More on Lincoln, with Corey Robin and Aaron Bady
First with Robin
If you’re feeling too lazy to read his write up, here are some of Robin’s important points (quoted, paraphrased, and slightly emended):
First, I agree with the Robin’s observation that the film’s central character—in spite of the title—is the 13th amendment. Lincoln is very important to that story, but he’s decentered, as Robin notes.
Second, getting the 13th amendment passed is a community effort, but the slaves’ role is underplayed/ignored. Robin, however, provides us with historical evidence (documents compiled into a book) that argue to the contrary.
Third, because of this omission, Spielberg (and his screenwriter Tony Kushner) tells us an inadequate story of democracy. He missed a chance to teach us more about our political process to tell us, in essence, a story that will please what my grandfather (Sevy) called “liberal do-gooders” (esp. white ones).
Fourth, to make matters worse, Spielberg apparently thought about doing more—about including Frederick Douglass.
So there you have number of Robin’s points. I agree with most of them. That said, I still think the film is worthwhile. It can be a fine teaching tool. But, like most films used for teaching, it will have to be deconstructed, discussed, and patched.
Next with Bady
Bady does an excellent job moving between the past, the film, and present-day political issues. Here are most of his points (quoted, paraphrased, and emended):
(1) The movie’s aim to be “real” is, ironically, airbrushed itself (“instagrammed,” if you will?).
(2) Bady’s biggest point is that the movie strains against left-wing radicalism in particular. I’ll come back to this via Bady’s own points.
(3) “A radical and revolutionary change must be placed in the hands of a compromising moderate.”
(4) Bady refers to DuBois’ argument that slavery was already dead by the time the CW started. “The choice,” then, “was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.”
(5) We must get beyond the “fact” that slaves and blacks were “passive and inert” in the emancipation effort.
(6) “Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period—and everything else Lincoln was responding to—off camera. …[The] big-picture perspective is carefully absent, displaced by an obsessive focus on political minutia, a claustrophilic aesthetic, and the usual hagiography of Lincoln.”
(7) “The filmmakers…wanted to make a polemical point about moderation over radicalism, and I think they picked the story [Goodwin’s v. Foner or DuBois or others] they wanted to tell because it seems to support that position. …After all, getting the radicals in line is important in the political arena because it allows moderates like Lincoln or Obama to operate through consensus. …The film’s treatment of Thaddeus Stevens is perhaps the most revelatory, and the clearest demonstration of how the movie disdains and diminishes the importance of principled radicalism. ”
(8) “Spielberg’s Lincoln is strikingly consistent with The Birth of a Nation’s image of Lincoln, a fact which should sound as bizarre as it is. As Eric Foner has observed, reconstruction was an “unfinished revolution” precisely because people like Stevens didn’t get their way in the long terms, because a revolution was eventually turned into reconciliation between Northern and Southern Whites and African-American freedom was abandoned.”
(9) And here’s Bady’s finale: “If Spielberg had made a movie about reconstruction, it would be difficult to find many heroes, certainly not any who were compromising moderates. Thaddeus Stevens would die not long after engineering the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (for working against Radical Reconstruction, essentially) and the story of black freedom after Lincoln’s death is pretty grim, for nearly a century. And this isn’t a movie about black freedom at all. Apparently, an earlier version of this film would have been based around Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass, and I’m very sorry that Spielberg instead chose to make a movie praising exactly the type of political compromises that would destroy and delay so much of what Lincoln had begin to create.”