Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy

by Corey Robin on November 25, 2012

Two weeks ago I wrote, “When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.”

My comment was inspired by historian Kate Masur’s excellent New York Times op-ed, which argued that Spielberg’s film Lincoln had essentially left African Americans offstage or in the gallery. In Spielberg’s hands, blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group that has ravaged and ruined them. Just as Jews do in Schindler’s List. The difference is that in the case of emancipation, blacks—both free and slave—were actually far more central to the process of their own deliverance.

Thanks in part to documents from the National Archives that historians began to rigorously amass and organize in 1976—resulting in the multi-volume Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867—students and scholars have come to a completely different view of how emancipation happened. As three of the historians who were involved in that project wrote in the path-breaking Slaves No More:

The Destruction of Slavery [the first essay in the book] explicates the process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and the slaves’ determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda. In documenting the transformation of a war for the Union into a war against slavery, it shifts the focus from the halls of power in Washington and Richmond to the plantations, farms, and battlefields of the South and demonstrates how slaves accomplished their own liberation and shaped the destiny of a nation.



Emphasizing the agency of slaves and former slaves does not simply alter the cast of characters in the drama of emancipation, displacing old villains and enthroning new heroes. Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones. Focusing on events beyond Washington and outside formally constituted political bodies does not excise politics from the study of the past. Rather, it reveals that social history is not history with the politics left out, but that all history is—and must be—political. The politics of emancipation in the countryside and the towns of the South makes more comprehensible the politics of emancipation inside the capitol and the presidential mansion.


Which made Spielberg’s decision to focus on Lincoln and a few politicians in Washington all the more perplexing.

After I posted my comment, the estimable Freddie DeBoer asked me a simple, blunt question: Had I seen the film I was pontificating about? Shamefacedly I admitted I hadn’t. (One of the things I love about Freddie’s writing is how quickly and cleanly he cuts into his opponents. I love it even more when I’m not one of them.) But I promised I’d see the film—in return for Freddie reading some of the historical literature. He agreed.

Last night I saw the film. I’m pleased to admit that I was wrong—but in one of those ways that reveals I was more right than I realized.

One of the points my critics made in response to my original claim—Michael Brendan Dougherty pursued this line most forcefully (on Twitter)—is that the film is a biopic called “Lincoln.” Of course Lincoln is going to be center stage. (To which my exasperated wife responded, “Schindler’s List also has Schindler in the title. So what?”)

But here’s the thing. Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment—and the politics of emancipation more specifically and more generally. The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.

The film in fact does a remarkable job—this is one of its chief virtues, I think—of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes—one is played by James Spader—to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.

Lincoln is obviously important as a steward and an oracle: one of the other things I like about the film is that it shows what a fine line there is in politics between the prophet and the windbag; Lincoln’s stories and pronouncements often prompt either bemused bewilderment (in the case of William Seward, played by David Strathairn) or frustrated rage (in the case of Edwin Stanton, played by Bruce McGill). But his presidency, as it is depicted by Spielberg/Kushner, actually comports more with how the bloggers over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and the poli sci literature more generally, understand the presidency: as a radically constrained institution, which is often buffeted by forces it can’t control—in Congress, and elsewhere.

So, yes, Lincoln plays a role in Lincoln, but it’s just that: a role. Seward, Spader and his goons, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), even crazy Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields)—everyone has a hand in freeing the slaves.

Everyone, it seems, save the slaves themselves.

For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.

What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from Masur’s op-ed—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in it objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.

The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.

Lest I be accused—as I already have been—of imposing some kind of PC orthodoxy on a piece of mass entertainment, or of applying an anachronistic standard of inclusion to a film that marches under the banner of fidelity to historical truth, let me reiterate one point and add two others. Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role. Spielberg and Kushner are not being faithful to the historical record; they are distorting it. Not by lying but by constructing the field glasses through which they would have us look at, and misperceive, the past.

Aaron Bady will be blogging about the film too, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But he’s dug up two interesting factoids that are relevant: First, Spielberg was originally thinking of making a film about the relationship between Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This is a topic that has generated a large and growing literature. Spielberg opted not to go that route. Second, though Spielberg chose to base the film on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, he decided essentially to use three pages from the book as the basis of his story. It was his decision to focus on the few months that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House.

These unforced choices—his choices—effectively precluded the inclusion of blacks as political agents in their own right. It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

And, I’m sorry to say, the blinkered vision of Tony Kushner. If you think my pre-Civil Rights claim above is unfair, consider this statement that Kushner gave to NPR, which Aaron also found and pointed out to me:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.


I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.

When you have a screenwriter with Kushner’s range of historical vision, and a filmmaker with Spielberg’s gift for compression, it should be possible to make a different film. A truer, better—and, yes, entertaining—film. For reasons I can’t comprehend, they chose not to, opting instead for a 19th century American version of Schindler’s List.

I didn’t like the original. And I’m not crazy about the remake.

{ 308 comments }

1

Andreas Moser 11.25.12 at 7:03 pm

Maybe “Lincoln” is a film about – as the title suggest – President Lincoln, not about abolition?
Just as “Schindler’s List” was – again as the title suggests – a film about Oskar Schindler, not about the Holocaust (which would be a bit too much for one film).

2

Corey Robin 11.25.12 at 7:07 pm

Maybe you should read the post before you post a comment.

3

William Timberman 11.25.12 at 7:24 pm

Yes, the comment from Kushner is an unpleasant surprise, given his gift for empathy with people who don’t ever enter into history as individuals with a name. His (Angels in America, is, in my opinion, as much a triumph in this respect as anything Studs Terkel ever published.)

The subversion of American collective memory by southern irredentism seems to have been much more complete than I realized. Growing up in the South, I was used to it, but I never expected it would be found as far north as Kushner.

4

Walt 11.25.12 at 7:30 pm

Christ, we have to read the posts now before we comment?

5

Anarcissie 11.25.12 at 7:35 pm

I rather agree with Kushner: part of the outcome of the Civil War and Reconstruction was to produce a society of three castes with mutual hatred for one another: White Americans, Southerners, and Negroes. It was about the worst way one could have proceeded to get rid of slavery and reincorporate the South, short of killing all the Negro slaves (or all the Southerners). Kushner’s remarks, as quoted above, have nothing to do with Dunning and company’s romantic claptrap. Rehabilitating the Southerners and ex-slaves would have been very expensive and tedious; much more fun to exploit them in their weakness. The Klan and so forth were the natural result of wrecking the South and then leaving its people mostly to their own devices as long as they formed no political threat to the national ruling class of the day.

6

Stephen 11.25.12 at 7:36 pm

” Abolition is _the_ democratic project of the 19th century.”

I think you mean: abolition is the USA’s key democratic project of the 19th century.

In unenlightened lands outside the USA, abolition of slavery was either never necessary, or was carried out mostly earlier, and with a great deal less fuss.

There were also a number of other non-US democratic projects also. And within the US too: remind me when American women got the right to vote?

7

Corey Robin 11.25.12 at 7:55 pm

#6: I’m very clearly describing the conceit of the film, not my own view.

8

Corey Robin 11.25.12 at 7:56 pm

#5: Just out of curiosity, are you basing this claim on any scholarship that’s not at least 75 years old?

9

Suzanne 11.25.12 at 8:00 pm

“But his presidency, as it is depicted by Spielberg/Kushner, actually comports more with how the bloggers over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and the poli sci literature more generally, understand the presidency: as a radically constrained institution, which is often buffeted by forces it can’t control—in Congress, and elsewhere.”

If you’re focusing on the circumstances around the passage of this one individual piece of legislation, possibly. But there’s a fair argument to be made that for a time it was Lincoln holding a shaky enterprise together more or less by force of will (as depicted in Vidal’s novel, for example). “Constraint” is the last word most would use for Lincoln’s exploitation of his presidential powers, although of course he could have done far worse.

10

Barry Freed 11.25.12 at 8:08 pm

Apologies, I didn’t mean for that last to have the meaning that might have been taken from it such that you deleted that comment. Still that seems to be the prevalent message of much of right-wing discourse these days.

11

Stephen 11.25.12 at 8:41 pm

Corey Robin@7:
You wrote”What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from Masur’s op-ed—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in its objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that”. Now you say this view of abolition does not represent your own view.
Rather, you say they are only the film’s view of abolition as the greatest democratic project of the 19th century. You will forgive me for observing that, if you in fact disagree with the film’s view, you might have indicated your dissent much more clearly.

12

ponce 11.25.12 at 8:48 pm

Every country has the directors it deserves.

13

Anarcissie 11.25.12 at 8:49 pm

Corey Robin 11.25.12 at 7:56 pm:

#5: Just out of curiosity, are you basing this claim on any scholarship that’s not at least 75 years old?

No scholarship at all. Just sixty-odd years of reading, talking, and direct experience, some of it in the remnants of the ‘Old’ South. What do you disagree with? When I was growing up in mid-century New Jersey, (White) Southerners were generally despised by most adults in my environment as culturally and possibly genetically backward. I don’t think such constructions of caste just pop unaccountably out of the void.

Suzanne 11.25.12 at 8:00 pm:
‘… But there’s a fair argument to be made that for a time it was Lincoln holding a shaky enterprise together more or less by force of will (as depicted in Vidal’s novel, for example). …’

America’s Bismarck. Given some of Lincoln’s mystical utterances about the Union, one might wonder if he had read Hegel. So he was forced into Emancipation, because he couldn’t have the Union otherwise — as we know from Glory.

14

Corey Robin 11.25.12 at 8:59 pm

#13: What don’t I disagree with, is a more appropriate question. Here’s what you wrote: “I rather agree with Kushner: part of the outcome of the Civil War and Reconstruction was to produce a society of three castes with mutual hatred for one another: White Americans, Southerners, and Negroes. It was about the worst way one could have proceeded to get rid of slavery and reincorporate the South, short of killing all the Negro slaves (or all the Southerners). Kushner’s remarks, as quoted above, have nothing to do with Dunning and company’s romantic claptrap. Rehabilitating the Southerners and ex-slaves would have been very expensive and tedious; much more fun to exploit them in their weakness. The Klan and so forth were the natural result of wrecking the South and then leaving its people mostly to their own devices as long as they formed no political threat to the national ruling class of the day.” Starting with the last sentence: the Klan didn’t result from the North leaving the South to its own devices; it was the cause of the North leaving black southerners to their own devices. Reconstruction lasted 11 years, officially, and longer, unofficially. From the very beginning white supremacist terror groups formed (as early as 1865/66) in order to stop blacks from exercising their newfound political agency, which they did. Because of the costs that the Klan imposed upon the project of black equality, the white North eventually gave up. It was in fact an extremely expensive effort, and not all white northerners were behind it. But it was an effort that was made, and the white racist south made it all the more costly. The recriminations and hatred that resulted were not because a real Reconstruction wasn’t tried; it was because it wasn’t allowed to succeed. You want to bake that failure into the design but it really was the outcome in which white racism, especially though not exclusively in the South, must bear the lion’s share of responsibility. But that last sentence of yours is a real howler. That’s why I suggest you read the scholarship.

15

Mitchell Freedman 11.25.12 at 9:04 pm

It is indeed a shame that Tony Kusnher has bought into the Dunning School of Reconstruction. I was already angry at The Smithsonian Magazine for letting the old reactionary white Southerner, Roy Blount, write about the making of “Lincoln,” the film. Here is my letter:

My letter:

What possessed The Smithsonian Magazine to hire Roy Blount, Jr. to write about the new Lincoln film? I opened his article with dread and saw him almost immediately refer to the Civil War as a “wasteful” war. Considering he offered no explanation for that judgment, it is deeply insulting for him to call that war “wasteful,” when it was initially fought to hold together the Union, and then finally ended slavery as a legal institution.

Just as bad, and possibly worse, Blount promotes a profound ignorance of the Reconstruction era (1866-1875) when he feverishly wrote that the North tried to make Reconstruction as “humiliating” as possible against the South, and used the lone example of the Northern dead soldiers being re-buried with federal money, but not the Confederates. He is wrong about how that came about besides being ridiculously insensitive to the betrayals of blacks during and especially after Reconstruction, something his white-centric world obviously does not comprehend.

There was, in the initial months after the war ended, no initial U.S. government provision for burying either side’s dead. Private Southern Ladies organizations began to immediately organize to bury Confederate dead, and some Northern societies did the same. But later, an outcry arose among Northern constituents at the poor treatment of Northern dead in the South (and) led the U.S. government to form more organized protection and burial of the Northern dead. The issue about “honoring” the dead followed that decision, and was not the immediate motivating factor.

Blount whines about the loss of Lincoln’s admonition of “malice toward none,” but never mentions the betrayal of and violence against blacks almost immediately after the war as most U.S. (Union) troops were removed within a year after Lee’s surrender. Yet even the most radical of Radical Republicans did not support executing most of the leaders of the Southern cause of slavery, starting with Jefferson Davis and the psychopath Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early and ardent leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Blount’s fact-free hyperbole about treatment of the Southern white aristocracy stands in contrast to his refusal to even acknowledge black suffering at the hands of those aristocrats who led other whites in almost immediate retaliation against blacks for daring to stand up as freed people.

If the U.S. government had to do Reconstruction again, it might well have been better to have had Nuremberg-type Trials and then executed Davis, Stephens, the Cabinet of the Confederate government, generals like Forrest for causing so much suffering for the cause of slavery. It remains a stubborn fact that in the earliest pronouncements from the Confederate side, slavery, not States’ rights, was the justification for the secession. And why not States’ rights? Because the Southern leaders had just spent the 1850s enforcing the federal Fugitive Slave Act law over the rights of free states which had been trying to protect runaway slaves–and it was highly hypocritical to start whining about States’ rights at that particular moment.

Goodness knows a complete repudiation of the Confederacy and what it truly stood for would have spared our nation a lot of the sick, twisted nonsense about the “Lost Cause” or merely calling the war a “War Between the States.” Black Americans would have been better protected from the violence and ultimate betrayal which was the result of a half-hearted Reconstruction that ultimately led to terror-imposed segregation laws and sharecropping neo-slavery. The late historian Rayford Logan’s “The Betrayal of the Negro,” written in the 1950s, is must reading on this subject.

Overall, it would have been far better for the Smithsonian to have asked historians with a literary flair to have reviewed the new film and background for the film. People such as David Biron Davis, Drew Galpin Faust or Eric Foner. The only saving grace to Blount’s article is that he didn’t red-bait the screenwriter, Tony Kushner. Thank goodness for small miracles, one supposes.

16

Dave 11.25.12 at 9:06 pm

so… Spielberg chose not to tell a story about the agency of slaves in their deliverance, and he was not helped in not telling this story because Tony Kushner is ignorant of the history of Reconstruction.

You actually don’t have much of a point here, or at least not enough of a point to justify the manifest outrage. latent white supremacy in a piece of mass entertainment that hardly differs from the current master-narrative of the period runs afoul of documents from the National Archive, zomg, who cares

17

bianca steele 11.25.12 at 9:07 pm

I suppose Anarcissie envisions the Klan as a kind of white street gang that was practically necessarily formed because the North supposedly destroyed all the existing grown-up institutions in the South and neither constructed new ones (like in nation-building) nor permitted native institutions to rise up and form themselves. Put that way, it seems ridiculous. The Klan itself was seen as just that kind of grown-up institution, presumably. And it’s equally arguable, I think, even if you’re assuming most societies have grown-up institutions of the kind envisioned, that the South never had that kind of grown-up institution, precisely because of slavery. (And it’s curious, too, that this is exactly the Southern critique of the North–Cannibals All!, and all that–that it lacked institutions like slavery.)

18

John Quiggin 11.25.12 at 9:19 pm

A little off-topic but it’s struck me that the South’s defeat in the war was, to a large extent due to official and unofficial emancipation, initiated by the slaves themselves. Even before the Proclamation, slavery collapsed wherever the Union forces arrived – the doctrine that slaves fleeing rebel masters could be regarded as “contraband of war” made this more or less official. What that meant was that territory, once lost by the Confederacy, was effectively lost forever, since the Confederate social order was broken down.

That’s very different from a typical civil war of secession, where the gains made by the national army are temporary, with territory returning to rebel control as soon as the army is repelled or moves on, meaning that much of the military force of the national government has to act as an army of occupation.

Given the South’s relatively strong military position at the start of the war, it’s hard to see how they could have lost if slaves had support their masters or even remained passive.

19

bianca steele 11.25.12 at 9:22 pm

latent white supremacy in a piece of mass entertainment that hardly differs from the current master-narrative

Yes, but. These unforced choices—his choices—effectively precluded the inclusion of blacks as political agents in their own right. It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg. is also a good point, unless you think a filmmaker’s vision can’t “preclude” anything that really already existed.

20

chrismealy 11.25.12 at 9:31 pm

At least he didn’t make this one about a horse.

21

Bogdanov 11.25.12 at 9:35 pm

I agree that a movie about Frederick Douglass would have been much more interesting (versus Lincoln, who, based on my reading of his collective speeches, seemed like actually a fairly boring politician picked by the Republicans because he wasn’t as controversial), but for better or worse this movie is about Lincoln.

How would you have incorporated African American characters into this story? You never specified.

Maybe the broader question is why the white man, Lincoln, is lionized as the Great Emancipator — but that’s a different question than critiquing this movie.

22

EMS 11.25.12 at 9:36 pm

Wars and politics aren’t managed by academics……for good reason. Not because academics couldn’t (well, at least some of them probably couldn’t) but because both pursuits called for firm decision-making based upon sound strategies, not necessarily philosophical constructs (although those, too, may play a part). Why should anyone expect the victor of a hideously bloody and expensive war to be expansive towards its previous antagonists, especially 150 years ago? This is nuttiness in the extreme to me. Nation States pursue their own interests without regard to the niceties of life. That the North even conceived of a reconstruction intended to bind wounds at all is extraordinary. That the defeated sabotaged it ought not to be a big surprise. Who the hell loves the guy that in physucally overwhelming one, utterly controls one’s destiny?

I don’t claim omniscience here, but the only “reconstruction” I can readily summon that worked as it was supposed to was the effort by the Allies to reconstruct Japan and Germany post WWII. Every other was a disaster (Versaille, anyone?). As Cory Robin pointed out in #14, white racism eviscerated the best part of reconstruction by in part makiing it so expensive the North gave up. I’m reminded of the recent scorched earth policy of the Republicans since 201o.

