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Why Speilberg's Masterpiece Doesn't Speak To Us

This film is about twelve minutes too long.

There is this epic moment where Daniel Day Lewis’s surely Oscar®-winning President Abraham Lincoln walks slowly and laboriously away from camera as he heads out of the White House to join Sally Field’s surely Oscar®-nominated Mary Todd Lincoln for a night at the Ford theatre. I have no idea why the film’s theme music didn’t slowly begin to swell as credits rolled over this very long walk toward the end of the film, or why Steven Spielberg, America’s Genius Entertainer and director of this brilliant masterpiece, didn’t have a keen enough sense to know when the movie was over. I’m not sure what the point of the final ten minutes of Lincoln were, but they damaged a brilliant film. The film was not in any way about the tragic assassination of a great U.S. president, so why go there at all?

I doubt many people who visit this site have seen Lincoln. There is not much about the film that speaks to or even speak for Black America. For me, this was the great disappointment of the film. Black America was mainly a plot device in an otherwise character-driven and feature-rich complex political tapestry woven by an expert craftsman. In Spielberg’s film we see only educated and extremely literate “Negroes” who not only deserved freedom but surely deserved the vote and other civil rights as well—a theme hammered strongly home by the great actor Tommy Lee Jones who completely stole the film from the very first frame he was in it. However, to be accurate to history and fair to Black America, Spielberg owed us the truer story of the crippling ignorance of a proud race broken by the evil of slavery.

Black Americans were, in overwhelming measure, illiterate and painfully tribal—what we might call “country” today, intimidated by and fearful of whites while dancing ignorant jigs around campfires and squabbling among themselves. Spielberg chose to give voice only to sublimely articulate blacks. A black soldier recites Lincoln’s own Gettysburg Address back to him, having heard it only once and without benefit of a printed copy. ER’s luminous Gloria Reuben, one of America’s finest actors most people have never heard of, spins straw into gold with her very small part as Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a mixed-race former slave who became a successful seamstress, civic activist and close friend of the president’s wife. This was the abject failure of Lincoln, not suggesting these or any other displays of black erudition in the film are untrue, but that the film made no attempt to present the ignorant, clueless, subservient negroes who forged the broader impression in the minds of equally ignorant whites to whom trafficking human beings as chattel goods seemed both right and normal. Lincoln puts its thumb on the scale, with white ignorance on broad display while choosing to avoid even a glimpse of the pervasive ignorance of a people barred by law from even basic education. That lack of balance, and the needless twelve minutes after Mr. Lincoln dons his stovepipe hat, are the biggest blemishes of what comes close to being a perfect film.

Blacks rushing to Lincoln in hopes of seeing The Color Purple, Part II will be sorely disappointed. Lincoln has nothing whatsoever to say to Black America and all but ignores Black America. The film is not for us or about us. It is a political drama about a cagey, folksy southern lawyer who somehow managed to get himself elected president. Lincoln’s assassination haunts the film, informs every lumbering, painful step of Day Lewis’ epic reconstruction. Subtextually, Day-Lewis’ amazing performance echoes Barack Obama, a fellow Illinoisan whose own at-times frustrating laid-back manner and political cunning has been compared to that of the 16th president. This may have the effect of blacks watching a different movie than whites see.

Not About Us, Not For Us: African Americans appear briefly and mainly as props.
This scene is about six seconds long.

Emancipation For Some

The plot is never clearly laid out, so let me make an attempt here: it is the fourth year of the U.S. Civil War. The South is losing and the war’s end is indisputably imminent. This poses a problem for the ambitious and progressive U.S. President who confiscated the slaves of all U.S. rebels by executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, eighteen months before this film begins. The Emancipation, you see, was a directive issued under the president’s war powers. It did not, as we assume, free the slaves. It freed some slaves in the rebel territories and not all slaves in those territories, only those owned by people actively involved in the rebellion. Those slaves were confiscated as property of the rebels, the Emancipation having much less to do with the dignity of human souls than with a war strategy of defeating the rebels; crippling the southern economy by depriving it of its main engine—its free labor force.

If some permanent solution to slavery were not voted into the U.S. Constitution before the war’s end, those rebelling southern dates would be readmitted to the Union, and those individual states’ slavery laws would remain in effect. Amending the U.S. Constitution requires a 2/3rds vote in the House of Representatives, something Lincoln could never achieve once the rebelling states were readmitted. Thus, he was forced to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed before ending the war and restoring those rebel states, whose Congressmen would surely block the vote. Lincoln the film, therefore, was about how President Lincoln persuaded a paired-down but still reluctant Congress to pass the 13th Amendment before the end of the Civil War made such a vote impossible.

With the war winding down, Lincoln turned to a lame duck Congress and Democratic House members who’d lost their seats in the recent election, buying many of them off with patronage jobs and similar perks, while threatening or cajoling other through his surrogates, extending the bloodiest war in U.S. history by stalling a Confederate peace initiative and, ultimately, misleading if not quite lying to Congress—an impeachable offense. The film is a pristinely-crafted political drama, one which you absolutely must pay strict attention to every frame of to avoid becoming hopelessly lost within its onslaught of characters and political devices.

11 Votes Down: The drama and tension mostly evades African Americans,
whose stake in the film is more personal.

Free At Last

The film, however, is about passing a bill, about a political process. There’s nothing there for the human heart of African Americans other than the broadest framework of what this bill’s place in history. While it is interesting to me, as a political junkie, to view this process, most Church Folk I know—clothed in rights and freedoms millions of white soldiers died to give us and millions of our black forerunners suffered and sacrificed to earn us—are likely to not even sit through this movie. The process is fascinating, the dialogue amazing, and it is one of the funniest and alternatively tragic films ever made. But, as ambitious a project as this is, Spielberg, for reasons only he and those who know him could possibly explain, chose not to talk to us. In Lincoln, blacks appear only as props and tokens, with brilliant flourishes of wisdom and erudition. But it is an unbalanced portrait, both then and now. I don’t know a lot of Church Folk who, expecting Roots or Sounder, wouldn’t doze off, walk out, or simply report how bored they were. And I really can’t fault them.

Ironically, the film seems determined to free and enfranchise only the class of blacks displayed in the film, while the transparently self-serving throng of bigots are railing against and fearful of a nation of freed Negroes who never appear on-camera in this film: the illiterate, the ignorant, this Miss Celie of TCP and CJ Memphis of Norman Jewison’s brilliant A Soldier’s Story, who will be lost and clueless and dependent on the state to survive. It seems, to me, that Mr. Spielberg has invited only a preferred class of Negro to see this film, as our modern-day equivalent of the latter class are unlikely to sit through this because the film really is not speaking to them. The drama and tension mostly evades African Americans, whose stake in the film is more personal. Perhaps that's why Mr. Speilberg didn't bother speaking to us. Like the blacks in this film, we are regulated to being observers of history rather than shapers of it. One eight-second flashback of Lincoln sitting with Frederick Douglass would have changed all of that.

Christopher J. Priest
16 December 2012

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