Paul Krause, UBC, History

The movie, “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, was met with critical acclaim by the mainstream press, and even by critics who ordinarily are more skeptical of Hollywood productions. The film was nominated for many awards; some writers, however, have offered more probing looks at the film. From this page, you can begin to make sense out of the movie for yourself.

Lincoln, the official site

Eric Nellis, UBC emeritus prof, “Movies, American Slavery, & the Slave Trade”

Lincoln at the Movies, a largely favorable review by the historian Louis P. Masur

Six Footnotes to the Greatness of Lincoln, by David Denby, one of The New Yorker’s film critics

The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln, a brief essay by the historian Eric Foner, whose study of Lincoln and Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, also available here

What Lincoln Mean to the Slaves, by the historian Steven Hahn, an essay that may be found on the African-American Studies Discussion List (Check this out and do a search for Lincoln.You will note some heated exchanges about the absence of black agency in the movie.)

Lincoln Against the Radicals, a thorough, stinging review by Aaron Bady, a graduate student in African Literature who writes: “Lincoln is not a movie about Reconstruction, of course; it’s a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people.”

Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy

In Spielberg’s Lincoln, Passive Black Characters, an essay by Prof. Kate Masur

Frederick Douglass, oration delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument, 1876, also available here – Douglass explains why Lincoln was, and is, the president of white America, but also why Lincoln was an extraordinary person.

The historian Eric Foner, in The New York Times:

Lincoln’s Use of Politics for Noble Ends

To the Editor:

Re: Why We Love Politics

David Brooks praises the new movie Lincoln for illuminating “the nobility of politics” and, he hopes, inspiring Americans to reconsider their low regard for politicians. The film depicts Abraham Lincoln’s arm-twisting and political maneuvering in January 1865 to secure approval of the 13th Amendment, which, when ratified by three-quarters of the states, abolished slavery throughout the nation.

This was indeed an important moment in political history. But Mr. Brooks, and the film, offer a severely truncated view. Emancipation — like all far-reaching political change — resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.

The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Moreover, from the beginning of the Civil War, by escaping to Union lines, blacks forced the fate of slavery onto the national political agenda.

The film grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared more than three million of the four million slaves free, and Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, exempted in whole or part from the proclamation, had decreed abolition on their own.

Even as the House debated, Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.


New York, Nov. 23, 2012

The writer, a history professor at Columbia University, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history for The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

Read the original here.

My own mini-screed, in the form of an edited letter to David Denby:

Dear David Denby,

I have been an admirer of your work for many years and was therefore more than a little puzzled by your endorsement of Lincoln. Leaving aside the historical ellipses, the underlying problem which informs the film is, I think, its avoidance of the tragic – Lincoln’s and that of the entire body politic. Your review has made me reconsider the issue of how to write history, or produce film, that aims not merely at getting it right, as we used to say in the newspaper business, but at prodding the sensibility that wills away tragedy, or renders it as redemptive, if not downright happy.*

I include some comments I have posted on your blog and also with my colleagues in African-American Studies:

Over and above its cheesy piety, or its pious cheesiness, even more nauseating than its alternating between down-home fiddle tunes to signal alleged comedy and waves of John Williams's rhapsodic intonations to signal historic gravitas, is Lincoln's utter failure to capture the real drama and, arguably, greatness of the man. How was it that an inveterate Negrophobe who dedicated his political life to the preservation of the American West for white men and their families; who was content, as late as 1860, to allow the South to remain, as one of his ace political operatives once framed it, “the Nigger Pen of the Union;” who felt, as the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, that the Emancipation Proclamation was necessary only for reasons of military exigency (and had, Hofstadter noted, “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading”); and who, even after its promulgation, continued to favor, as had Thomas Jefferson, the “colonization” of free persons of color -- how was it that such a man came to see, however dimly, that persons of color were, after all, persons and, as his final speech suggested, that literate men of color just might be entitled to the vote, even if the suggestion was tainted by practical political considerations?

True, little Stevie Spielberg's Abe Lincoln is true enough to the record to portray him as unable to answer, near the end of the film, Elizabeth Keckley's important questions about full equality and humanity. And, of course, the final scene, which enacts the great Second Inaugural, elides Lincoln's great double entendre which, read one way, actually blames American slaves for the Civil War. It may well be that Doris Kearns Goodwin is responsible for some of this, and that she ought to stick, along with her friend and fellow fabulist, Ken Burns, to the study of their beloved Boston Red Sox. But the larger issue is how, after all these years, do we begin to dismantle the paralyzing tropes and myths that seem impervious to the best critical scholarship, journalism, fiction, and cinema that we have? I wonder if Spielberg had Eric Foner or Clarence Walker or Nell Painter on his short list of consultants. For me, the urtext about how film works against understanding race and politics in the US is Benjamin Demott's magnificent little article, ”Put on a Happy Face," published in Harper's some years ago. Ostensibly about black-white buddy films, the piece points to our collective, willful amnesia about tragedy. Spielberg is a master in leading us into permanent somnambulism about this -- Amistad, Schindler's List, and now Lincoln. He should have stuck to made-for-TV movies: it's been all downhill since 1971 and Dennis Weaver in Duel.

I hope that you are able to regain your critical sense. By way of inspiration, you might want to revisit the work of the late Benjamin Demott – the article I cite above or the book that grew out of it, The Trouble With Friendship.

Kind regards, and best wishes for the holidays,

Paul Krause

* I am indebted to my colleague, Robert Brain, for this formulation.

What do the three images above have to do with the abolition of slavery in the United States and how the end of slavery is conceptualized by most of us?