I myself thought the film pretty good when I saw it, and less and less so the further I moved away from the date I screened it. This isn’t a film critics blog, so I’ll just opine that in retrospect it’s not all that good a film. If asked by anyone (though not sure why anyone might care) I’ll be much more specific in my criticisms.

I’m astonished, though, and rather disgusted that any would criticize this film because there weren’t enough blacks in it, or that black agency in their own emancipation seems to have been omitted. This reminds me of a huge fight I had with my wife over “Tell ‘Em Willie Boy was Here” when she accused Polonsky of anti-feminism, despite the fact the film took place way the hell before there was any such thing as Feminism (except in a few small Eastern precincts). It’s about Lincoln and the 13th amendment. Why the hell should any blacks be in it at all? One could, probably with some force, argue that Spielberg and Kushner are guilty of tokenism. I’d argue it’s just bad film-making. Does every film have to be judged by the inclusion or exclusion of blacks? How about The Red Badge of Courage? Ya wanna make that one all black? One can dislike the choices Spielberg makes, but he’s about emotion more than historical accuracy. What he’s not is a profound thinker. What he is, usually, anyway, is a superior craftsman.

23

GiT 11.25.12 at 9:54 pm

@18 – On this, I’d think Du Bois’s account of a general strike would be a needed reference.

https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~aholton/121readings_html/generalstrike.htm

24

Bloix 11.25.12 at 10:52 pm

“Two weeks ago I wrote, “When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.””

What can this possibly mean? That Spielberg identifies with oppressors? That white Americans were comparable to Nazis? That Lincoln and Schindler are moral equivalents? What is the point of this? Other than to be an asshole?

I know all about history from the bottom up, but I believe that there are great people whose acts turned the course of history. Lincoln, Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Their stories are great stories that deserve to be told over and over again, in every era, in every form of art.

25

Dave 11.25.12 at 11:00 pm

@#19:

I saw those sentences too. It may not be the constraints of history or genre driving Spielberg’s choices, but presumably culture as it is presently configured and the master-narrative of the period preclude the possibility of Spielberg telling the kind of story Corey would like. At least, it’s as likely as “Spielberg’s blinkered vision.” There is no pop culture artifact anywhere telling that story; why be outraged at Spielberg for failing to account for an academic history when no one else does?

Look, I would be perfectly excited to see a representative slave (Slaveraham Lincoln?) putting emancipation on the agenda in some scene. But the fact that such a scene is missing hardly warrants 1500 words of shock (shock!) at finding there is white supremacy haunting the cinematic Civil War equivalent of The West Wing.

26

David 11.25.12 at 11:08 pm

“Lincoln” wasn’t a movie about “abolition.” It was a movie about the legislative process and deal-making that led to the 13th amendment. If Speilberg was wrong to place Lincoln at the center of such a story, which black American would have been more appropriate?

27

William Burns 11.25.12 at 11:11 pm

Spielberg also made Amistad. How does it fit into your “Speilberg’s White Men of Democracy” thesis?

28

Scott P. 11.25.12 at 11:16 pm

I disagree that this was a movie about emancipation per se, it is definitly a movie about Lincoln, with emancipation as merely the backdrop. You say he is absent for much of the movie; I saw his presence in every scene. I tend to agree that the movie could have done better in some aspects (it would have been good to have Alexander Stephens speak up as an unabashed partisan of slavery), but on the whole it was a very good movie.

29

Clubbie 11.25.12 at 11:32 pm

Amistad was a Spanish ship, owned by a rich white guy in Cuba. I didn’t see the film, but I assume the ship plays a big role?

30

LFC 11.25.12 at 11:53 pm

I have seen a few (only a few) Hollywood movies set in this period — have not yet seen ‘Lincoln’. Apart from a couple of movies in which slaves are the central characters (e.g. ‘Beloved,’ based on Morrison’s novel), the one I recall dealing at some length w/ African-Americans’ role/agency is the movie about the black regiment (54th Massachusetts) led by Robert Gould Shaw (but even there a lot of the attention is on Shaw).

JQ@18
I think the more-or-less consensus view is that, once it failed to achieve a relatively quick victory and esp after Gettysburg and Antietam, the South was on a path to defeat b.c of its relative lack of industrial base, difficulty in mobilizing effectively for a long, ‘total’ war, and smaller pop. If the slaves had enthusiastically or even grudgingly supported their masters, would it have made a difference? Hard to know for sure, but in any case by the time the South authorized blacks to serve in its armies, even if many had done so (which didn’t happen, iirc), it was too late. (But this is sort of OT, as you said.)

31

Mark Field 11.26.12 at 12:52 am

@30: The South never did authorize blacks to serve.

I saw the movie yesterday and thought it was excellent. I’m not much impressed by this criticism. There are thousands of stories that could be told about the war and about emancipation. There are stories of Thaddeus Stevens, of Frederick Douglas, of millions of unidentified slaves, of Union generals, etc. No movie can easily incorporate them all. And it’s not as if Lincoln was peripheral to the story, not then and not in historical memory.

The fact that Spielberg chose to tell one of these stories — one which fits well the nature of film — doesn’t strike me as anything worth criticizing. It just means there are lots more (good) movies to make.

32

bianca steele 11.26.12 at 12:53 am

Dave @ 25
What I disagree with is that it’s a question of an attitude that’s held entirely universally except for academics who have direct access to archives and brand-new discoveries. This would let the filmmakers entirely off the hook. Even if it’s “cultural,” the culture at stake isn’t that universal. To assume, from the audience’s or critic’s point of view, that it is, may make sense some of the time. To assume that was the case from the director’s and screenwriter’s point of view, always, doesn’t. Spielberg, especially, is admired for artistry–transcending the limitations of the industry and of what the audience will permit–so his choices seem to matter. Even if he would say he couldn’t have done otherwise, other people seem to think he could have.

I also disagree that complaining about the politics of a film is something very much out of the ordinary.

That this particular complaint might not arise if a different moment in Lincoln’s life had been chosen, one that didn’t involve black people at all, might be ironic. But if pretty much the same film would have been made, only without black people, maybe there’s something dishonest about pretending this movie has anything to say about the ending of slavery?

33

Kris 11.26.12 at 1:01 am

Yeah, a movie about abolition would need to have slaves and blacks at the center of the story.

But Lincoln is a movie about the passing of the 13th amendment and the battle between more idealistic and more pragmatic legislators to get the amendment passed. It shows a little bit about Lincoln’s personal life (not much) and a little bit about how people around Limcoln (including his black servants) view the 13th amendment and him. But politics is the heart of the story. (I think the movie is intentionally meant to parrallel contemporary political battles between pragmatist democrats and idealistic liberals, which is another matter, BTW.)

I would love to see a movie about abolition itself in addition to this movie on Lincoln and the politics of the 13th amendment, but it is hard to criticize Spielberg for making this movie and not a movie about abolition more generally. After all, this is an important period and the politics of the period are interesting and important, too.

I do think people will take the wrong lesson from this movie, i.e. that blacks were not agents in their own abolition, but that isn’t Spielberg’s fault. It is the fault of idiots and the bad educators who left them in ignorance.

34

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 1:05 am

Even if one accepts the basic narrative parameters of the film, was it really not possible to include any of the themes we’re talking about here? Kate Masur, whose op-ed I highly recommend, has some very concrete suggestions that would hardly have taken away from the overall focus of the film. People are willing to countenance all sorts of narrative digressions that had little to do with the main plot of the film — the drama of the older son who wanted to fight, for example, or the Mary Todd Lincoln question, or even the multiple scenes of buffoonery involving the James Spader good squad. Yet they’re flummoxed if not outraged by the suggestion that perhaps black agents of emancipation might have been included in this chamber piece without doing damage to its overall integrity.

35

Dan Nexon 11.26.12 at 1:15 am

@30 (LFC) that’s actually part of the ‘myth of the lost cause’ argument. In fact, the real puzzle is how the North was able to prevail in light of the vast terrain that it needed to occupy; or, to put it differently, why the guerrilla war came against reconstruction rather than re-incorporation itself.

36

Colin Reid 11.26.12 at 1:43 am

Off-topic, has anyone made a biopic about Toussaint Louverture? For such a landmark event in history, the Haitian revolution doesn’t seem to get much attention, perhaps because it can’t be sold as a simple ‘good guys win’ story, and the subsequent history of Hispaniola, starting with the rule of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, would probably encourage the racists in the audience. But Louverture himself comes out in a positive enough light that you could make a film with him as the hero without giving a distorted view of history.

37

Don A in Pennsyltucky 11.26.12 at 1:50 am

Funny, I just got back from seeing Lincoln and I thought it was about the politics and what it took to get the 13th amendment to get 2/3 of the House to approve it. Except that the obstructionists were the Democrats in der Vergangenheit.

38

John Milton XIV 11.26.12 at 1:59 am

@35,
Haven’t actually seen it, but there is this from France:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2062690/

39

Main Street Muse 11.26.12 at 2:05 am

I find myself in a bit of a disagreement with Corey on this film – it opens with a battle scene, where black soldiers are fighting to the death for the union. It then takes us to a scene where two black soldiers are speaking quite frankly to the president about the need to free slaves. So “Lincoln” opens by focusing on the contributions of blacks to the war – and by giving a black soldier the lines about the significance of freeing the slaves.

There is also a scene where the visitors from the Confederacy are shocked to see black soldiers in positions of responsibility (though the US military did not integrate until Truman, right?)

And it shows Mary Lincoln, whose brothers were Confederates, who was raised in a slave-owning household, in a close friendship with her seamstress, a former slave. Perhaps they didn’t attend congressional sessions together, but Mrs. Lincoln & Mrs. Keckley apparently shared a friendship for a time.

And after all, this is a film about the passage of a bill through congress in the 19th century. That this is the subject of the film may not provide the narrative opportunity to focus on the contributions slaves to the abolition issue. But then again, this is a movie called “Lincoln.” Not “Fredric Douglass” or “Taking the UnderGround Railroad Public.”

I loved the film for the acting. Hated the clumsy zooms that indicated “A Significant Moment.” And felt some of the lines said by the white folk were indeed ponderous (“The fate of human dignity is in our hands.”)

There are countless history books about the Civil War, each with a different focus. This is but one film about one of the most seminal moments in American history. That its focus is not on the slaves does not make its story irrelevant. Without an alliance with Lincoln, all the agitation of slaves would have been for nought. And without that perilous passage through Congress (filled with white men terrified at the notion of blacks and women getting the vote), the 13th Amendment would never have been signed. Kudos to the filmmakers for making the passage of an amendment something interesting and engaging to watch.

40

Main Street Muse 11.26.12 at 2:11 am

“When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.”

If you were in HS in 1985, you are much younger than Tony Kushner, who was born in 1956. His transit through HS would have been during that era when historians were wrong about Reconstruction. Yes, the info is there today, and yes, Kushner should have accessed this research as he wrote the script, but keep in mind that his perspective could indeed be skewed from initially learning reconstruction history at the wrong time.

41

Harold 11.26.12 at 2:15 am

I just came back from seeing Lincoln and I thought it was excellent. Feel I need to see it again to sort out some of the minor characters. I don’t know how Corey Robin can ignore the characters of Elizabeth Keckley or Lydia Hamilton Smith. I had known nothing of them and immediately went and looked them up. Each of them deserves a movie in her own right, but this is a first step. I had also known little of Thaddeus Stevens, (though I understand my FIL graduated from Thaddeus Steven’s high school in Central Pa.

All historical movies reflect contemporary concerns as well as the history they are supposed to represent, and this one reminds me of the difficulties we are now having with the republican majority in the house trying to block healthcare and labor legislation. Walmart is today the modern equivalent of slavery and cries out to be crushed. Kushner did an excellent job.

42

LFC 11.26.12 at 2:38 am

M. Fields @31, Dan Nexon @34
hmm, in light of these responses, perhaps I’d better (pun intended) retire from the field.
(Dan’s comment raises issues that could be fodder for some further discussion, but I suspect might lead too far from the topic of the thread, i.e. the movie.)

43

Harold 11.26.12 at 2:47 am

Janet Masur is silly (not for the first time). Tony Kushner made a decision to restrict the story to a time period of two months in the interest of narrative economy, and it worked.

There can be other movies about Keckley and Smith. Nothing precludes it, and now that people know about them as a result of Speilberg’s movie, audiences will find such movies even more interesting.

44

LFC 11.26.12 at 3:10 am

MSM @39
I’m roughly the same age as Kushner (a year younger, to be exact) and I was not taught the Dunning School version of Reconstruction in high school as the ‘accepted’ or ‘correct’ version (I think we might have gotten a cafeteria-style view of the historiography, i.e., here’s A, B, and C, they all have some points, but I’m sure I was not taught the Dunning School as the ‘correct’ view or anything even close to it).

45

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 3:10 am

@42: The historian’s name is Kate Masur, not Janet. It wasn’t Tony Kushner’s decision to restrict the story; it was Spielberg’s.

46

Witt 11.26.12 at 3:14 am

There is an undertone to some of the comments in this thread which reminds me of nothing so much as some of my library patrons. Parents of 10 or 12-year-olds, who come in asking for a biography and then, in hushed tones, ask if I can find one that’s, you know, about somebody relatable. Of course, they hasten to add, they’re not averse to a biography of a black/Jewish/white woman…but so many of those are already on reading lists, you know.*

The issue here isn’t whether the movie is artistically good or whether the screenwriter did his homework. It’s not even about where the lens of history is positioned, and what is pushed to the margins. It’s about who feels entitled to tell the rest of us that we’re wrong to expect more.

*I doubt very much that most of my patrons are consciously racist. But I do think that they would be astonished if given a simple headcount of the historical actors their child has learned about in school. I suspect they think it is about 30% white and male, and in reality it is about 98%.

47

Harold 11.26.12 at 3:16 am

My apologies for my confusion over Kate Masur and any other inaccuracies! Thanks for pointing them out. Nevertheless …

48

Harold 11.26.12 at 3:29 am

I’m not a fan of Spielberg, actually. I never saw Schindler’s List, but my SO and offspring hated it so much they walked out of it, and I trusted their judgement. I did like Empire of the Sun, though.

Here though, I think he did a good thing.

49

Main Street Muse 11.26.12 at 3:47 am

“Parents of 10 or 12-year-olds, who come in asking for a biography and then, in hushed tones, ask if I can find one that’s, you know, about somebody relatable. Of course, they hasten to add, they’re not averse to a biography of a black/Jewish/white woman…but so many of those are already on reading lists, you know.*”

To Witt – you have parents come and ask for “relatable” biographies – about white men? That’s awful. A terrible seam of racism continues to run through the nation – even all these years after the Civil War.

50

Ali 11.26.12 at 4:10 am

JQ @18

That’s very different from a typical civil war of secession, where the gains made by the national army are temporary, with territory returning to rebel control as soon as the army is repelled or moves on, meaning that much of the military force of the national government has to act as an army of occupation.

While your point about the breakdown of the social system following the US armies has truth to it, occupation of former CSA or even border territory did tie down much of the US military. In some especially bad cases, such as in Missouri and west/central Tennessee, very large numbers of occupation troops were required and large-scale guerilla activity & raids broke out nevertheless. But the requirement for occupation troops to garrison cities, hold open supply lines, suppress raids and guerillas, and protect the railroads was general. For example, that is generally credited as being a major reason Halleck’s large army (125,000 soldiers) failed to move on and take Vicksburg, or anything else, after winning Shiloh and taking the important rail junction of Corinth.

51

jeer9 11.26.12 at 4:45 am

Just because an historical film does not incorporate more of what the most recent achival research holds as relevant aspects of an issue does not mean that the work of art “fails” or signifies a gross misrepresentation of the facts or can be characterized as motivated by “blinkered” choices (whatever that suggests – beyond the obvious aesthetic concerns with the medium and its time constraints). Spielberg (and Kushner) didn’t make the film you wish he (they) had. The film they did produce, however, is quite good and rather remarkable in that its central plot elements are the machinations behind a piece of legislation, a process that is not in itself usually spell-binding. Robert Bolt also received significant criticism concerning Lawrence of Arabia: that his depiction did not fully appreciate the agency of the Arabs and his script took far too many liberties with the historical record. And of course it focused most of its attention on a white man. I don’t think Lincoln is nearly on the same level as Lean’s epic; however, its flaws and weaknesses do not deserve to be darkened by the sort of motivational attributions that you suggest. And while Schindler’s List may not have been your cup of tea, it was considerably better as a film than Defiance, despite its concentration on a German gentile protagonist.

52

Kris 11.26.12 at 6:12 am

I’m also curious how Spielberg’s directing “The Color Purple” and “Amistad” plays into all of this, if at all.

I think Amistad may be guilty of the crime of removing blacks from the enter of the story that they belong in that you are accusing Lincoln of committing. Amistad is pretty clearly supposed to be about slavery and the experience of captured slaves and the passage to America. But most of that movie is about white lawyers and politicians who work to save the poor slaves. Though the Huntsou character is at least one of the three main characters. (He should have been the only main character with far more screen time and story.)

I can’t remember enough of the Color Purple to remember if it commits the same crime of focusing on whites and erasing black characters from story lines to which they are essential.

In brief, I think looking at Spielberg’s career, I don’t see evidence that he is making racially blinkered movies in general, but he isn’t a director who has focused on shattering racist myths about history. Nor has he shown great interest in making sure that he is showing us black characters who are strong agents in their own stories. Nothing there to be greatly condemned, but not that much to be commended either.

53

PGD 11.26.12 at 7:00 am

Maybe the broader question is why the white man, Lincoln, is lionized as the Great Emancipator — but that’s a different question than critiquing this movie.

Perhaps because he was the most prominent and successful anti-slavery politician of his time and was the single most important (individual) actor in emancipating American slaves? It’s like people today are completely incapable of getting their mind around a genuinely anti-slavery leader who was not an abolitionist. Lincoln forced the Civil War because he was unwilling to compromise on the spread of slavery and although Lincoln did not favor immediate abolition, both sides knew that this would in time lead to eventual abolition.

One thing that gets me is how clearly people at the time understood the issues behind the Civil War but how muddied our vision has become since. If you want to understand why Lincoln was a great anti-slavery leader even while not being an abolitionist and being somewhat racist by contemporary standards, read Frederick Douglas’ speech at the dedication of the Freemen’s Monument. A quote:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

The problem is that today most lack the historical imagination to understand the sentiment of America in 1860 and are stuck viewing everything from ‘genuine abolition ground’, which is anachronistic. And in some ways our contemporary vision loses some of Lincoln’s radicalism. What Lincoln grasped very clearly was that black slavery was a mortal threat to free white labor, because the right to free labor cannot survive for anyone in a nation where it is not given to everyone. A lesson that is still relevant today.

54

L2P 11.26.12 at 7:27 am

I, too, am shocked that a movie about Lincoln and the workings of a political process in which few black people participated has so many white people in it! That’d be like someone making a movie about the command decisions and personal failings of a WWII general like Patton and somehow not featuring the contributions of thousands of non-white soldiers. Really, the only possible explanation is racism; not cutting out every possible scene (like, say, anything dealing with Lincoln’s son) to add in something about black characters is pretty much just ignoring history.

55

mossy 11.26.12 at 7:30 am

“When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German” is a great joke line, but it’s wrong. Spielberg didn’t make a movie about the Holocaust; he made a drama about Oskar Schindler. Schindler was the lead character because he changed from a Nazi party member and “opportunistic businessman” (Wiki) to a man who risked his life and lost his fortune saving Jews. If you want to make a drama – or almost every genre, from romantic comedies to caper movies — that people will watch, you need to have a character who changes over the course of the movie — and Schindler was perfect for that.
Did some people who would never watch a film involving Jews and the Holocaust watch it because Schindler was a gentile and German? Maybe. I don’t know. But people probably watched it and found it uplifting not because Schindler was “relateable” in the sense of “like them,” but because they would like to believe that in similar circumstances they, too, would do the right and noble thing.
Haven’t seen Lincoln and so can’t comment on it (and not sure if it will be released in Russia; may have a long wait for a DVD). But I recall reading that the original script idea was the friendship between Lincoln and Douglass, that it went through several writers, at one point covered his entire presidency, was something 500 pages long (an average full-length feature film script is 100-120 pages), and then was cut down again to focus on passage of the 13th amendment. Not sure Kushner was so ignorant; sounds like he read widely about Lincoln and the period, although the historical consultant on the movie wrote about some of the bloopers in the film.
I also saw a clip about the sound guy who found, wound up, and recorded Lincoln’s pocket watch and used the sound in the film. He also got into the White House to record the doors closing and such for “authenticity.” I suppose that’s rather silly, but it seemed cool to me.

56

mossy 11.26.12 at 7:49 am

@ 6
“In unenlightened lands outside the USA, abolition of slavery was either never necessary, or was carried out mostly earlier, and with a great deal less fuss.”

Russia emancipated its slaves (about 40 percent of the population) only about 2 years before the US, and the process was for the most part a disaster.

57

mossy 11.26.12 at 7:55 am

Oh, should have mentioned that another 40-ish percent of the population were state slaves (ie owned by the Russian royal family). They were emancipated in 1866. Can’t remember if that included slaves owned by the church.

58

NomadUK 11.26.12 at 8:06 am

Perhaps because he was the most prominent and successful anti-slavery politician of his time

Yes, pikers like William Wilberforce just didn’t rate. Oh, you mean American anti-slavery politicians …

In any event, as is so often the case here, it certainly has been interesting watching what comes scuttling out of the woodwork.

59

Harold 11.26.12 at 8:07 am

I don’t think Brazil abolished slavery until 1880.

60

krogerfoot 11.26.12 at 9:36 am

“Yes, pikers like William Wilberforce just didn’t rate. Oh, you mean American anti-slavery politicians …”

Yes, in a discussion about an American biopic about an American president during a pivotal moment in American history, it is awful negligent not to mention our British forebears. Otherwise, cutting comment. Thanks for scuttling by.

61

Katherine 11.26.12 at 10:32 am

You know, if this film existed in a world which had a multiplicity of films in existence about abolition of slavery and about black slaves and their role in demanding and fighting for their own freedom, all of this “but but but he was making a film about Lincoln/politics/13th amendment/anything-but-black people might have a point.

But since we don’t live in such a world, this film, about Lincoln and the passage of the 13th amendment – i.e. the abolition of slavery – is a sad case of a story that is at its roots about black people being about white people. Corey’s criticism is spot on, as far as I’m concerned, and honestly all the excuses and but but buts are pretty depressing.

62

lurker 11.26.12 at 11:19 am

@59
Dutch West Indies 1863 (with a 10-year transition to full freedon in 1873),
Spanish Cuba 1884,
Brazil 1888.

63

christian_h 11.26.12 at 11:58 am

What Katherine said. There are of course economic pressures to make certain topical choices (somebody asked about a film about Toussaint Louverture – Danny Glover has had this project but could not get financing) but how does this invalidate the criticism? Especially when it comes to an industry giant like Spielberg, who surely could get financing for just about any movie project he chooses. And he chose – this. A topic out of all the history of the abolition of slavery in the US that (conceding the point for the sake of argument) excludes black people as agents (I am not counting a personification of a white man’s conscience in the form of a black servant as a historical agent here).

64

The Tragically Flip 11.26.12 at 12:14 pm

Katherine @60 nails it. A lot of “whitesplaining” going on here. Reminds me of that feminist test of movies (do any two named female characters engage in dialog not about a man at any point in the movie?) – any one movie can fail this test for valid reasons (like being set in an all male environment) but when ridiculous proportions of Hollywood movies fail this, at some point sexism must be considered as an explaination.

A movie about Lincoln that gives minimal treatment to the role of black people in emancipation cannot be understood without the Americal (white) cultural deification of Lincoln. Lots of white people do not want anything taken away from lincoln’s achievements, even just to acknowledge that other people played important parts in freeing the slaves too. Republicans in particular often express anger that black people are not more supportive of the “party of Lincoln” who “freed the slaves.”. Making a movie that challengesthis mythology would have been brave, but not necessarily good for ticket sales.

65

Matt McIrvin 11.26.12 at 12:22 pm

So, once again pre-parodied by Mr. Show:

66

Watson Ladd 11.26.12 at 12:24 pm

If we make abolition the work of black slaves fleeing, then it ignores the politics. The 13th amendment does not drop down from heaven because slaves flee their masters. And yes, there are black politicians involved in this process: Fredrick Douglass, post-War Republicans, etc. But making a story about politics means making a story about politicians. And that means that blacks are never going to be central if that story about politics is told in Civil War era America. Are commentators seriously suggesting we avoid depicting all historical topics in which black people did not play a role?

67

rf 11.26.12 at 12:33 pm

“Are commentators seriously suggesting we avoid depicting all historical topics in which black people did not play a role?”

Eh, no

68

NomadUK 11.26.12 at 12:40 pm

“Are commentators seriously suggesting we avoid depicting all historical topics in which black people did not play a role?”

Eh, no

Although, given that so much time and money have been spent avoiding or whitewashing depicting historical topics in which they did, it might not be a bad idea.

69

mossy 11.26.12 at 12:44 pm

Oh, come on. Spielberg wanted to make a movie based on the book A Team of Rivals about Lincoln and his cabinet, which he apparently thought was a dramatic and therefore inherently cinematic relationship, or set of relationships – with a really dramatic ending. But he should not have made that movie because other people have not made good, comprehensive movies about abolition and the emancipation movement that focus on the role of black people?
Really?

70

christian_h 11.26.12 at 12:44 pm

I propose a moratorium on such movies.

71

rf 11.26.12 at 12:56 pm

So Watson Ladds proposal to ban “all historical topics in which black people did not play a role” has passed. Good on you Watson

72

Julian 11.26.12 at 12:56 pm

to all the commenters who argued that Spielberg just happened to make a story focused on the aspects of the abolition of slavery that excluded black people (the legislation and efforts to pass it):

Whither his agency? No one is saying the government should have stopped him. I really don’t see the relevance of defending his freedom of artistic choice here. Everyone agrees he is free to make any movie he wants. This was the movie he wanted to make; more cynically, maybe this is the movie he thought would sell. What does that have to do with our appraisal of what his choice suggests about his view (or his view of the public’s view) of the Civil War and the struggle for civil rights?

You could make the same artistic freedom of choice argument to defend many silly racist caricatures, for example the Magical Black Person: Green Mile just happened have a wise and gentle black person with the unique ability to help the white people who were the main characters, and so did Bagger Vance, and Ghost, and countless others. How can we fault a director who does that? Any story is *theoretically* possible, so the director merely chose to make a movie, of all possible movies, where there was a magical black person.

Similarly, there are many vile and murderous people on the planet, white, black, straight, inuit, etc etc, so does that mean we can’t judge a director (or an industry, say, Hollywood) homophobic for making villain after villain a sinister gay caricature (Scar in Lion Kind, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Jafar in Aladdin, Javier Bardem in Skyfall, those two guys in Diamonds are Forever)?

Now, of course ONE EXAMPLE of this does not an argument of predilection make. Fortunately, Hollywood and Spielberg have loads of examples of white saviors. Search Spielberg’s ouevre for a person of color (or belonging to an oppressed group) who has agency in her own rescue. Indiana Jones: the shrewd Egyptian was played by Jonathan Rhys-Davies! Indiana Jones is a white savior, of course, though maybe he gets a pass from you as a riff on the white saviors of pulp comics.

I thought Lincoln was fantastic (primarily because of DDL, my favorite actor) though heavy-handed. And to my shame Corey’s critique didn’t occur to me at all until I read it. But I simply cannot see how anyone can deny that Lincoln carefully excluded depictions of black people that weren’t quiet, noble, and worshipful.

73

Julian 11.26.12 at 1:00 pm

Also, for god’s sake, please don’t comment just to say the “b-b-but the movie was about the passage of the amendment, it makes sense that no black people were involved.”

Next time your partner’s ex takes a group photo and coincidentally leaves you out of the frame, console yourself that the ex just chose to take a photograph containing only your partner and your partner’s friends.

74

mossy 11.26.12 at 1:06 pm

“Search Spielberg’s ouevre for a person of color (or belonging to an oppressed group) who has agency in her own rescue.”

The female characters in The Color Purple; Cinque in Amistad.

But agree about the Indiana Jones movies (although Marian was a pistol).

75

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 1:23 pm

#55: “But people probably watched it and found it uplifting.” Yes, because whenever I think about genocide, what I want is to feel good! Makes me think Stanley Kubrick was more right than I realized: “Schindler’s List was about 200 Jews who lived. The Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died.” Nuff said.

#65: See #2.

#68: Also see #2. And #71.

76

Main Street Muse 11.26.12 at 1:24 pm

One more from me on this topic (I hail from the Land of Lincoln and now find myself in the South, so the idea of Lincoln is hugely appealing to me) – we can look at Schindler’s List and Lincoln as Spielberg’s attempts to hoist the white man as supreme over all others.

Or we can look at them as stories about two wealthy and powerful men who took great risks to help those who were brutally and violently degraded by the white power base. In this modern era – where the GOP nominated a white man who brazenly told rich white supporters that they lived in a country of moochers and takers that he would ignore – Spielberg seems interested in bringing another narrative to the forefront.

I have a hard time understanding why a movie called “Lincoln” is considered “a sad case of a story that is at its roots about black people being about white people” (as per Katherine @60.) A story about Lincoln is always going to be a story about a white man, racist as that may seem to some.

The inclusion of the family issues – a wife crazed by grief, a son angry at the limitation placed on him – these scenes may seem useless to some, but they portray the mythological Lincoln as a man beset with domestic trouble and grief – and take him down off the pillar of deity into the realm of the human. That’s the purpose of those scenes.

And as for what Kate Masur thinks, here’s a scene that would have made her happy: “Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.” (taken from her op-ed piece.)

Seriously? In a film that opens with two black soldiers strongly advocating with their commander-in-chief to go further in this quest to bring the nation closer to its founding principles? And a film that shows the only friend of the first lady to be a former slave? Blacks aren’t invisible in this movie. Adding a scene with “black passers-by” or showing Lincoln at a “contraband camp” would hardly change the focus away from Lincoln and onto the slaves that apparently needed no white men in power to obtain freedom. That’s a different movie all together…

77

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 1:25 pm

#65 and #68: Also see #34.

78

ajay 11.26.12 at 1:29 pm

It is kind of funny that Corey has apparently never heard of Amistad or The Color Purple. Or possibly he believes that Djimon Hounsou is white? He does look kind of white.

79

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 1:35 pm

#77: What makes you think I haven’t heard of Amistad or The Color People, both of which I’ve seen?

80

mossy 11.26.12 at 1:39 pm

@74
How nice of you to end my sentence before I did so you could make fun of it.

81

Julian 11.26.12 at 1:40 pm

I haven’t seen The Color Purple, but I don’t see Amistad as a great example of black people having agency. Morgan Freeman’s character finds Chiwetel Ejiofor’s, who can translate what Hounso’s is saying, so that Matthew McConaughey’s and Anthony Hopkins’s characters can brilliantly save all the slaves.

82

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 1:49 pm

Here’s my attempt to summarize the state of the conversation here so far.

Me: “One of the points my critics made in response to my original claim…is that the film is a biopic called ‘Lincoln.’ Of course Lincoln is going to be center stage….But Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment…The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that….[it] shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor. The film in fact does a remarkable job—this is one of its chief virtues, I think—of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative….For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience…The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable.”

Commenters: In a film called “Lincoln” what did you expect to see? Black people?

Me: [Quoting senior historians Ira Berlin and Barbara Fields]: “Emphasizing the agency of slaves and former slaves does not simply alter the cast of characters in the drama of emancipation, displacing old villains and enthroning new heroes. Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones. Focusing on events beyond Washington and outside formally constituted political bodies does not excise politics from the study of the past. Rather, it reveals that social history is not history with the politics left out, but that all history is—and must be—political. The politics of emancipation in the countryside and the towns of the South makes more comprehensible the politics of emancipation inside the capitol and the presidential mansion.”

Commenters: But this is a movie about politics! What do you expect? Black people?

83

rm 11.26.12 at 1:49 pm

I’m surprised people are bringing up Amistad as a counter-example. I was about to mention it as one more example of a white-person-saves-the-oppressed Spielberg movie. John Quincy Adams is at the center of that movie. In the climax of the film he gives a big moving speech to the Supreme Court with overbearing inspirational music telling us to feel good about his heroic advocacy for Cinque and the other ex-slaves. A great movie could have been made of this story, and it probably would have included the actual, real speech Adams gave rather than inspirational, ahistorical drivel. And it would have highlighted the absurdity of the legal loopholes that distinguished the Amistad rebels from American slaves.

84

Katherine 11.26.12 at 1:51 pm

I have a hard time understanding why a movie called “Lincoln” is considered “a sad case of a story that is at its roots about black people being about white people” (as per Katherine @60.) A story about Lincoln is always going to be a story about a white man, racist as that may seem to some

It’s called “Lincoln”, but what lots of people have pointed out (both agreeing and disagreeing with Corey) is that it is about the passage of the 13th amendment. It’s not a biopic of Lincoln, it’s about the abolition of slavery.

And really, it’s the height of wilful stupidity to suggest that I said that a film about Lincoln, a white man, would be in and of itself racist.

85

Coulter 11.26.12 at 1:54 pm

Gosh darn, why with all his money why Matt Damon hasn’t finally made a first class movie of Howard Zinn’s peoples history I’ll never know … it would fix all the problems …

86

Justin 11.26.12 at 2:03 pm

Spielberg white washed WWII as well. Not a shock really.

87

Louis Proyect 11.26.12 at 2:06 pm

Leaving aside the question of the absence of Blacks and accepting the film on its own terms, the character of Thaddeus Stevens is something of a joke. As the only Radical Republican in the film, he has nothing to say except to call pro-slavery Democrats “nincompoops”, etc. If Kushner had at least taken the trouble to write some lines for the character that conveyed the worries that existed on Lincoln’s left, the movie would have been only half-bad than totally bad. He did not do so because he had a message to deliver, namely that Lincoln was the Obama of his day, pushing aside the kinds of people who Robert Gibbs once described as needing to be “drug tested”. Since Kushner is totally committed to that kind of politics, who can blame him for turning a great abolitionist like Thaddeus Stevens into Yosemite Sam?

88

Bloix 11.26.12 at 2:16 pm

“what lots of people have pointed out (both agreeing and disagreeing with Corey) is that it is about the passage of the 13th amendment.”

That’s the crappyiest part of the movie. The part of the movie that is worth watching is the portrayal of the relationship between Lincoln and Mary Lincoln. The cartoon version of the legislation is tiresome slapstick. The insight into the marriage is true and heart-breaking.

89

ajay 11.26.12 at 2:25 pm

What makes you think I haven’t heard of Amistad or The Color People, both of which I’ve seen?

Because you wrote a post saying, about the director of Amistad and The Color Purple (or indeed The Color People, interesting slip there), “when he makes a movie about abolition, he focusses on a white man”, and not even mentioning either of those two films.

90

Anderson 11.26.12 at 2:26 pm

Would’ve rather seen an HBO series based on the Vidal novel. And have no plans to go see this one, simply because Spielberg is a lousy preacher — I go to church on Sunday morning (usually), and my actual preacher isn’t as preachy as Spielberg gets.

DDL almost tempts me, but I’m probably getting more enjoyment out of imagining his There Will Be Blood character playing Lincoln than I would out of the actual film. (“I … DRINK … YOUR … MILKSHAKE!” he shouts at Jefferson Davis before bludgeoning him to death with an axe handle. Historical verisimilitude be damned.)

91

Peter Erwin 11.26.12 at 2:51 pm

@ 52:
I can’t remember enough of the Color Purple to remember if it commits the same crime of focusing on whites and erasing black characters from story lines to which they are essential.

A quick look at IMDB pretty much confirms my memory of the movie: all the major characters (and actors) are black. (I suppose it’s possible that, say, a minor white character might have had, relatively speaking, slightly more of a role in the film than in the book, but I’ve no idea whether this was the case. But it certainly wasn’t a case of “focusing on whites and erasing black characters from story lines”.)

92

Sebastian H 11.26.12 at 3:05 pm

“#77: What makes you think I haven’t heard of Amistad or The Color People, both of which I’ve seen?”

Because when you state that a director erases oppressed people from narratives it would be a good idea not to erase The Color Purple from your analysis. And if you just somehow forgot that he was involved in it, saying something along the lines of “I did too know about it” isn’t exactly a response to the fact that it is raised as a rather good counter example.

93

Katherine 11.26.12 at 3:11 pm

Because you wrote a post saying, about the director of Amistad and The Color Purple (or indeed The Color People, interesting slip there), “when he makes a movie about abolition, he focusses on a white man”, and not even mentioning either of those two films.

The Color Purple is not about abolition, so you can knock that film off whatever Steven-Spielberg-does-super-films-about-abolition list you’ve got going on there.

94

Peter Erwin 11.26.12 at 3:14 pm

Stephen @ 6:
In unenlightened lands outside the USA, abolition of slavery was either never necessary, or was carried out mostly earlier, and with a great deal less fuss.

You know, if by “unenlightened lands outside the USA” you mean “Western Europe” (excluding their colonies), then, sure. Otherwise, well…

Some more dates for abolition of slavery:
Romania: 1840s-1850s
India: 1843
Central Asia: 1850s-1870s
Madagascar: 1896
Thailand: 1905
China: 1910
Afganistan: 1923
Ethiopia: 1930s-1940s

95

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 3:16 pm

#87: The Color Purple isn’t a movie about abolition. And the hero of Amistad, as others have said, is John Quincy Adams, who last I checked was white.

#90: “When you state that a director erases oppressed people from narratives.” Not what I said. Re-read the post.

Both of you seem to confuse this claim — “When Stephen Spielberg tells the story of an oppressed group’s liberation, he likes to focus on a member of the oppressor group as the liberator” — with this claim: “Stephen Spielberg never makes movies about oppressed people.”

96

Katherine 11.26.12 at 3:17 pm

Unless of course people are at the point of proposing a special Black People Covered pass for Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple. White directors everywhere – do one film (out of c.50) about black people that features black people and you’re good to go! Phew, what a relief.

97

Scott Martens 11.26.12 at 3:21 pm

There’s a real transformation from the “old” Spielberg to the “new”: The Spielberg of Jaws, ET, even Gremlins, liked to tell stories of extraordinary events happening to ordinary people. Even the Blues Brothers and the first Indiana Jones are ultimately about very human heros faced with extraordinary events, not supermen bearing enormous loads of moral responsibility nor presenting us with moral accounts of their deeds. Somewhere around Jurassic Park, that Spielberg disappeared, and we get more and more stories of heroic individuals whose moral calibre plays a more and more central role, starting most clearly with Schindler’s List.

There are not a lot of black Civil War heros who fit Spielberg’s model, and making a film about some rather ordinary person enmeshed in the enormous questions and deeds that surrounded the Civil War is just not Spielberg’s schtick anymore. You might as well ask him to retell Munich as a film about Palestinian street children; or The Terminal as a Brazilesque parable of an ordinary man dealing with the enormous stupidities of bureaucracy; or refocus the last Indiana Jones movie on the character of a KGB henchman who’s struggled all his life to learn languages, marksmanship, and military discipline because he dreams of seeing the world on the KGB’s dime, only to struggle to survive against a greaser from Orange County and some conniving old grandpa. Someone else might be able to fund and sell films that do those things, but it’s not Spielberg.

98

Peter Erwin 11.26.12 at 3:28 pm

Katherine @ 92:

The point is that at the start of the OP, Corey is clearly suggesting that Spielberg has a standard modus operandi in his moviemaking: “When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.” In other words (as Sebastian H put it), Spielberg routinely demotes or erases oppressed people from his movies, and exalts one of the oppressors as the hero.

If Spielberg were really consistent in the sense that Corey intends, then the film version of The Color Purple would have replaced Celie (Whoopi Goldberg’s character) with a man as the main character. Which didn’t happen. (In fact, some people criticized the film for its somewhat negative portrayals of black men, something that was in the book to begin with.)

99

Anderson 11.26.12 at 3:31 pm

Even the Blues Brothers

Landis, not Spielberg, right? Tho Spielberg gets a cameo?

100

Scott Martens 11.26.12 at 3:33 pm

Of course that was Landis. What in hell made me think it was Spielberg? And he produced Gremlins, not directing, now that I bother to check the rest.

101

belle le triste 11.26.12 at 3:33 pm

I think we can all agree that John Landis’s Lincoln would be problematic.

102

Jeffrey Davis 11.26.12 at 3:34 pm

It sounds like there’s a lot of fresh material out there for another movie.

103

Barry Freed 11.26.12 at 3:36 pm

I dunno about that belle, at least he features black people with agency.

104

NomadUK 11.26.12 at 3:38 pm

I think we can all agree that John Landis’s Lincoln would be problematic.

I would pay money to see it. Come to that, I would pay real money to see Ken Russel’s Lincoln. Spielberg’s, I think I’ll give a miss (well, okay, maybe DVD).

105

Katherine 11.26.12 at 3:46 pm

All I said in comment #91, Peter, was that The Color Purple isn’t about abolition, which someone above had implied that it was, intending that to be an argument that Steven Spielberg is just super duper when making films about abolition.

As for the rest, I point you towards Corey’s comment #93.

106

darth 11.26.12 at 3:51 pm

Just love reading so many white folks on black folks. Any black folks want to talk about the movie?

107

Scott Martens 11.26.12 at 3:52 pm

Re: Landis’ Lincoln

“Did you know that every seven minutes a black person is born in this country without soul?” It’s true, Landis’ picture of African Americans is a lot more interesting than Spielberg’s and I would probably pay to see it.

108

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 4:02 pm

Peter #96 and Katherine #103: In re-reading the original post, I can see how my comment at #93 isn’t quite right. My original statement doesn’t clearly state that the thematic here is deliverance from oppression (Holocaust wouldn’t fit). But neither does it clearly state that it’s about oppression (abolition wouldn’t fit). So while my response isn’t quite adequate, your characterization of my position isn’t quite adequate either. Not sure where this leaves us.

109

Anarcissie 11.26.12 at 4:03 pm

bianca steele 11.25.12 at 9:07 pm:
‘I suppose Anarcissie envisions the Klan as a kind of white street gang that was practically necessarily formed because the North supposedly destroyed all the existing grown-up institutions in the South and neither constructed new ones (like in nation-building) nor permitted native institutions to rise up and form themselves. Put that way, it seems ridiculous. …’

It doesn’t seem ridiculous to me. I assume human beings are fairly similar, so if I observe street-gang behavior my first guess is that it originates in situations similar to other street-gang behavior. (Insofar as one can construe the Klan as a street gang, which like everything else here is a gross oversimplification.) Actually reconstructing the Southern social order would have been an enormously hard, expensive and lengthy task, for which neither the ruling class nor the people in general had any taste. There was some effort to pop Black people into White-people slots, and when this didn’t work out well the project was dropped and the region was left to its own devices, which were not very nice. In the rest of the country, as I said, Southerners were construed to be a sort of inferior kind of White people, superior only to Negroes and Mexicans and similar to them in deportment and poor grooming and language skills. At least, that was the culture I grew up in; maybe I’m just seeing things through my own two lying eyes and should consult more scholarship (like Dunning). I don’t see that caste creation as helpful or constructive to anyone, although I suppose when the Civil Rights movement got going in the 1950s, lack of sympathy for Southerners among the numerous racists in the rest of the country may have divided and thus weakened resistance to it. It’s an ill wind, etc.

I suppose this would be irrelevant to this discussion, except it impinges on Lincoln’s mystical idea of the Union, which necessitated not only the conquest but the integration of all large groups in the social order. Otherwise you get the Balkans. The course that was actually run in the U.S. towards this end seems to have been to do as little as possible as late as possible. But since Black military units had proved they could and would fight, Emancipation was the necessary first step in that direction; otherwise a second civil war would have followed the first.

110

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 4:05 pm

Aaron Bady’s critique is up at Jacobin. You should definitely check it out. http://jacobinmag.com/2012/11/lincoln-against-the-radicals-2/

111

Sebastian H 11.26.12 at 4:05 pm

Both of you seem to confuse this claim — “When Stephen Spielberg tells the story of an oppressed group’s liberation, he likes to focus on a member of the oppressor group as the liberator” — with this claim: “Stephen Spielberg never makes movies about oppressed people.”

If you didn’t want your quip to be overread you should try being less glib. The “say what you will he’s consistent” suggests more than the tightly circumscribed ‘in theses two movies’ only that you seem to want to pivot to now. The “In Spielberg’s hands, blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group which has ravaged and ruined them” again suggests more than “in Lincoln” would have. If what you really meant was “he didn’t get Lincoln quite right, but has some examples which get at the US experience of blacks better than most major directors even attempt” that didn’t come across. Now it may be true that you intended your criticism to be sharply limited. But your language made it sound like the opposite: a general criticism with two examples given and a general problem to be inferred.

112

CJColucci 11.26.12 at 4:34 pm

Homer, focusing as he consistently does, on the stories of willful princes and princelings, misses the larger picture. In a long epic about the Trojan War, he obsesses over a petty squabble between vainglorious warlords about a captured whore-to-be, and what it took to bring the petulant loser back into the fight against Troy. ignoring most of a ten-year struggle, to say nothing about the Judgment of Paris, whether Helen left for Troy willingly or was abducted against her will, whether, in either case, that was the real, or even a legitimate, cassus belli, or whether, after ten years of fighting, the game was any longer worth the candle. Not to mention all the common Myrmidon soldiers and their contribution. Good as he may have been, Achilles was, nonetheless, only one warrior among thousands, and in the entire story he fought and killed only a single Trojan warrior, perhaps the best of them, individually considered, but not a major factor in the larger effort.

113

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 4:40 pm

Shorter 109: One may never criticize the narrative choices an artist makes in his or her rendition of a story. Or, if that’s too onerous, Steven Spielberg is Homer.

114

MPAVictoria 11.26.12 at 4:44 pm

“refocus the last Indiana Jones movie on the character of a KGB henchman who’s struggled all his life to learn languages, marksmanship, and military discipline because he dreams of seeing the world on the KGB’s dime, only to struggle to survive against a greaser from Orange County and some conniving old grandpa.”

I would so watch that movie.

115

Julian 11.26.12 at 4:53 pm

@109: your analogy really, really hurts your case

let me turn it around on you, then – do you deny that the Iliad and the Odyssey reflect a deeply sexist and classist society, given that the only people with agency are powerful male aristocrats? NB I have never read either completely, but to my recollection, the only women doing anything are Helen (passive), Briseis (kidnapped, passive), Circe (vile temptress), Penelope (this is one exception, where a woman does something that is actually clever).

Nobody is saying the Iliad or the Odyssey sucked. Nobody is saying Lincoln (artistically) sucked.

I think there is a very strong claim that Lincoln reflects Spielberg’s (and Hollywood’s) preference for white male saviors.

116

Peter Erwin 11.26.12 at 4:56 pm

Scott Martens @ 95:

That’s an interesting argument, though I’d hardly say the first Steven Spielberg “disappeared” — both of the Jurassic Park movies and War of the Worlds certainly fit the “extraordinary events happening to ordinary people” mold, and if Indy really does fit into that theme, then you have Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as well.

117

Anderson 11.26.12 at 5:03 pm

and if Indy really does fit into that theme, then you have Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as well

I wish some kindly, superior white man had saved me from that movie.

118

Scott Martens 11.26.12 at 5:04 pm

Peter – half credit for Jurassic Park. The kids were normal people to whom extraordinary events were happening. Maybe the fat nerd too. But the heroic moral conflict between Jeff Goldblum and the people cloning dinosaurs is the dominant theme. And I admit that I only saw 15 minutes of War of the Worlds.

But the last Indiana Jones is nothing like the first one. Indy is no regular man now – he’s a superhero who can survive nuclear explosions by climbing into a lead-lined refrigerator. The old Indy was, of course, a man of pluck and audacity, but still a very human character, in the sense that any protagonist could have been in that movie. The famous scene with the whip and the gun is very much about him being an almost amoral figure – Han Solo as archeologist – who gets frustrated and just shoots somebody. Yeah, he’s a better man that the Nazis, but in action cinema, Nazis are about as low a moral bar as you can set.

You see nothing like that in Crystal Skull.

119

Anderson 11.26.12 at 5:08 pm

an almost amoral figure – Han Solo as archeologist – who gets frustrated and just shoots somebody

Somebody who’s threatening to kill him with a scimitar.

120

Scott Martens 11.26.12 at 5:09 pm

Anderson: Ergo the “almost”.

121

AcademicLurker 11.26.12 at 5:12 pm

The old Indy was, of course, a man of pluck and audacity, but still a very human character…

As I recall, Indy spends an impressive amount of time getting the crap kicked out of him in the first movie.

122

Bloix 11.26.12 at 5:28 pm

#105 – “Not sure where this leaves us.”

It leaves us with what I said at #24, which is that the original post is a piece of mean-spirited snark whose purpose seems to be to make everyone feel good about what an asshole Spielberg is for making a movie about Abraham Lincoln, for chrissakes, instead of Frederick Douglass.

Now, if you want to argue that film and literary depictions of history tend to focus on characters who are similar ethnically and culturally to the majority of the audience, that’s a trivially easy argument to prove. From A Tale of Two Cities to Heart of Darkness to For Whom the Bell Tolls to Little Big Man to The Year of Living Dangerously to Dances with Wolves to The King of Scotland, that’s how it’s done. Even Glory had a white protagonist. It works that way in fiction, too, e.g. Avatar.

If a film doesn’t follow that pattern it doesn’t make any money. And without the prospect of making money, you can’t make a big picture with big stars, which is the business that Spielberg is in.

So your point about Spielberg is that he’s a Hollywood director who addresses issues of oppression in a commercially viable way, instead of remaking Indiana Jones forever. To attack him as if he is personally guilty of a moral failing, instead of pointing out that the phenomonon you’ve identified is a characteristic of the movie industry generally, is simply fatuous.

123

Julian 11.26.12 at 5:42 pm

“To attack him as if he is personally guilty of a moral failing, instead of pointing out that the phenomonon you’ve identified is a characteristic of the movie industry generally, is simply fatuous.”

To defend him as though the phenomenon identified is an ineluctable feature of the industry, rather than something the most powerful director in hollywood could change (in his own film at least) if he wanted to, is simply fatuous.

It’s not like there’s a limited amount of guilt to go around. The fact that many other directors do what Spielberg does does not make what Spielberg does more excusable.

I can’t tell exactly what tack you’re taking to handwave away the problem. It’s not Spielberg’s fault because … other people pressure him to? Many financiers assume a white lead won’t do well at the box office?

Are you seriously defending the integrity of an artistic choice because it would be harddddd to make a different choice? Or that it would make less money?

Just come out and say it, for heaven’s sake.

124

Harold 11.26.12 at 5:45 pm

Even Eric Foner says “see the movie” and then read a good book. If the movie prompts people to do this, it will have served its purpose – and then some. Even Corey Robin somewhat grudgingly admits that the movie was better than he expected.

Lincoln was no hero, critics seem to be saying: he was a paternalist, a cipher, anyone could write or speak as he did, the thirteenth amendment would have been passed without him, and his admirers are closet white supremacists (unlike their virtuous, knowledgeable selves).

The truth is that it is foolish to expect the accuracy of a history book in a historical drama. History is one thing, fiction, including historical fiction, is another.

The facts of history will come out regardless of which ambitious and bushy-tailed young historian writes which op-ed piece or paper. It is they, for the most part, not the artists and actors of history, who are doomed to be eternal ciphers.

125

William Timberman 11.26.12 at 5:50 pm

CR can speak for himself — quite eloquently, too, in my opinion — but what I take away from this post is that his criticism of Spielberg is first and foremost a means to an end, the end being to gain some clarity on what is indisputably a general failure of our cultural imagination. Bloix’ point, that in Hollywood this is the best one can do, is well taken, but it reminds me a lot of previous CR disputes on the lesser-of-two-evils defense of President Obama’s re-election bid.

I think that CR is right. We can do better than this. We have done better than this. If we can’t even envision a different future, we’re likely to have no future at all, at least none worthy of our unfulfilled promises to ourselves, which even the grumpy defenders of what we’ve got claim to cherish.

126

William Timberman 11.26.12 at 5:51 pm

A hat-tip to Julian @ 120, who beat me to it.

127

Both Sides Do It 11.26.12 at 6:05 pm

That Bady piece is just excellent and really hammers home how much of a choice the filmmakers had in portraying their story as they did, the violence they do to history, and the ways in which they hide what they’re doing to make it seem like there can be no other account of what they’re showing.

Anecdata: the Thanksgiving table was all atwitter about how magnanimous Lincoln was in taking the great burden on himself to end slavery, both in recognizing it as the supreme evil it was and being willing to do what it took politically, “unlike those idealists”, to “allow black people to have dignity”. It was all there, at that table, the great man hagiography, the restriction of black agency and condensing politics to dusty back rooms, triangulation as the only serious political maneuver and the garbled reading of the political stakes. All held together by not recognizing the choices the film was making, or that the film was making choices. As Bady says, “They [had] literally no idea what they are missing.”

This is what’s at stake with all the “but-but-but”ing, which is excusing a film that is provoking these kinds of reactions.

128

b 11.26.12 at 6:14 pm

Katherine @ 60 was awesome. I’m going to expand on it a bit more though since people still seem to be missing the point.

Perhaps people arguing with Corey should step back and look at the type of films Hollywood makes. The easiest thing to point out is how many films fail the Bechdel test but a similarly large number wouldn’t fail the reverse Bechdel test.

Sure you can make excuses for any particular movie that the choice of subject matter meant that it was only natural that the movie couldn’t pass the Bechdel test. But the fact that so many fail indicates something about what type of film Hollywood is comfortable making.

Similarly, you can make excuses about how the choice of subject matter in Lincoln basically means that obviously its going to be about a bunch of white guys. But doesn’t that choice (and other choices Hollywood makes when portraying POC) say something about Hollywood? I mean just read George Lucas’ comments on why it took him so long to make Red Tails because it was basically an all black cast.

129

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 6:14 pm

119: “If you want to argue that film and literary depictions of history tend to focus on characters who are similar ethnically and culturally to the majority of the audience, that’s a trivially easy argument to prove…It works that way in fiction, too, e.g. Avatar.”

I guess that’s why students at CUNY, where I teach, read books like the aforementioned Iliad or Shakespeare’s Henry V. Because the majority of them — Nigerian, Ukranian, Jamaican, Yemeni immigrants — are “similar ethnically and culturally” to an ancient Greek warrior, who was the son of a goddess, and an English king. Yes, that makes perfect sense.

As for fiction in film, you really want to go there? Tell me what the majority of Americans — or indeed, throughout the world — have “ethnically and culturally” in common with Vito Corleone? Or Travis Bickle. Alvie Singer. Or E.T.

130

Peter Erwin 11.26.12 at 6:18 pm

Julian @112:

… given that the only people with agency are powerful male aristocrats? NB I have never read either completely, but to my recollection, the only women doing anything are Helen (passive), Briseis (kidnapped, passive), Circe (vile temptress), Penelope (this is one exception, where a woman does something that is actually clever).

Athena is pretty full of agency in the Odyssey. (Aphrodite to a lesser degree in the Iliad.)

You’ve also left out Calypso and Nausicaa (and some more minor characters, like Odysseus’ wetnurse Eurkleia and Nausicaa’s mother Arete).

(Note that Circe is not just a “vile temptress”; she also gives Odysseus useful advice about where to go next and how to visit the Underworld.)

131

MPAVictoria 11.26.12 at 6:31 pm

“But the heroic moral conflict between Jeff Goldblum and the people cloning dinosaurs is the dominant theme.”

You may need to watch Jurassic Park again. Jeff Goldblum’s character is barely in it.

132

AcademicLurker 11.26.12 at 6:32 pm

Vito Corleone? Or Travis Bickle. Alvie Singer. Or E.T.

Someone needs to make a movie with those four as the main characters.

133

Peter Erwin 11.26.12 at 6:33 pm

Corey Robin @ 125:

I guess that’s why students at CUNY, where I teach, read books like the aforementioned Iliad or Shakespeare’s Henry V. Because the majority of them — Nigerian, Ukranian, Jamaican, Yemeni immigrants — are “similar ethnically and culturally” to an ancient Greek warrior, who was the son of a goddess, and an English king. Yes, that makes perfect sense.

21st Century students at CUNY were the original audience for both Homer and Shakespeare?

134

Steve LaBonne 11.26.12 at 6:38 pm

The film is about the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House. How many black Representatives were there at the time?

Yes, somebody should make a good movie about black abolitionists. But criticizing Lincoln for not being that movie is as pointless as the classic pointless book review that basically outlines an entirely different book which the author, in the reviewer’s opinion, ought to have written instead of the one under review.

135

Julian 11.26.12 at 6:41 pm

I consciously omitted the goddesses because I felt like they got a deity exemption from the typical misogyny, but I apologize for the others.

All of this goes to show that Homer was better on gender than Spielberg is on race. =)

136

tomslee 11.26.12 at 6:44 pm

SLB: It would be pointless to criticize your comment, but you should have written an entirely different one.

137

soru 11.26.12 at 6:44 pm

I guess that’s why students at CUNY, where I teach, read books like the aforementioned Iliad or Shakespeare’s Henry V

I think we have established the solution here. All we need do is abolish the system where people buy a ticket for the film they judge will most entertain them. Replace it with one where they get assigned watching material according to the considered opinion of a panel of cultural academics, on pain of a failing grade.

138

christian_h 11.26.12 at 6:49 pm

This is Spielberg we are talking about for Christ’s sake. He would not lose money would he choose, for example, to make a movie about Toussaint, or make this movie differently. He is not a poor guy trying to break into Hollywood. So bloix’s argument boils down to saying what – that Spielberg is greedy? Unimaginative?

139

rf 11.26.12 at 6:49 pm

“But criticizing Lincoln for not being that movie is as pointless as the classic pointless book review that basically outlines an entirely different book which the author, in the reviewer’s opinion, ought to have written instead of the one under review.”

Yeah, but the question is why ‘that picture’ tends not to get made.

140

christian_h 11.26.12 at 6:53 pm

And yes, indeed, Avatar was an incredibly racist movie – which was criticized as such at te time.

141

JanieM 11.26.12 at 6:55 pm

Yeah, but the question is why ‘that picture’ tends not to get made.

Because no one would go see it?

142

Watson Ladd 11.26.12 at 6:56 pm

You do realize black men make movies too? Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Le Wazzou polygame, Diary of a Mad Black Woman etc. etc. So complaining about Hollywood here is a bit like the man in the bar complaining there is no food when there are restaurants a block away.

143

Jeffrey Davis 11.26.12 at 6:56 pm

re: 15

“the old reactionary white Southerner, Roy Blount …”

You appear to have a special meaning of the word “reactionary” that I’m unfamiliar with.

144

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 6:59 pm

Peter @129: And how many gods and goddesses, born out of the heads of their parents no less, were in the audience during the third play in The Oresteia trilogy?

Soru @133: People across the world, not all of them in school, buy those books. And last I checked there wasn’t a single ancient Greek warrior, born of a goddess, among them.

The notion that people only want to be entertained by people who either look or are like themselves is so preposterous it hardly merits a response.

145

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 7:14 pm

#130: See #81. And #34. And #107. Or, I don’t know, the OP.

Eagerly awaiting more pronouncements from people who think they’ve hit upon the crucial flaw in the argument that no one’s pointed out before — and that hasn’t already been responded to several times. I know, yours is only the 100+th comment in a long thread, and God knows, scanning that thread can be hard work. But hey, give it a shot: I’m sure you’ll be the one to make that critical objection no one has made before.

146

Bloix 11.26.12 at 7:26 pm

#125 – Now you’re just being contrary. What are you arguing? That ET isn’t a movie about white middle-class suburbanites? That the target audience for the Iliad was the barbarians? The Iliad was written – or composed, or whatever – by Greeks, for Greeks. Henry V was written by an Englishman, for Englishmen. The fact that you can assign them to Yemeni college students doesn’t really tell us much about the economics of the movie business. Big movies need big audiences, and it’s a rare big movie that doesn’t rely on a protagonist that a mass audience can identify with.

Hollywood can make big movies about ancient Greeks today, of course, e.g., 300. But the protagonists are modern Americans with their shirts off. They’re white, they speak English without accents, and their cultural attitudes are modern.

Corleone and Alvy Singer are examples of how white minority groups can be assimilated into the national story. You could add Popeye Doyle if you want to stick to the 1970s. But Jews, Italians, and Irishmen have always been proper subjects for movies – The Jazz Singer, Little Ceasar, Angels with Dirty Faces. And there have always been top-billed Jewish, Italian, and Irish stars. Not so for African-Americans.

Anyway, you’re simply ignoring the point of my comment. Your post made the implied assertion that Spielberg was somehow uniquely more white-centered, less multicultural, more personally identified with power and privilege, than your average Hollywood director. Isn’t it obvious that the reverse is true? And aren’t you denying it just to be bloody-minded?

147

Brandon 11.26.12 at 7:35 pm

I walked out of the theater thinking “well, that’s only going to cement the ‘Lincoln freed the slaves’ mythology” but still having thoroughly enjoyed the movie and the acting performances.

I’ve added Foren’s books to my “wish list” and hope to be checking them out in a month or so. I also finally got around to grabbing some of Douglass’s stuff from Project Gutenberg. Hopefully more people are similarly inspired to dig some more into this era.

148

Harold 11.26.12 at 7:38 pm

The more I learn about him, the more I like Tony Kushner. I didn’t know he was the screen writer for Spielberg’s Munich. Didn’t know that he grew up in the South or that his parents were classical musicians. Was pleased the film forefronted the Lincoln family’s love of opera. If only Lincoln had gone to the opera that night, instead of a play! Speaking of music, John Williams’ score uncharacteristically restrained.

Family members tell us that they went to see Lincoln in Des Moines and were turned away because of huge crowd.

149

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 7:41 pm

142: “Your post made the implied assertion that Spielberg was somehow uniquely more white-centered, less multicultural, more personally identified with power and privilege, than your average Hollywood director.” No, not really.

“The Iliad was written – or composed, or whatever – by Greeks, for Greeks. Henry V was written by an Englishman, for Englishmen.” Last I checked, African Americans were Americans. With a higher than average investment, I might add, in the story of abolition. And Lincoln.

“Corleone and Alvy Singer are examples of how white minority groups can be assimilated into the national story….Not so for African-Americans.”

Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Hallie Berry, Morgan Freeman, Samuel Jackson, Don Cheadle — I could have sworn I’d seen them in a leading role in a major blockbuster sometime in the last ten years or so.

Also, Jews and Italians were given leading roles in Hollywood decades before they were assimilated into the national story. The Jazz Singer came out three years after the 1924 Immigration Act, which majorly restricted immigration of Jews into this country. Little Caesar came out seven years after the Act, which also majorly restricted immigration of Italians. Gays and lesbians were being depicted sympathetically in Hollywood before the political and social triumphs of the last five to 10 years.

150

Harold 11.26.12 at 7:44 pm

“Let’s face it, without fags and Jews and Gypsies there would be no theater!”– Mel Brooks in ‘To Be or Not to Be.”

151

Bloix 11.26.12 at 7:44 pm

#120 – Julian, I am saying that the original post attacked Spielberg personally for something that has nothing to do with Spielberg personally. Suppose I were a vegan and you were a chef. Would it be reasonable for me to write a review of your restaurant proclaiming, “Julian murders animals!”? No, it would be asinine for me to write that. “Julian’s steak au poivre is an example of his consistently heartless cruelty” – that would be idiotic.

Please don’t get the idea that I am defending Spielberg. No, I am merely attacking Robin. That’s enough work for today.

152

The Modesto Kid 11.26.12 at 7:47 pm

I wish some kindly, superior white man had saved me from that movie.

So what’s Roger Ebert, chopped liver?

153

GiT 11.26.12 at 7:47 pm

The notion that a more black-centered film by Spielberg would have suffered in any major way commercially seems ridiculous. All this fretting about the commercial viability of a Spielberg film is hard to take seriously. People are going to go see “Spielberg does the Civil War” regardless of how he does it. As such, Spielberg had an opportunity to reconstruct how people view emancipation, the civil war, Lincoln, and so on. By what’s been reported, it seems like he didn’t. (Rather, it sounds like he made inside baseball legislative wrangling exciting for a spell.) If he didn’t, then I’m not sure why people are so exercised about defending his failure of vision. Is this the *only* take on Lincoln/the Civil War Spielberg could have made a compelling film out of (‘Truly, this is the best of all possible Spielberg films’)

What’s the investment in defending the right to make politically anodyne popular films? What’s the big problem with saying, “Dear Spielberg, You could have done better. Sincerely, The Left.”? Why not demand more from film-makers who can turn out massive audiences through their personal brand?

154

Peter Erwin 11.26.12 at 7:54 pm

Corey @ 140:

Rather than mischaracterising Bloix’s argument in increasingly strained and silly ways, wouldn’t it be better to actually engage with it directly? E.g., by pointing out that Shakespeare, for example, could write plays about ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and contemporary Italians and Danes (and even a flawed yet sympathetic African character) — despite the fact that his audience was composed pretty much exclusively of late 16th/early 17th C Londoners?

155

AMP 11.26.12 at 7:59 pm

@106
“There was some effort to pop Black people into White-people slots, and when this didn’t work out well the project was dropped and the region was left to its own devices, which were not very nice.”

That effort was called “letting the black people vote,” and the reason it didn’t work out was because the Black people popped into white-people slots (or, put another way, the legally elected office holders) were the victims of lynchings, violence and intimidation while the Klan and others erected the scaffolding of Jim Crow. The region was left to its own devices because anyone who tried to “interfere” was either (at the level of local activists) beaten, hanged or run out of town or they were blocked by a series of legal decisions made by racist judges (see Plessy v. Ferguson).

The entire Civil War was fought basically because the rich, white southerners couldn’t stomach losing the money and revenue that relied on the unpaid labor of black slaves. The failure of reconstruction is evidence of their skill in manipulating the views of the poor white Southerners by demonizing the other, in the case, the black newly emancipated slaves.

156

Jeffrey Davis 11.26.12 at 8:08 pm

re: 150

“Shakespeare, for example, could write …”

Are you bringing Shakespeare into a movie fight?

My chief qubble with the OP is that it’s another example of criticizing someone for not doing something else. There’s no end to that.

157

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 8:10 pm

Peter @150: I like what you say here. I thought my comment at 140 — re Athena and the audience of The Oresteia, which was a response to an earlier comment from you — was in the same vein. In any event, glad we agree.

158

GiT 11.26.12 at 8:12 pm

Why, exactly, should one confine themselves to criticizing what someone has done for not doing it well?

159

William Timberman 11.26.12 at 8:14 pm

How about a film about emancipation and its aftermath directed by Spike Lee, with a screenplay by Ta-Nehisi Coates? Starring Samuel L. Jackson as the Frederick Douglass of the abolition struggles, Morgan Freeman as the Douglass who delivered the final judgment on Lincoln and emancipation at the Freedman’s Memorial dedication?

Maybe the box office wouldn’t make anybody rich, but I’d like to see it nevertheless.

160

Bloix 11.26.12 at 8:21 pm

#150 – “People are going to go see “Spielberg does the Civil War” regardless of how he does it.”

Actually, I went to see “Daniel Day-Lewis does Abraham Lincoln.” Which is how the movie is being advertised – Day-Lewis’s name is three times the size of Spielberg’s and the picture is a close-up of his face. Maybe you’ve got a script for a movie that he could play in blackface.

161

ponce 11.26.12 at 8:22 pm

Spielberg is slated to direct “Robopocalyplse, A sci-fi story set in the aftermath of a robot uprising” next.

Perhaps he can address some of the OP concerns then.

162

rf 11.26.12 at 8:24 pm

“Because no one would go see it?”

Perhaps, although personally I find Git at 150 convincing…..

163

Mao Cheng Ji 11.26.12 at 8:25 pm

Bloix is quite right, you know. Show business is a business, Spielberg has a status and the reputation, and he can’t just go crazy and do whatever he wants. Not to mention that he probably doesn’t have enough talent to cook anything other than a standard Hollywood feature: this much violence, this much sex, this much melodrama, this much humor, mix together and stir until emulsified.

164

Stephen 11.26.12 at 8:43 pm

Peter Erwin@92

Thank you for strengthening my point by mentioning that unenlightened places like Romania, India and parts of central Asia – you could have added Tsarist Russia – ended slavery with relatively little fuss before the US did.

I may as well add one self-proclaimedly enlightened place: Scotland, where they attempted to end slavery in 1785 and succeeded in 1799. A film about that would probably be of only local interest: it was no more than enslavement of white lowland Scots by other white lowland Scots.

Naturally, I am aware that some places abolished slavery after the US did; just as you are doubtless aware that “mostly” does not mean “invariably”.

165

Jeffrey Davis 11.26.12 at 8:49 pm

“Why, exactly, should one confine themselves to criticizing what someone has done for not doing it well?”

Something missing?

As for the first case, brevity. There’s no end to the things that one hasn’t done.

166

GiT 11.26.12 at 8:52 pm

Right, so this truly is the best of all possible Spielberg films. There are no compelling black actors who could play a leading role as a black character. There is no way for Daniel Day Lewis to both play Lincoln and for the movie to reconstruct other aspects of the Civil War alongside him than those it chose. The business of Hollywood would only have accepted a movie about passing a constitutional amendment, and not one about fighting on the ground in the South. Of course Pangloss, of course, things could hardly be otherwise!

167

Steve LaBonne 11.26.12 at 8:59 pm

Why, exactly, should one confine themselves to criticizing what someone has done for not doing it well?

You’re perfectly free to do so, of course. It’s just that, as with the corresponding type of book review, it’s a pretty fucking useless exercise. What exactly is the point? Do you want people to not go see Lincoln because it’s not entitled Douglass? They’re unlikely to take your advice. Better to simply write something pushing for the kind of movie you’d like to see made, rather than diluting your point and wasting words by dragging in the irrelevancy of a movie already made that isn’t that one.

168

Harold 11.26.12 at 9:12 pm

I think it would clearly have been a much better movie if Leon Trotsky had written it.

169

Bloix 11.26.12 at 9:20 pm

I’m going to bow out of this thread now, but I’ll leave you with the most telling commentary anyone has ever made about Lincoln. It was said by Frederick Douglass, as perceptive, subtle and persuasive an orator as has ever lived, in his Oration on the Memory of Abraham Lincoln, given at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument in Washington, DC, and if you keep it in mind when you go to the movie you will have a better idea of what Kushner and Spielberg were trying to say:

“President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

170

GiT 11.26.12 at 9:33 pm

I’m not sure what good reason there is for restricting the criticism of a director to their role in, say, casting, scoring, editing, and cinematography, while excluding the role in screenwriting and otherwise envisioning the thematic and narrative content of a film.

171

Harold 11.26.12 at 9:50 pm

It would have been a better movie if it had included this:

“The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.” — Karl Marx, letter to Abraham Lincoln, 1864

172

Corey Robin 11.26.12 at 10:15 pm

I take the tenor of the preceding however many comments to be: if you were to allow black people into this narrative — or if you simply just ask for that — you threaten to topple and dethrone the great Lincoln. As Ira Berlin and Barbara Fields, who I quote in my OP, say: “Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones.” Believe it or not, one can still quote Douglass or Marx on Lincoln, while making room for black slaves. There’s plenty of room at the table of history for everyone. So chill.

173

bob mcmanus 11.26.12 at 10:38 pm

David Dayen discusses the real agenda and sekret meta-message of this movie, mentioned in CR’s post, of helping the LGM-liberals excuse the Irrelevant-and-Immaterial-when-it-is-useful Obama and his Grand Bargaining. How much money did Spielberg give the Obama campaign to protect his IP rights? Lincoln is part of the deal.

The other outrage hinted at in this thread is the Spike Lee remake of Oldboy. I hate America.

174

bob mcmanus 11.26.12 at 10:45 pm

close italics in case

169 is meant half-humorously, of course, but hey, I’m a commie, and following the money is more interesting, and maybe more useful, than identity politics-squabbles.

Helping Obama do the catfood in exchange for SOPA II? A movie was going to made anyway. And I think this movie will grease the deal in the spring.

175

Watson Ladd 11.26.12 at 10:47 pm

And there’s plenty of room for Tyler Perry to make his movie about the slave uprisings of the South, including the one of his namesake, just like Spielberg didn’t have to make The Pawnbroker.

If your complaint is that by ignoring the role of the slaves in the Civil War Spielberg presents a misleading role of Abraham Lincoln that’s one complaint, and one I’m not honestly qualified to judge. But saying that he should be telling a different story, to present this alternate historiography, or maybe even avoid telling the story he wants to tell to buttress that historiography is a different complaint. While it’s not clear that this is a clean distinction, it does seem to matter when making this kind of critique.

176

Donald Johnson 11.26.12 at 11:01 pm

I haven’t seen the movie–Robin’s criticisms sound plausible to me, but I’ll have to wait to know for sure.

But I wonder if bob (#170) has a point. David Brooks praised the movie to the skies–that right there made me wonder about it.

177

Donald Johnson 11.26.12 at 11:04 pm

And not to threadjack, as the I/P conflict tends to do, but not everyone thought highly of “Munich” (another movie I haven’t seen). “The Angry Arab” blogger (As’ad AbuKhalil) had the same criticism of that movie that Robin makes here.

spielberg’s munich

178

Andrew F. 11.26.12 at 11:13 pm

The problem imho is that you have a very reasonable point that the process of emancipation and the destruction of slavery was long, difficult, tenuous, and effected by multiple parts of society, and then you have a much less persuasive point that the movie claims that this process was effected by just the persons depicted in the film and over the same time period.

A complete historical narrative would indeed provide more focus on the ways in which the actions of black Americans through the course of the Civil War affected Union policies and Confederate fortunes, and ultimately helped secure the milestone achievements of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. This popular movie is not such a narrative; but neither does it pretend to be.

179

CJColucci 11.26.12 at 11:27 pm

let me turn it around on you, then – do you deny that the Iliad and the Odyssey reflect a deeply sexist and classist society, given that the only people with agency are powerful male aristocrats?

Why would I, or anyone else, want to deny such a thing? It’s obvious. Indeed, it’s so f*****g obvious that I’d have to wonder about someone bothering to insist upon it in any company of reasonably well-informed persons. I, for one, would be very interested to read the Heleniad — though Homer himself could never have writtten such a thing, and any of our contemporaries might shrink from the inevitable comparisons if they took on such a project.Maybe Sappho could have done it, though, as far as we know, she didn’t. But criticizing the Iliad for not being the Heleniad is pretty damn pointless. And criticizing a movie mogul for doing the standard thing according to the usual conventions of the movie business is equally pointless. Movies about Presidents are a lot easier to craft, and a lot more likely to sell, than movies about vast social forces and the collective efforts of nearly anonymous men and women. Even the hyopothetical movie a lot of us would like to see probably stars Samuel L. Jackson as Frederick Douglass, and gives a lot of screen time to Sam Waterston as Lincoln.

180

Main Street Muse 11.26.12 at 11:34 pm

“I take the tenor of the preceding however many comments to be: if you were to allow black people into this narrative — or if you simply just ask for that — you threaten to topple and dethrone the great Lincoln. “

No one is saying that adding more black people to the film would “topple and dethrone the great Lincoln.” Corey & company have consistently failed to explain how the narrative should have been changed to be more relevant (especially in a movie that actually includes several black characters.)

This is a movie about politicians – who in the 19th century happened to be white men. Who realized that blood being shed for the preservation of the union meant little if slavery remained on the books as law.

Lincoln was a man who was born in the violent poverty of the frontier; a self-educated man who married the daughter of a slaveowner; a failure as a businessman and the man whose signature is on the 13th amendment. A complex, gifted, brilliant man who was hated enough in his time to be murdered violently by a son of the south. No one movie can capture the entirety of his story.

181

GiT 11.26.12 at 11:42 pm

Mossy @ 55’s account of the making of the film suggests that there was quite a bit of uncertainty about what, exactly, the movie would be about. Seems to me this should be taken into account when talking about how this movie had to have a certain subject matter. This wasn’t an adaptation of “The Passage of the 13th Amendment: The Untold Story”. But Corey also seems to be saying that, insofar as one settles on “Amendment XIII: This Time, It’s Unconstitutional” there are lots of compelling things one could have included within this narrower frame.

182

Suzanne 11.26.12 at 11:45 pm

“People are willing to countenance all sorts of narrative digressions that had little to do with the main plot of the film — the drama of the older son who wanted to fight, for example, or the Mary Todd Lincoln question, or even the multiple scenes of buffoonery involving the James Spader good squad.”

I certainly don’t “countenance” the Robert Lincoln subplot and the connected scenes with Mrs. Lincoln. They could have been cut with little if any loss to the picture. The Bilbo sequences are relevant to the story of getting the legislation passed and they add to the portrait of Lincoln as a practical politician. They also provide some sorely needed levity. Most (not all) of Masur’s suggestions would have slowed down a movie that already has problems with pacing and many of them wouldn’t have fit well in a movie that is, after all, called “Lincoln.”

That said, Spielberg could have made some room. The picture has at least three endings, and the Great Moments in History vignettes ( City Point, Appomattox, “Now he is with the ages, etc.”) could have been dispatched efficiently with some end titles.
As for the “grateful black people” referenced in the Jacobin review – when we first see Lincoln he’s having a conversation with a black soldier who files some well-grounded complaints with his commander-in-chief. Lincoln deflects him with a funny story, by which the soldier is unamused. It’s an awkward scene in some respects, but it does show a black man with grievances – grievances which Lincoln notably fails to address. The portrayal of Mrs. Keckley has its omissions, but she’s hardly tugging her forelock.

183

lt 11.27.12 at 12:09 am

Main Street Muse @176. “This is a movie about politicians – who in the 19th century happened to be white men.”

Like this guy? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiram_Rhodes_Revels

184

Julian 11.27.12 at 12:20 am

@175

A lot of what you’ve said is thrillingly silly, but I especially wanted to pick up on this bit:

“But criticizing the Iliad for not being the Heleniad is pretty damn pointless. And criticizing a movie mogul for doing the standard thing according to the usual conventions of the movie business is equally pointless.”

Please note: the Iliad was composed 2,800 years ago. Lincoln was released ten days ago. Although it may be in vain, I do dearly hope that fact makes a difference to the “pointlessness” of one criticism or the other – we can, through criticism, change popular attitudes about race, gender, class, etc. by discussing our contemporary culture.

Lincoln is good fodder for such criticism because it’s au courant and Homer’s works aren’t, and people pay attention to Spielberg more than they do to Homer.

Furthermore, I’d love to know what your idea of a “pointful” web blog discussion full of academics is.

I have to say that your version of racist/misogynist apologetics is new and enticing: everyone shut up! Hollywood is always racist and sexist! Stop talking about it!

185

soru 11.27.12 at 12:56 am

@179: As he was first elected as a state senator in 1869, fitting him into a Lincoln biopic would be a bit of a stretch, unless you copied the other recent Lincoln film and went with the zombie angle.

The notion that people only want to be entertained by people who either look or are like themselves is so preposterous it hardly merits a response.

In a political film, people generally want a strong political narrative that agrees with their own, or perhaps differs just a bit for comprehensible reasons. So you get a Mandela biopic, or American History X, but rarely something weirder or more ambiguous and obscure.

Thing is, I don’t think you have succeeded in explaining, at least to me, what political narrative you think needs to replace or update the Lincoln one.

Presumably it’s all something to do with Obama and something he should or shouldn’t be doing? Some people do seem to get whatever code is being used and so can carry their political opinion cleanly across to the discussion of the film as good or bad.

But the rest of us are a bit left in the dark…

186

Harold 11.27.12 at 1:00 am

“Nothing is as old as yesterday’s paper but Homer is new this morning.” -Charles Peguy (?)

187

CJColucci 11.27.12 at 2:35 am

“racist/misogynist apologetics”? Julian, you need to take a few deep breaths. Not even Cory has suggested that the movie was racist or misogynist, even though it was set in a time when virtually everyone was, by our current standards, racist and misogynist. Just like everyone actually involved in the political wrangling at the heart of the movie was white. Maybe he’s implying such a thing about Spielberg, but I don’t want to think Cory is into cheap shots like that.
What the movie is is conventional, a “great man” story built around a bankable character. It’s true that the movie doesn’t instruct us in complexities of historical causation and the interaction of faceless social forces and largely faceless people with the workings of more visible, identifiable, and, yes, white big shots, but why should we expect it to? And for all the people who say — and I’m one of them — that they’d like to see that other movie, all I can say is do a screenplay. It’ll be hard to write, but then you can peddle it to Spike Lee or Tyler Perry or Morgan Freeman. Maybe they can get it done.

188

Harold 11.27.12 at 2:39 am

I’d settle for a slew of good documentaries.

189

bianca steele 11.27.12 at 2:42 am

I suddenly had a vision of film buffs rewinding Lincoln and rewinding it again, pausing it and single-stepping through the frames, the way they might do with the fight scenes in The Dark Knight, making sure they get all the nuance.

190

Kiwanda 11.27.12 at 2:51 am

Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln.”

“In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.”

The movie I saw was very much about Lincoln: his decision to try to pass the 13th amendment and his strategy for that, his self-aware homespun charm, his cajoling and arm-twisting of his cabinet and other politicians, his family life, his speeches. Lincoln’s visible role in passing the amendment was kept low-profile by design, at least as that was discussed in the movie, and his successful interventions at the last minute were marks of both desperation, in getting those last few votes, and of a mastery of political persuasion.

soru, 181: “Thing is, I don’t think you have succeeded in explaining, at least to me, what political narrative you think needs to replace or update the Lincoln one. “

Kate Masur’s op-ed gives some examples of ways that the roles of black people could be expanded in an entirely historically accurate way, and still have a movie about Lincoln and the passage of the 13th amendment.

But yeah:

“Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role.”

…sounds more like a demand that Spielberg make a movie about some other topic than the one he chose, ignoring commercial and dramatic considerations.

The movie’s theme of politics as the “art of the possible”, where horrible compromises are made in the service of painfully incremental progress, has a kind of parallel with the compromises needed to make a commercially successful film: there’s all kinds of much more historically rounded movies about the struggle against slavery that could be imagined but could not made; are such stubbornly hypothetical movies better than Lincoln?

191

nemerinys 11.27.12 at 3:02 am

I understand Corey’s point much better after reading this
New York Times review by Kate Masur
:

But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.
This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress. [.....]
Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,” where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he encountered on the street near the White House.
In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes.
The film conveys none of this, opting instead for generic, archetypal characters. [...]

And now I hit submit and pray that my attempts with HTML will work.

192

nemerinys 11.27.12 at 3:03 am

Damn – forgot to end blockquote.

193

Nick 11.27.12 at 3:22 am

@115 @116: “The famous scene with the whip and the gun is very much about him being an almost amoral figure – Han Solo as archeologist – who gets frustrated and just shoots somebody.”

Really? I though it was about Harrison Ford waking up hungover that morning, and not feeling up to the drawn out, over the top fight scene that had been scripted? He did it as a joke, and they ran with it…or, so my uncle told me when I was a kid…

194

Julian 11.27.12 at 3:41 am

““racist/misogynist apologetics”? Julian, you need to take a few deep breaths.”

Why, is this lamaze?

“Not even Cory has suggested that the movie was racist or misogynist, even though it was set in a time when virtually everyone was, by our current standards, racist and misogynist.”

Straw man – not even I suggested he suggested that. All I said is that your sole criticism of the OP (b-b-but everyone in hollywood does it, why do we have to talk about it on the iiiiiinternetttttt?) is a novel way of deflecting attacks on what even you have repeatedly admitted is Hollywood’s and Spielberg’s aversion to telling stories about anything besides white male saviors. With great wickedness and abandon I called this tendency racist and misogynistic, and I abase myself in shame.

“And for all the people who say — and I’m one of them — that they’d like to see that other movie, all I can say is do a screenplay.”

If all you can offer to the discussion is “do a screenplay,” reconsider hitting the submit button.

You are correct that Hollywood and many Hollywood directors are guilty of the same sins Spielberg commits in Lincoln. However, you have inexplicably failed to appreciate the irony of Spielberg committing that sin (literal whitewashing) in a movie that is nominally *about the struggle for black civil rights*.

That is the entire point of the OP: to point the ahistoricality and deliberate blindness of a movie that, by its choice of narrative framing, tells us what it thinks is important to know about slavery.

195

Jeremy 11.27.12 at 6:14 am

@194 That is the entire point of the OP: to point the ahistoricality and deliberate blindness of a movie that, by its choice of narrative framing, tells us what it thinks is important to know about slavery.

Very well put. And if some people, in making the argument that what Spielberg thinks is important to know about slavery relies on outdated and implicitly racist tropes, imply that a different movie should have been made, I don’t see why that’s a problem. Along these lines, I love this bit from James Livingston:

Bullshit. The past changed because the facts changed because the world changed. You can put these nouns in any sequence you like. The past in question here began changing for good in the 1950s, when the whole history of Reconstruction had to be revisited (“revised”) because the NAACP got the attention of the Supreme Court and the Montgomery Improvement Association meanwhile got the attention of everybody else. When black folk became visible historical agents by organizing consumer boycotts, denouncing apartheid, and demanding the right to vote, the political past looked different, and so did the future, or rather the past looked different because the political future did. In fact, the past was, suddenly, different.

So, I’d say the argument is that, now, in 2012, a movie like Spielberg’s Lincoln just won’t do any more, as our political future is one in which white savior narratives are not going to play a part.

196

prasad 11.27.12 at 10:19 am

I’m put in mind of a morally similar story from earlier in the year, about the role of women in inventing the internet, and how the New York Times was ignoring and diminishing it. Julian Sanchez had a truly excellent blog post in response, titled “Men Did Invent the Internet (and That’s a Huge Problem).” The post is well worth reading, but I’ll excerpt:

If we’re really talking about the 15 or 20 people who could most reasonably be called “inventors of the Internet”—as opposed to “people who did a cool thing related to computers”—we are, in fact, talking about a bunch of guys. If we go with the broader “cool thing with a computer,” we’re no longer exclusively talking about guys, but until the last few decades, it’s still pretty disproportionate.

The correct takeaway from this, however, is not “herp derp, women can’t do math.” It’s that the social costs of sexism are really, really high. If, despite massive cultural and institutional barriers, significant numbers of women were making important contributions at the highest level all along, but denied credit, that would obviously be grossly unfair to the women in question. But it would be sort of a wash from the perspective of overall social utility: The allocation of credit is different, but society still gets the benefit of the brightest women’s contributions. The grimmer alternative is not that the wrong people get the credit, but that important innovations just don’t happen because the pool of brainpower available to tackle important social goals is needlessly halved

This is the “Room With a View” sort of argument – the story of women in literature is less about women being unjustly being ignored by critics, and more about women not having had time and liberty to write. Well meaning white liberals obviously don’t want to endorse depictions of the 13th Amendment in which black people were saved by mighty whitey. And you want to see positive depictions and role models of all races, not just the politically/economically/socially dominant one. That’s fine, but there seems to be an internal tension here for all that – you can’t properly lament the exploitation, oppression and marginalization of a people, then turn on a dime and ask earnestly why those people aren’t depicted in your hagiographies as having had disproportionate impact upon the world wrt. invention, or emancipation or whatever. That’s what oppression and marginalization is; it’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. If black people *weren’t* in 1860 even being systematically excluded from proportionate influence in the corridors of power, what exactly do you think that oppression consisted in? I don’t want to make this too stark, or deny that Masur offers any good examples. But fundamentally, any story of powerful people in the 19th Century is going to be substantially diversity-deprived outside of side-roles and “human impact”, because that’s sort of why we need to worry about diversity to begin with.

197

Mao Cheng Ji 11.27.12 at 10:29 am

“All I said is that your sole criticism of the OP (b-b-but everyone in hollywood does it, why do we have to talk about it on the iiiiiinternetttttt?) is a novel way of deflecting attacks on what even you have repeatedly admitted is Hollywood’s and Spielberg’s aversion to telling stories about anything besides white male saviors.”

The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Spielberg (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking Hollywood as an institution.

198

prasad 11.27.12 at 10:33 am

Ach, brainfart. I meant A Room of One’s Own of course.

199

prasad 11.27.12 at 11:02 am

Long comment seems to have vanished into the ether…

200

Peter Erwin 11.27.12 at 11:57 am

But the heroic moral conflict between Jeff Goldblum and the people cloning dinosaurs is the dominant theme.

To echo MPAVictoria:
Jeff Goldblum’s character isn’t the hero; he’s a minor Cassandra-like commentator. The hero is Sam Neil’s paleontologist, who has to undergo the classic Spielbergian moral journey of Becoming a Better Father. Now, in the second movie Jeff Goldblum’s character is the hero — but his primary motivation is to rescue his girlfriend and keep his daughter from being eaten by dinosaurs.

And “heroic moral conflict” is there in Jaws, too — the conflict between Roy Scheider’s character, who wants to protect the people from the shark, and the town leaders who don’t want the people warned, because that might be bad for the tourist industry.

(At the very least, you need to articulate what you mean by “heroic moral conflict” a bit better: Isn’t Indiana Jones vs. the Nazis a “moral conflict”? Is it somehow less of one than “Indian Jones vs the KGB”? Is there really a “moral conflict” in Catch Me If You Can?)

The famous scene with the whip and the gun is very much about him being an almost amoral figure – Han Solo as archeologist

I agree with Anderson — there’s nothing intrinsically “amoral” about that scene (well, any more than there is about his killing of other assorted lower-ranking bad guys in the movie). Instead, it’s notable mainly for the way it subverts our cinematic expectations: dangerous-looking, fancily dressed bad guy handy with a big sword threatens our hero, promising at least, oh, 30 seconds of Indy barely avoiding getting chopped up before he somehow gains the upper hand — and then Indy pithily reminds us that we’re not actually in the Middle Ages, and guns beat swords almost any day.

201

Julian 11.27.12 at 12:53 pm

“The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Spielberg (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking Hollywood as an institution.”

Why is that a problem?

202

Julian 11.27.12 at 12:57 pm

Here is why this is stupid:

“The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Spielberg (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking Hollywood as an institution.”

=

“The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Armstrong (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking cycling as an institution.”

“The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Eichmann (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking Nazism as an institution.”

