasis on the so-called powerful white males, and subordinate everyone else in the sense of the dramatic element.” “Some of the scenes of the old boys sitting around shooting the breeze” could have been left out, Dr. Gant-Britton suggests, in favor of historically documented, significant ones. “It’s the same five minutes here, in a two and a half hour movie… From the standpoint of the structure of the film, it can be argued that there was time either to change one of those scenes that were (in the film), or to shorten other scenes and add a scene.” (Interview) Sharon Toomer writes in her Blog, “History and its telling is incomplete when a significant perspective is left out. If we had the financing, BBN would produce a historical film of the same magnitude as Lincoln” and that in their version, “Viewers would see-hear: what slaves were thinking about? The angst they had to have experienced? Their conversations around what they overheard from White people around them and who they served? What plans they were making for their future? To me, that is an urgent, under-documented – altogether ignored – historical perspective.” I find it ironic that while illustrating a period of time in which an entire group of people were fighting for their voice in a self-serving, white, elite society, that the filmmakers would continue to silence them in their own self-interest, depicting almost entirely a white, elite society. In the making of an important historical film, it would seem that the filmmakers have some responsibility to the public, to a possibly uninformed audience, to be sure that the information they impart is accurate, significant, and true to the characters and events being portrayed.

Citations:
“Lincoln.” Tony Kushner, Film Script, Spielberg, 2011
“In Lincoln; Slave Voices Unbelievably Silent.” Sharon Toomer. Sharon’s Stoop, BlackandBrownNews.com, Blog, Nov. 2012
“What’s True and False in “Lincoln” Movie” Harold Holzer, The Daily Beast website,
November 22, 2012
“How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America; A Companion Book for Young Readers to the Steven Spielberg Film, Lincoln.” Harold Holzer. Harper Collins Publishers. 2012
Dr. Lisbeth Gant-Britton. UCLA. Personal Interview. January, 2013
“Behind the Scenes; Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House”
Elizabeth Keckley. Kindle Edition. G.W. Carleton & Co., Publishers. New York. 1868
“Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” Frederick Douglass. De Wolfe, Fiske Co. 1892. Kindle Edition. Wilder Publications. Virginia. 2008
“The Most Complete Collection of Works By Frederick Douglass” Kindle Version. 2011
Laura Diamond Resumé. Appendix A
“Late Scenes in Richmond”, Charles Carleton Coffin. Civil War Atlantic. June 1865,
theatlantic.com, 2012
“Thaddeus Stevens; Scourge of the South” Fawn M. Brodie. Biography. W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. New York 1959.
“Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3.” 1858. The Abraham Lincoln Association. 1953. quod.lib.umich.edu 2006
pbs.org/wnet/lookingforlincoln Website
“Looking for Lincoln.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Kunhardt-McGee Productions, Inkwell Films. WNET.ORG. 2009. Documentary.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *