Saturday, March 2, 2013

I Didn't Know Lincoln Was Jesus, and Other Things I Learned at the Movies

I may not bring 400 hundred years of slavery and  oppression to Lincoln--I'm not that old. But I do bring two films worth of acid reflux to this latest attempt by le Spielberg to deal with the Negro question. So, in addition to *SPOILING THE PLOT* of Lincoln, I fear this post may also spoil the cheering over the national reunification the film wants to praise and call forth again.

My first disappointment with Spielberg's colored people was in The Color Purple. To keep this part brief, suffice it to say that I don't mind films differing from books. I do mind when they veer from the womanist politics of the novel by having the one female character who is independent of the story's violent men turn 180 degrees for no reason to cry out "Papa, I'se married!" That's not a difference; that's a violation of the whole spirit of the enterprise.

More recently, in the days of Amistad, Speilberg said (on Oprah, with Debbie Allen near him for backup) that he wanted to create a story so that his adopted black children could be proud of their country. I kept thinking that there is another option: help create a country your adopted black children can be proud of. In any case, this desire to exculpate the nation led him to the absolutely false courtroom climax in which John Quincy Adams wins the freedom of the Amistad mutineers through an impassioned Abolitionist speech when, in fact, JQA argued that, as they revolted at sea and were not yet the property of a slaveholder in the Americas, they should be free to return home. JQA was an unlikely hero for a story of the triumph of colorblindness anyway, he who withheld his sympathy from Desdemona in a review of Othello, because he believed that nature would always punish such outrages as sex across the color line.

So I come to Lincoln not primed to be pleased.

I will acknowledge that there were many very affecting scenes and Daniel Day-Lewis is utterly riveting.† But Spielberg, even with the help of Kushner, could not help but return to the true mission: redeeming the nation. This time, rather, it would appear that Spielberg was aiming not at his adopted black children, but at racial liberals (a term meant to encompass that broad swath of US citizens of all political persuasions who believe that to identify someone by race--which now includes identifying someone as the target of racism--is tantamount to racism itself and should therefore be impermissible in US democracy). Lest they fear that racial divisions have been integral to our physical and social infrastructure--after decades of scholarship from Native, African-American, Chicano, and Asian-American Studies scholars--here is Lincoln to convince them otherwise. As Condoleezza Rice said of slavery, racism is just our nation's "birth defect"--something we grew out of. (I don't think the analogy serves Dr. Rice. Birth defects are often lifetime struggles, not left behind at birth.)

Allow me a brief consideration of Red Tails to introduce a contrast. Let me not mislead you, I panned the George Lucas ode to the Tuskegee Airmen. It bored me as a tale of easy heroism set against obvious villains, condensed into the form of racist Germans and Bryan Cranston as a high-ranking US general with Strom Thurmond's drawl and Hitler's mustache. But, on the single score of racial awareness, I have to give the edge to Lucas's film--even with its hoary dialogue and mix-and-match plot with devices from every war movie. Lucas, at least, considered black people capable of being significant characters whose actions mattered. Yet, as I think of it, Lucas, too, has to contain his black protagonists in a story of national redemption. African-Americans' abiding skepticism about the country gets swept away as they convey the gratitude that offers white Americans the sweet relief of exculpation: I knew it wasn't that bad!

I suppose the first scene of Lincoln--with the surly black soldier who refuses to smile at the grandfatherly President and voices all that the 13th amendment leaves undone--is supposed to haunt us. Perhaps we are to sense that Lincoln, haunted himself by this rebuke, puts so much into the legislative battle as a gesture toward this rightfully dissatisfied black soldier: I can't do everything you want or need, but I believe I can accomplish this.

The problem is that the angry black man™ is too recognizable to US audiences as impractical and implacable. Though Kushner may have meant for him to haunt us, the film is so involved in the political maneuvering necessary for the amendment's passage that we never get another look at how black people's daily lives will (and won't) be affected by its passage. Lincoln, of course, spends the rest of the film arguing against anyone who lacks his particular blend of principle and pragmatism, including the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens, who wants full social equality for freed men and women. The film, in its pacing, its lighting, and its arc, is devoted to the mighty and sophisticated maneuvers Lincoln undertakes to secure passage of the compromised 13th amendment. Speilberg quite literally moves us from that dark opening scene on the battlefront to a scene at the White House bathed in pure, heavenly light: the afternoon of the passage of the 13th amendment. To be precise, the national success is quite literally brought home, as Lincoln and his young son embrace each other in sunshine, framed by gossamer white curtains.

The loss that both the angry black man and Stevens bring up is not just forgotten, it is explicitly disavowed. And as long as we don't realize that no country has ever made a middle class of its landless peoples without massive investments in education and property distribution--investments of precisely the sort that were curtailed when Reconstruction came to its premature close--then the loss will continue to resound. The film is about the sleepless nights of the martyred leader; it certainly made me feel more for Abraham than any other Lincoln--not to mention any other person. And, with the national martyr in mind, I couldn't help but notice that the crowd scene in Washington during the celebration of the amendment's passage was overwhelmingly white. A few negroes in the gallery of the House are seen mouthing Thank you, Jesus--but in this film, that is tantamount to blessing Lincoln, the reincarnation of Christ's meekness, service, suffering, and humility. But the crowd scene was surprisingly, predominantly white. I find myself wondering to what extent they were relieved. Yes, no one knew then how far Reconstruction might go. But, within the logic of the film, these white characters are getting everything that "the nation" wants: an end to the war and a an opportunity to defer the establishment of social equality. The angry black soldier long forgotten, the film's later black characters ask nothing but inclusion in the nation that has failed--and is failing--them. Elizabeth Keckley, Lincoln seamstress, wants only to be considered a mother of a deceased Union solder and honored as such. In Lincoln, there is no appeal beyond the US. "American" is an adjective that is code for "moral" and "righteous." And, as Cathy Davidson so wisely noted, any compromise that produces and preserves "America" is, by definition, good--regardless of the content of that compromise.

If we in the US had a greater capacity for tragedy as a narrative mode, we could actually grieve what Lincoln could not accomplish. This is not to say blame him--for tragedy has to do with circumstances beyond his control. If we had more moral imagination we would--as Malcolm X eventually did--take our case before the United Nations. Because "American morality" is a dictatorship of its own. For those who have no recourse beyond it (and let this be a warning to you, up-and-coming gays and Latinos), the only option is Stockholm syndrome: accepting the moral structure of the very nation-state that does you harm. Certainly, we often have to accommodate the institution that does us harm in order to avoid the even greater harm it exacts for noncompliance, but that does not require relinquishing our own moral senses.

† The more I think about Daniel Day Lewis's performance, though, the more I think that perhaps he, Kushner, and Speilberg allowed Lincoln's sainted status to overwhelm them. Stray dialogue reminds us of Lincoln's penchant for racial epithets, his previous advocacy of repatriation of blacks to Africa, his tyrannical violations of the Bill of Rights. Yet, the Lincoln we get is seemingly past all of that: the racism has been purged; the desire for power entirely subsumed in the desire to do what is right. In some ways, this Lincoln is grandfatherly Ronald Reagan meets Shakespeare's miraculously transformed Henry V. I would have liked to see more of a sense of Lincoln's internal battles. The opposition in Lincoln is entirely external and Lincoln vanquishes Politics and changes History as if he were a hero of chivalric tales. Though I was utterly enthralled, I knew at the end that the character I admired so much was my own ego-ideal: the unselfish man who only tries to do good for others but faces relentless persecution and opposition. Well, I'm not only that guy. And neither was Abraham Lincoln.


  1. Interesting post, ASY. Just yesterday in the office we were discussing the movie and regretting the absence of Frederick Douglass. The radical abolitionists in this movie are Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, et al: white Congressmen. The black soldiers at the beginning and Elizabeth Keckley are the only black voices in the film, and they are reserved for rather marginal moments. (Does Stevens's wife—darker in the film than she was in real life, as far as I can tell—get any dialogue?) It's certainly a loss that Douglass isn't included the pantheon of figures that this film mythologizes and the moment that it dramatizes.