“The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Madoff (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking Wall Street as an institution.”

“The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Romney (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking politics as an institution.”

203

Mao Cheng Ji 11.27.12 at 1:01 pm

I don’t find any of the above stupid.

204

Mao Cheng Ji 11.27.12 at 1:08 pm

I don’t find any of the above statements stupid.

‘Politics’ per se is not an institution, it’s more like a concept, but otherwise, indeed, why attack Romney, guy in a suit with a set of talking points; attack the institutions that he represents.

205

Katherine 11.27.12 at 1:37 pm

The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Spielberg (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking Hollywood as an institution.

Is there any problem, say, in doing both? Does Spielberg get to avoid opprobium because he is merely a part of Hollywood as an institution (even though he is a major and prominent part)?

Both/and rather than either/or I think. Specifically referring to this film and this director does not preclude criticism of Hollywood as a whole, or vice versa.

206

Corey Robin 11.27.12 at 1:38 pm

#203: Since the focus on individuals rather than institutions is by no means peculiar to me or this post — indeed, it’s a fairly common way of doing criticism — I don’t know why you’re focusing your critique on me or this post. I’d reframe all of your comments above as generic comment on the state of American letters since, I don’t know, the beginning of the Republic. So give that a try, see how far it takes you, and then get back to me. I mean the institutions that I represent.

207

Julian 11.27.12 at 1:51 pm

But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!

208

Mao Cheng Ji 11.27.12 at 1:55 pm

I’m not focusing on you; I was following the exchange above between CJColucci and Julian, and I thought I’d try to clarify what the disagreement is all about. Not much success, alas.

209

Julian 11.27.12 at 2:08 pm

But it’s pointless try to clarify the disagreement in this one blog discussion without addressing the larger problems endemic to blogs as an institution.

210

Mao Cheng Ji 11.27.12 at 2:10 pm

“I’d reframe all of your comments above as generic comment on the state of American letters since, I don’t know, the beginning of the Republic. “

Well, if – if – this particular movie is a typical product of that particular environment, then indeed we should be addressing the environment rather than its mere manifestation.

211

Julian 11.27.12 at 2:18 pm

“Well, if – if – this particular movie is a typical product of that particular environment, then indeed we should be addressing the environment rather than its mere manifestation.”

Let me get this straight. You said

“Bloix is quite right, you know. Show business is a business, Spielberg has a status and the reputation, and he can’t just go crazy and do whatever he wants. “

In other words: OP, lay off Spielberg and stop saying he should have broadened the scope of the film to include black characters with agency in their own salvation – he made the movie he made and nobody can do anything about it

Now you’re saying that OP’s main mistake was posting about Spielberg, instead of broadening the scope of his comment to include all of Hollywood.

212

Watson Ladd 11.27.12 at 2:34 pm

But black men were not the agents responsible for the 13th amendment! The social changes that Radical Reconstruction brought about were the result of the Republicans, white and black. What’s the problem with pointing out the historical truth that blacks could not and did not end slavery by themselves?

213

Julian 11.27.12 at 2:42 pm

“What’s the problem with pointing out the historical truth that blacks could not and did not end slavery by themselves?”

Seems sort of useless, given that no one alive is laboring under the misimpression that blacks did and could end slavery by themselves.

“But black men were not the agents responsible for the 13th amendment!”

Spielberg carefully framed the story to exclude, as much as possible without upsetting audiences, any depictions of black people with agency. What’s more, my impression is that even if you arbitrarily confine the story to just the passage of the 13th Amendment, you’ll find black people who contributed to the effort – people Spielberg excluded from the film.

214

bianca steele 11.27.12 at 2:55 pm

I think it’s interesting to think of Indy giving the Ark to the US Government, at the end of the movie (where it’s put in storage, of course, unlike the A-bomb), as a parallel to Elliott sending E.T. back into space.

215

Western Dave 11.27.12 at 3:09 pm

As a historian and a teacher, what is depressing about this whole thread is that plenty of people seem to miss Kate Masur’s point (and Tony Kushner’s denial of it). Kushner doesn’t think he’s written an artistic version of the past, he thinks he’s basically made a documentary. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that there are better and worse forms of history and that his is decidedly towards the worse forms (while still being reasonably “historically accurate.”). In other words, Kushner thinks he’s done good history, Robin and Masur point out he’s wrong and he sticks his finger in his ears and says “I can’t hear you!” How frickin hard would it have been (in a movie that was obsessed with getting historical details right) to have shown huge numbers of former slaves in the DC refugee camps. One frickin’ rally. Set one conversation or street scene passing some of those things. One or two mentions in the script. The legislation didn’t take place in a void, it took place in a social context that would have been easy to illustrate without altering the movie much. But Kushner didn’t do it, because “HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTERESTED IN THE ROLE THAT AFRICAN AMERICANS PLAYED IN THEIR OWN EMANCIPATION. AND HE’S OKAY WITH THAT.” But Kate Masur’s not, and I’m not. Again it’s not Kushner thinks he is making artistic choices here, it’s that they are claiming that he is doing good history that is the problem.

216

William Timberman 11.27.12 at 3:46 pm

Denying the agency of African slaves, and their African-American descendants, is as ancient a tradition as there is among white Americans, and the struggle against it, not to mention the rage it provokes amongst black people, is equally ancient. When I watch the video of the famous 1965 Cambridge Union confrontation between W.F. Buckley and James Baldwin, what I’m most struck by — as I was at the time — is the way Buckley reacts to Baldwin almost as though the family dog had started speaking to him. A speaking animal, he seems to imply, is a great curiosity, but not something that can be granted political agency, not if human civilization is to be taken at all seriously.

The argument here is not that Spielberg believes this about black people — scarcely anyone can in this day and age without being defined as mentally ill — but that he finds it easy to conform to the submerged cultural attitudes that such beliefs have left behind. I don’t think anyone is saying that he’s alone in that, but if he is in fact a prominent example of it, he personally, as well as his work would seem to be fair game.

217

prasad 11.27.12 at 3:51 pm

Made a comment earlier that went to some moderation hell, but Julian Sanchez’s post about the female role in/credit for the creation of the internet seems useful.

218

Watson Ladd 11.27.12 at 4:14 pm

But Dave, such things wouldn’t have changed the story of the movie. A passing nod to the existence of slaves fleeing the barbarism of the American South would not in any way constitute “giving them agency”. It wouldn’t make Nate Turner into a hero. It wouldn’t mean that Fredrick Douglass and the black soldiers of the Union suddenly become starring roles. It would only further erase the actually existing black men and women who were actual historical actors, submerging them below the masses of refugees from a cruel land.

Lincoln cannot be understood apart from the workers of the industrial north, the new rising capitalist class, etc. etc. Missouri is a border state because of a coup carried out by German immigrants who fought in the revolution of 1848. Yet we don’t argue that Spielberg is denying agency to Missourians, or workers, or capitalists by focusing on the 13th amendment. If anything, focusing on these anonymous masses renders the politics indecipherable.

A history that respects black people is one that respects their ability to be treated not as objects of curiosity or inherently revolutionary subjects, but as individuals with real political agency and genuine political leaders. That is not achieved by making them background objects.

219

CJColucci 11.27.12 at 4:21 pm

With great wickedness and abandon I called this tendency racist and misogynistic, and I abase myself in shame.

I’ll take this in the spirit in which it appears to be offered.

220

Sebastian H 11.27.12 at 4:21 pm

“The problem, it seems to me, is precisely that you and the OP discuss and attack Spielberg (another ‘great white man), instead of attacking Hollywood as an institution.”

Using individual cases as a point of discussion is fine if they really are representative. If Corey had used the movie Lincoln as representative of some sort of tendency in Hollywood (I thought I knew which tendency but having read his comments I’m no longer sure) that would have been fine. But instead Corey used Lincoln as a point of discussion about erasing the agency of black/oppressed people as representative of how Spielberg himself regularly operates. That charge invites the inspection of other Spielberg movies and then we find that Spielberg helped bring about one and maybe two of the very few Hollywood movies that treats the black experience in a way that definitely does not deny such agency, and deals with the ugliness in a pretty full way.

Now having read the comments, I *think* that Corey really wanted to attack Hollywood using Lincoln as a representative case. But the post attacks Spielberg using Lincoln as a representative case, which seems less appropriate because The Color Purple is still a big deal as a cross section of Spielberg movies, while it is much less of a big deal as a cross section of Holloywood movies.

221

Julian 11.27.12 at 4:26 pm

“I’ll take this in the spirit in which it appears to be offered.”

Thanks, what a great substantive response to the rest of my post!

@220

Without having seen TCP, based on what I know from wikipedia, I will assume that you are right. I think TCP is an exception to, and disproves, any claim that Spielberg uniformly denies the agency of black people.

However, good deeds don’t really change bad deeds (though as you suggest, they can change our understanding of what motivates both). And the fact remains that Lincoln appears to be guilty of everything Hollywood typically is, and everything that The Color Purple (presumably) repudiated.

The Color Purple does not mean it is okay that Lincoln is ahistorical and succumbs to Hollywood’s worst tendencies to whitewash things and make black people into quiet, suffering, passive recipients of white noblesse oblige.

222

LanceThruster 11.27.12 at 5:16 pm

With so much discussion given to the historicity of movies and the prism through which Spielberg presents it, I surprised there is yet no mention of “Munich.”

Some insights on that here: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2005/12/28/17928311.php?show_comments=1

223

Corey Robin 11.27.12 at 5:17 pm

220: I was in fact focused on Spielberg, not on Hollywood as whole, though the point William makes in the second graf of 216 is well taken and not in tension really with my intention. But yes I was focused on Spielberg. And though I didn’t mention it, Amistad very much fits within my framework. Which leads me to the larger point: the framework here isn’t how does Spielberg deal with oppression in general; it’s how he deals with rescue as a way of sidestepping the problem of oppression. Now I haven’t seen The Color Purple since it came out in the theaters (in the 80s, right?), so I can’t really speak to that. But I can speak to the three films we’ve just mentioned. And in each instance, Spielberg reveals a partiality for redemptive figures in the oppressing class, a partiality that ultimately winds up making the oppressed into objects and victims and nothing more. Now sometimes the latter is appropriate: most Jews during the Holocaust really were objects and victims, and though they had some agency, it wasn’t a whole hell of a lot (although the celebration of the good German comes at the cost of completely missing the point of the Holocaust, as Stanley Kubrick pointed out in the quote I cite above). But the consistent point across all three movies is the focus on the oppressor as the agent of liberation. From what I can remember of The Color Purple, there isn’t much liberation there (or if there is it’s entirely personal and individual). So in many ways it’s not a story that fits the themes that I’m talking about — which again, is not oppression but the removal or lifting of oppression. And how that happens.

224

Marc 11.27.12 at 5:19 pm

@221: There are other ways of reading the movie that are less hostile and tendentious. This really is coming across as a painful exercise in 80s-style PC, both in style and effectiveness.

225

Corey Robin 11.27.12 at 5:21 pm

Eric Foner has a very good letter in today’s Times which makes the historical distortions of the film even more salient: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/opinion/lincolns-use-of-politics-for-noble-ends.html

And Jon Wiener has a good summary of the debate here: http://www.thenation.com/blog/171461/trouble-steven-spielbergs-lincoln#

And Dave at 215 pretty much says all there is to say on this matter, even if some of his respondents can’t seem to grasp that.

226

Mao Cheng Ji 11.27.12 at 5:28 pm

“The argument here is not that Spielberg believes this about black people — scarcely anyone can in this day and age without being defined as mentally ill — but that he finds it easy to conform to the submerged cultural attitudes that such beliefs have left behind.”

Sorry, but why does it matter if some person finds it easy to conform to the submerged cultural attitudes? There are, and will always be, plenty of people who do. The question should be: how come a person like that becomes the most prominent director in the US movie industry?

227

William Timberman 11.27.12 at 5:42 pm

Sorry, but why does it matter if some person finds it easy to conform to the submerged cultural attitudes? There are, and will always be, plenty of people who do. The question should be: how come a person like that becomes the most prominent director in the US movie industry?

Try it like this:

Question: How come a person like that becomes the most prominent director in the US movie industry?

Answer: There are, and will always be, plenty of people who do (find it easy to conform to the submerged cultural attitudes).

Corey Robin’s post is part of the solution, not part of the problem — whether he’s right or wrong about Spielberg in particular. Spielberg might very well say, as many artists have, that he responds artistically to what he knows, in the only way that he knows. If he’s to be true to his art, it has to be that way. Fair enough, but the critic’s job is to point out what he doesn’t know –which isn’t necessarily a call for Socialist Realism, as some here seem to think; it’s just a reminder that we’re not done with understanding ourselves, not yet, anyway. It’s a process, and CR or Kate Masur are no less a part of it than Spielberg himself.

228

CJColucci 11.27.12 at 5:50 pm

Some right-wing types love to complain about the entertainment industry’s portrayal of businessmen — and, yes, they’re almost always men. Businessmen, they complain, are commonly portrayed as corrupt, power-hungry, and unscrupulous. And the critics have a point, just not the one they think. They are so portrayed because it’s entertaining and easy. Think J.R. Ewing, Adam Chandler, the killer in most episodes of Columbo, or any of dozens of other such characters. Would I like to see a movie about, say, a decent, honest, law-abiding, hard-working plumbing supply business owner who faces adversity honorably, cares for his family, employees, and customers, and makes the world a better place in his small way? I’d like to think I would, but I’m not sure. Any hack can make an entertaining movie or TV show out of the formula corrupt tycoon; the other show would require an artist of a high order to make it watchable.

229

rf 11.27.12 at 6:03 pm

“Would I like to see a movie about, say, a decent, honest, law-abiding, hard-working plumbing supply business owner who faces adversity honorably, cares for his family, employees, and customers, and makes the world a better place in his small way?….would require an artist of a high order to make it watchable.”

Like Super Mario Brothers?

230

Suzanne 11.27.12 at 6:28 pm

“And in each instance, Spielberg reveals a partiality for redemptive figures in the oppressing class, a partiality that ultimately winds up making the oppressed into objects and victims and nothing more.”

That’s not completely true even of Amistad. A turning point in the story is the moment, which I think may have been invented, in which Cinqué turns to the court and begins crying “Give us free!” “Give us free!” The obvious intent is to show the character acting for himself and his people, and it is shown as having a profound effect. (The big problems with Amistad lie elsewhere – treating the abolitionists as religious nuts and villains, for example.)

None of this is to say that Hollywood doesn’t have a problem in this area. But I don’t think “Amistad” or “Lincoln” are in the same egregious class as, say, “Cry Freedom,” which was promoted as a movie about Steve Biko when it was really about a white guy getting radicalized.

“Jeff Goldblum’s character isn’t the hero; he’s a minor Cassandra-like commentator.”

No, Goldblum is not the hero but his character is employed to express an anti-science theme that runs through “Jurassic Park,” a theme which as I remember does not exist in Crichton’s novel. When Goldblum expresses his objections to the project to Richard Attenborough, he says something like the dinosaurs had their day and to revive them is against the natural order of things and an example of scientific arrogance (I almost expected to hear him say “It’s against God’s plan”). The thief who sets off the chain of disastrous events, Nedry (the Wayne Knight character) has a photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer on his computer.

231

Anderson 11.27.12 at 7:02 pm

183: Sadly, one would have to look really hard around my home state of Mississippi for any monuments to Hiram Revels.

The Wikipedia article you linked suggests Revels would make a good subject for Spielberg’s next flick:

He was the first person of color to serve in the United States Senate, and in the U.S. Congress overall…. During the American Civil War, he helped organize two regiments of the United States Colored Troops and served as a chaplain. * * *

When Revels arrived in Washington, DC, Southern Democrats opposed seating him in the Senate. For the two days of debate, the Senate galleries were packed with spectators at this historic event. The Democrats based their opposition on the 1854 Dred Scott Decision by the US Supreme Court…

Supporters of Revels noted that he had been born free and was a citizen all his life. They countered the Democrats by saying that the Dred Scott decision applied only to those blacks who were totally of African ancestry. As Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry, he was exempt. Supporters also noted that he had already voted in Ohio many years earlier, so had been accepted as a citizen. This argument prevailed, and on February 25, 1870, Revels, by a vote of 48 to 8, became the first black man to be seated in the United States Senate. Everyone in the galleries stood to see him sworn in.

There’s your rousing conclusion to the film, of course passing over the eclipse in Revels’s career as Reconstruction faltered and failed. Gotta uplift the audience.

232

soru 11.27.12 at 7:11 pm

So, I’d say the argument is that, now, in 2012, a movie like Spielberg’s Lincoln just won’t do any more, as our political future is one in which white savior narratives are not going to play a part.

See, here’s someone who really gets the code. They understand exactly how it is that a failure to produce an appropriately worded critical response to the film ‘Lincoln’ will doom the country, and perhaps the planet.

They see how it is not merely ahistorical, but futuricidal.

Still don’t get it myself. The various things linked could change the details of the background black characters, maybe even add another one who would get a name in the end credits. But I am assuming this is not mainly about roles for black actors; the stakes seems to be higher.

Thing is, the film tells the story of how white people in the southern US moved from being slave owners to not being slave owners; that inherently involves white people as the protagonists, not the stakes. Nothing posted so far persuades me that is not _the_ story of the age, the epic.

That story _is_ rather like the the story of how Germans stopped being Nazis, and not very much like the the stories of how Haitian colonists and the British empire respectively stopped being slavers, or indeed the story of how americans stopped enforcing segregation. A reactionary group, fearing economic change, overreached, started a war of agression, and lost it to the powerful and generally conservative figures who did retain something of a grasp on sanity and morality.

Maybe the sequel will tell the story of the next age, of Reconstruction? Now that could be a very fine film.

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LFC 11.27.12 at 7:16 pm

CR @206
Since the focus on individuals rather than institutions is by no means peculiar to me or this post — indeed, it’s a fairly common way of doing criticism

And it’s produced some not-too-bad stuff (Twain’s “The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper” comes to mind as just one example).

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Harold 11.27.12 at 7:21 pm

Except that Last of the Mohicans is a beautiful book, flaws notwithstanding.

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Harold 11.27.12 at 7:24 pm

Sometimes it is the tinpot academics who wear the blinkers!