    1. Thanks for staying with ASY, framiko. How could I have forgotten Stevens's housekeeper/mistress/companion? Lydia Hamilton Smith is, in many ways, the bookend to the Angry Black Man with whom the film begins. I don't recall the lines, but she takes the 13th amendment from Stevens and says something to the effect that *this'll do just fine* and then she pats or clasps his hand. We now have testimony, from a kind and level-headed black person that waves away whatever lingering doubts we didn't have (since we have forgotten, by this time, the scene with the Angry Black soldier). And now we can end with Lincoln's Second Inaugural, believing we moved forward, united, and "with malice toward none."

      It is a mystery why we needed Reconstruction or a civil rights movement, given this narrative.

      Side notes:
      S. Epatha Merkerson is lighter than brown-skinned, to my eyes, but I'm not sure how light-skinned Smith was.

      As far as I can tell, Smith and Stevens weren't married. The NEH's magazine says late in his life he asserted that they had never had an intimate relationship. Though they don't give a source.

    2. PS: Though Kushner took liberties with some other events, I suppose he would answer that Frederick Douglass was at the White House in August both in 1863 and in 1864. Thus he wasn't around during the month of time that the film focuses on.

  2. How did you NOT know before this movie that Lincoln was Jesus? He's also the reason all black people should return to the Republican party. His mercy is eternal.

    I didn't know Spielberg had adopted black children. Wonder what they make of his black experience collection. I think Spielberg would be serving his children better if his children were white. The white redeemer is certainly something white children could be proud of.

    1. One paragraph biting irony; one of unstinting truth. Classic Miss Mariam.

  3. help create a country your adopted black children can be proud of.

    ^ this.

    also, this: "Perhaps we are to sense that Lincoln, haunted himself by this rebuke, puts so much into the legislative battle as a gesture toward this rightfully dissatisfied black soldier: I can't do everything you want or need, but I believe I can accomplish this."

    I don't know if this scene relies on Spielberg shouting "ressentiment! I need to see more ressentiment!" from outside the frame, because I have already been to the Lincoln Memorial and therefore have no need to see the movie, but it's classic Kushner to situate black people as prophetic figures, always seeing something outside the ethical possibilities of his Epic Marxist storytelling tendencies. I believe this is the form that his respect for black people takes, and I don't begrudge him an effort, however incomplete, to keep trying.

    1. Thank you, as always, for keeping up the dialogue, comrade. You are more forgiving of Kushner, in this case, than I am. If Kushner can create the black characters who have this additional insight (I'm tempted to say gifted with second sight, from behind a veil), then why can't he inhabit their way of thinking himself? It strikes me as disingenuous of him (or others like him) to claim they are trying when, in fact, they are *choosing* to foreclose one type of narrative for another. I'm feeling like Yoda: Do, or do not: there is no try.

      Or Tom Hanks of A League of Their Own: There's no crying in baseball, and there's no trying in screenwriting!

  4. Are our comments here burdened with a similar weight Lincoln possibly felt in an attempt to get his surrounding constituents to move? If so, I'll say this: I did not see the movie, and cannot, due to 1) it's a movie by white filmmakers discussing a semi-African American challenge ("semi" because as we all know the Civil War was about more than "slavery being abolished"; and "semi" also because the Semi in Coming To America would have made a great slave.. right? Too soon? My apologies); and 2) I was hoping to get an ASY review and my dreams have come true soooooo I am thoroughly satisfied in my need to bash it.

    More to the point, I just can't with all the tom-foolery and shenanigans. The holier than though "post-racial America" that wants to turn all of history on it's head. BS. I can't support it. And you can smell it when it's coming. Like in "Inglorious Basterds" how they (the U.S. soldiers of Jewish revenge) brand the Germans they let get away to tell tales of their no-holds-barred revenge on ruthless Nazi scoundrels, but then don't talk about how those same Nazi and Nazi sympathizers merged more smoothly and coolly into U.S. politics than a Porsche onto a deserted Autobahn.