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Louis Proyect 11.27.12 at 8:08 pm

@231: or indeed the story of how americans stopped enforcing segregation. A reactionary group, fearing economic change, overreached, started a war of agression, and lost it to the powerful and generally conservative figures who did retain something of a grasp on sanity and morality.”

Odd. I always thought the end of segregation had more to do with the civil rights movement. Extending the analogy a bit, it is like making a movie about the passage of the civil rights act of 1964 that has not a single major Black character. Since 1964 is much more in our direct memory, the audience would find this laughable. I guess having the same narrative superimposed on the reality of a century earlier is easier to accept–at least for those so inclined.

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Stephen 11.27.12 at 8:16 pm

Soru@231
“That story _is_ rather like the the story of how Germans stopped being Nazis, and not very much like the the stories of how Haitian colonists and the British empire respectively stopped being slavers, or indeed the story of how americans stopped enforcing segregation. A reactionary group, fearing economic change, overreached, started a war of agression, and lost it to the powerful and generally conservative figures who did retain something of a grasp on sanity and morality.”

As a description of the downfall of Nazi Germany, that has some merits, but only if you can conceive of of Uncle Joe as a “generally conservative figure who did retain something of a grasp on sanity and morality”. I find that rather difficult.

I’m glad you think it it is not very much like a description of how the British empire abandoned slavery, and vigorously repressed it. I would have said it is not even remotely like.

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Fu Ko 11.27.12 at 8:20 pm

Wow, so many comments, I confess I did not read them all. I did get about half-way.

Mainly I wanted to add Eric Foner’s comment on Spielberg’s Lincoln:

“It’s not a question of being wrong, it’s just inadequate,” Foner said. “It gives you the impression that the ratification of the 13th Amendment ends slavery — and that’s wrong. Slavery is already dying at that moment.”

Several of the commentators have suggested that Spielberg has no responsibility to portray history “adequately.” Either Spielberg is not responsible because his only responsibility is to entertain (or to sell tickets), or else he is not responsible because Hollywood imposes its constraints, even on him.

I find these arguments perplexing. If Lincoln portrays history in a way that will produce a false impression of history in the public (or reinforce their existing false impression), what use is there to argue about whether Spielberg, or anyone else, is responsible? The film itself remains condemned by the criticism, either way.

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Harold 11.27.12 at 8:33 pm

The film shows Lincoln the lawyer preoccupied to the point of obsession with questions of law. The fact is that Lincoln’s father had been the wealthiest man in the county in Kentucky, but he lost his property through boundary disputes caused by his insufficient knowledge of property law. This fact no doubt motivated the younger Lincoln to become a lawyer, just as similar histories it no doubt motivated Southern families into the twentieth century to keep law books near the bathroom for convenient study by all members of the family, as I heard happened in North Carolina, during the five years I lived there. Thus, the portrayal of Lincoln’s motivations was extremely plausible to me — regardless of the metaphysical question over whether the amendment would be have been passed sooner or later.

Sometimes smart people don’t know what they don’t know.

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LFC 11.27.12 at 10:02 pm

Harold @234
Sometimes it is the tinpot academics who wear the blinkers

And sometimes it’s the tinpot commenters.

(Btw, I don’t hold an academic position. Also btw, I didn’t directly express an opinion about Last of the Mohicans one way or another.)

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LFC 11.27.12 at 10:04 pm

“am not a professor” would have been a more direct way of putting it

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bianca steele 11.27.12 at 10:08 pm

I have mixed feelings about Munich and probably should see it again, and I haven’t seen Lincoln yet, but I have to say I’m surprised by what’s been said about Kushner and his screenplay on this thread, given what I’ve read or seen by him before.

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Corey Robin 11.27.12 at 10:18 pm

231: “Thing is, the film tells the story of how white people in the southern US moved from being slave owners to not being slave owners; that inherently involves white people as the protagonists…That story _is_ rather like the the story of how Germans stopped being Nazis.”

I’m going to try to say this as delicately and politely as I can: You don’t know what you’re talking about. You need to read a history book. You need to learn some facts.

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Harold 11.27.12 at 10:22 pm

All occupations have hazards.

245

Harold 11.27.12 at 10:32 pm

LFC my comment was not directed at you. My apologies if it seemed to be. In fact, I admire your blog very much. And I have a great admiration for scholars and historians.

I admit this thread has made my blood pressure rise.

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Soru 11.27.12 at 10:40 pm

A couple of people have failed to parse what I wrote at 231, so I probably should decompress it. Downfall of nazi Germany and the confederacy had similarities, the others were all different from that pair, and also from each other.

Making a film about the civil rights era that focused on LBJ as a great white man who once had an motivating chat with his cleaner would be bad. Making a film on Stalingrad in which the IDF used their modern tanks and rockets to blow the nazis off the battlefield would also be bad (though perhaps more fun). Different periods of history contain different stories, and trying to treat them as if they all had the same simple uplifting moral is not going to do anyone any good.

Pointing out that some recent historian has written a well-researched book on the Jewish Brigade doesn’t change much about that.

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Jeremy 11.27.12 at 11:56 pm

@245, I’ll go with Foner, as quoted in @237 on this one. “Slavery is already dying at that moment.” That’s key.

@231, replying to me, See, here’s someone who really gets the code. They understand exactly how it is that a failure to produce an appropriately worded critical response to the film ‘Lincoln’ will doom the country, and perhaps the planet.Jesus, I said it “just won’t do,” which is a far cry from dooming the planet. Foner’s choice of “just inadequate” is pretty much what I was getting at. I think it’s clear now that thinking that way about the history of the Civil War is a dead end. Historians know that now, even if it hasn’t worked its way to the general public to the extent it needs to. To the extent that Spielberg is presenting an outdated version of Civil War history, probably the best way to describe the movie is reactionary history.

As far as people who complain that the movie is what it is, and that Corey shouldn’t expect it to be a different movie, maybe they should read movie reviews by people like Roger Ebert if they want movie reviews that adhere to Ebert’s standards. It’s really hard to have anything interesting to say from a political science perspective about a movie while refusing to contemplate that it should have been a different movie. The question “what is the matter with the stories that Spielberg chooses to tell?” is an interesting and useful question for a political scientist, less so for the Movies section of the newspaper.

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awy 11.28.12 at 12:26 am

let us celebrate the fact that we were so decent as to free the slaves.

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Suzanne 11.28.12 at 12:39 am

“This was the movie he wanted to make; more cynically, maybe this is the movie he thought would sell. “

72: Hmmm. Spielberg just unleashed on the multiplexes a long and talky period piece, shot mostly in dimly lit interiors and employing some archaic rhetoric, on the exciting, action-packed subject of getting a piece of legislation through the House. (The film is doing quite well, to the surprise of some in the industry.) I’m sure some non-artistic considerations were involved here – they always are in big budget feature films even if you are Spielberg – but a cynical grab for boffo box office probably wasn’t one of them.

Now, if you want to accuse him of going for surefire Oscar bait you’d be on safer ground…..

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Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 12:59 am

#245: Not so fast. At 231 you wrote, “Thing is, the film tells the story of how white people in the southern US moved from being slave owners to not being slave owners.” And that process you say was like the defeat of the Nazis. Now you say, “Downfall of nazi Germany and the confederacy had similarities.” The defeat of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy are two very different things. The first was actually very much a slave-driven process, and if you ever bothered to read a book about it, you’d know that. So in fact it bears much similarity to the Civil Rights Movement and other historical defeats. The defeat of the Confederacy was a more military process, although of course ex-slaves were involved in that as well (and not just as soldiers).

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Anderson 11.28.12 at 1:11 am

LFC has a blog? Link please – wanna check it out!

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Harold 11.28.12 at 1:27 am

Out-dated is by no means the same as same as reactionary. Something can be “outdated” and still be valuable — such as Gibbon’s history, or even Machiavelli. When people use the word “reactionary” they are signaling they have an ideological ax to grind.

Foner did not say “outdated”, nor did he use the hyperbolic word “reactionary”. He said the film was inadequate and left a wrong impression. I’m not sure that is correct, but even granting that it did leave a mistaken impression, nevertheless, virtually every historical film/drama/opera that has ever been made has always been and always will be inadequate. Their saving grace is that they send people to the more adequate – at least until more archival history is uncovered and they become “dated” — history books. I hope many many more people will read Foner’s book — I certainly intend to.

I can easily see the cognitive value of pointing out historical inaccuracies, myself, but I’m not sure there is any value at all in criticizing films “from the perspective of political science” (whatever that may be).

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LFC 11.28.12 at 1:28 am

Harold: ok, a misunderstanding, no hard feelings.

Anderson: I believe you left a brief comment once on my blog, so you have visited it before, albeit a while back. I’m on a break from posting right now (and I *should* be on a break from the blogosphere in general, but…). Anyway, I’ve given the link w/ this comment, so you can click on my initials and that’ll get you there.

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Watson Ladd 11.28.12 at 2:39 am

CR: Got a source for that difference? Because slaves fleeing the fields of the South to the safety of behind Union lines were as dependent on the military successes of the armies as the integrity of the Union itself. The first thing Confederate states tried to do post Civil War was reinscribe slavery in the form of the Black Codes, which ultimately were ruled unconstitutional.

Had the Confederacy been victorious, slavery would have been restored. Ultimately Reconstruction ended when federal troops were withdrawn, and the Civil Rights Movement depended crucially on federal power to protect its gains. The Civil Rights Movement was also not limited to blacks alone: the late 1960’s split in SNCC came long after most of the gains were completed.

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Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 2:47 am

253: Read the book I cite in the post. I wasn’t saying that slaves were independent of the union armies; I was saying that the elimination of slavery is not comparable to the defeat of the Nazis — i.e., the product solely of external armies marching. The book makes it very clear that it was slaves themselves who not only put abolition on the agenda of the war, made it a war aim, but also first freed themselves. You need to read it to see all the specifics of how that came about.

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awy 11.28.12 at 2:52 am

I’ve not watched this movie, but guesstimating on it I’d think that portraying the civil war in a triumphalist kind of way, and not merely the first step in a continuing struggle that replaced outright slavery with jim crow, a struggle”we” were not even certain to win/make substantial progress in until the heroic civil rights movement, is pretty much expected. There are a bunch of movies on the civil war, not many about the black guys we didn’t listen to. those were obviously crazy.

Just because white guys were in charge of the Union doesn’t mean their particular vacillations deserve big stage reenactment. but hey, since we have already defeated racism and everything is good, it’s what the people want to hear.

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Anderson 11.28.12 at 3:44 am

Senility has struck me, LFC … thanks!

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Soru 11.28.12 at 8:21 am

The defeat of the nazis wasn’t ‘solely’ the product of external armies marching; in the war, there were all kinds of resistance groups , spy rings, and individuals like Schindler and Wilhelm Canaris. It certainly wasn’t fought, on the allied side, to prevent the holocaust.

Nevertheless, Stalingrad, D day and Potsdam were kind of a big deal.

Think through the implicatations of some of the claims you are making. If the actions of slaves and free blacks were the primary cause of the end of slavery, that implies that they could have been otherwise.

That they were, as _was_ the case between 1950 and 1970, the thing that changed to which others reacted.

Are you really claiming that in the abscence of the relevant moral and political leaders like Douglass, then the Union army would have been defeated by Black Confederate guerillas?

Who would then go on to gleefully redon their chains, presumably singing happily?

259

Will Boisvert 11.28.12 at 10:16 am

The issue posed in Lincoln isn’t the existence of black agency, which it plainly acknowledges, but a different one: how should political agency be exercised in America?

The movie proposes a model for effective political agency based on three principles: 1) action through the state; 2) shaping public opinion through a discourse of moral suasion; 3) the indirect pursuit of moral imperatives through snakey retail politics.

Spielberg does show black soldiers exercising their agency through principles 1 and 2. First they align themselves with the state by fighting for the Union. Then they demand that Lincoln recognize their devotion and sacrifice as irrefutable proof of blacks’ right to freedom. That moral argument carries weight with Lincoln, as it did in real life; in his famous “silent tongue and clenched teeth” letter, he made a public commitment to honor that very claim. (And the example of black soldiers did indeed persuade many Northern whites of the legitimacy of abolition as a war aim.)

But the movie’s focus is on principle 3, snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol. Unfortunately, that focus excludes blacks because, having no votes or patronage spoils to dispense, they had little role to play in that arena.

The critique in the OP etc amounts to the claim that Spielberg should have emphasized different modes of political agency, which we could broadly label as “insurrectionary social movement.” There should have been scenes of slaves defying their overseers, leaving the plantation for the Union lines, camping out in Washington and receiving aid from free blacks. Eric Foner’s NYT letter adds his wish-list for shots of slaves in South Carolina seizing land and sacking the plantation houses. These are the styles of political agency that supposedly killed slavery “on the ground,” in Foner’s words, before the 13th Amendment passed.

So the debate here is really about which kind of agency truly gets things done—state action shaped by public sentiment and corrupt parliamentary politics, or self-organized, bottom-up social movements? In emphasizing the former Lincoln isn’t so much an apologia for Obama as a rebuff to Occupy Wall Street.

I hate Spielberg, but I have to say I’m with him here. I disagree with Foner and you, Corey: slaves had not really freed themselves and slavery had not actually “died on the ground” (Foner) before the 13th Amendment. Yes, slaves did fiercely and stirringly resist, flee and repudiate slavery during the war. But without the North’s firm political and military commitment to emancipation, expressed in the 13th Amendment and many other measures, white southerners would have reinstituted slavery through terror at war’s end. In fact they did do that in the Black Codes, which had to be voided by federal bayonets. Black freedom in the South went exactly as far as the federal government would guarantee it: Washington and Northern opinion would not tolerate the reimposition of slavery but would, unfortunately, accept the disenfranchisement, humiliation and exploitation of blacks; that’s what they got in the settlement of 1876, social movements notwithstanding.

Self-organized marches and encampments and land seizures don’t meaningfully win freedom from exploitation, not in Zucotti Park and certainly not in the Confederacy. A robust freedom has to be enshrined in law, defended by the state, and achieved through messy, meat-and-potatoes democratic politics—exactly the style of agency that Spielberg lionizes.

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Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 12:26 pm

259: Will, you need to read Steve Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet. It wasn’t simply federal bayonets that voided the Black Codes. Blacks had already self-organized, with guns, into militias and the sort against white terror. Yes, not enough, but also a critical part of the story. You’re conjuring a straw man if you think Foner, or I, don’t believe you also need strong federal intervention to work in tandem with social movements on the ground. Anyone who knows my work — and you’re a reader of my blog — knows that is my position. For which I have been repeatedly criticized by both anarchists and libertarians. This is just one example: http://coreyrobin.com/2011/09/19/shitstorming-the-bastille/

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Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 12:29 pm

258: To say that blacks played a role in bringing down slavery is not to say that blacks were the only ones who brought down slavery. Read the OP where I say emancipation was a multiracial affair. This conversation is getting sillier and sillier.

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Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 1:32 pm

258: I”m intrigued by this line: “But the movie’s focus is on principle 3, snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol.” I’ve seen this argument time and again in the last few days. What’s interesting to me about it is, first, it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln; ever since David Donald, even Hofstadter (1948!), we’ve known about Lincoln the shrewd pol. But more important than the historiography is that any revelation of snake-oil politics, in this country, seems to count, among our culture brokers, as some brave new heterodox truth (David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien — all have marveled at the brazenness of this “shrewd Lincoln”). In that way it’s just the inverse of the hagiography. Only a country that’s steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth. I guess we see that kind of toggling in the culture all the time — think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how the wise-cracking cynic Jean Arthur becomes the believer. Both positions are fairly juvenile: it’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old. But in this country, somehow, any time the 15 year old speaks, we’re all expected to say: wow, brave, bold. If you’re a 5 year old, I can see why that would be the case. If you’re a 45-year-old, as I am, I can’t.

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Uncle Kvetch 11.28.12 at 3:17 pm

Only a country that’s steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.

Nicely put. All you have to do is look at the endless Beltway hand-wringing about “polarization” and “partisan rancor” to know that there’s something truly weird — and, as you note, truly juvenile — about most Americans’ conception of politics.

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CJColucci 11.28.12 at 3:44 pm

ever since David Donald, even Hofstadter (1948!), we’ve known about Lincoln the shrewd pol. But more important than the historiography is that any revelation of snake-oil politics, in this country, seems to count, among our culture brokers, as some brave new heterodox truth (David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien — all have marveled at the brazenness of this “shrewd Lincoln”). In that way it’s just the inverse of the hagiography. Only a country that’s steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.

Who is this “we” of whom you speak? Although people who follow these things have long known about Lincoln the canny politico, mainstream Hollywood products are not pitched solely to the well-informed. To enormous numbers of people, it just is the case that revelations of snake-oil politics count as brave heterodox truth; a large part of the country is steeped in myths of innocence, and what some of us find to be “conventional and boring” realism is actually bold and shocking truth.

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Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 3:46 pm

#264: Yes, that was kind of my point. So when you write “To enormous numbers of people, it just is the case that revelations of snake-oil politics count as brave heterodox truth; a large part of the country is steeped in myths of innocence, and what some of us find to be “conventional and boring” realism is actually bold and shocking truth,” you’re only restating what I wrote: “Only a country that’s steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.”

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Harold 11.28.12 at 4:14 pm

Yes, the film drew Lincoln with “rosy little wings”, going so far as to make extensive use of quotations from his own writings. How jejune! How contemptible in their stupidity are the masses — verily, like five year olds.

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CJColucci 11.28.12 at 4:20 pm

Well, yes, that’s why I quoted and closely paraphrased you in the first place. It does not appear that we are in disagreement. As I understood it, you were saying if and only if X then Y. I agree with that and was simply affirming directly the truth of X.

268

PGD 11.28.12 at 4:49 pm

Lincoln was a canny politician all right, but that is not what set him apart. What set him apart was the opposite — after 70+ years of canny political compromises over slavery, Lincoln drew a line in the sand on slavery and fought a war over it. His willingness to exit the realm of political compromises is what made him distinctive. Lincoln was willing to stand up to the slave power in a way that other politicians were not. So doing a movie that is about how good he was at whipping a bill through the House kind of misses the point.

Up @53 I linked Frederick Douglass’ great speech summing up Lincoln’s contribution, where he contrasts Lincoln’s courage in facing down the South to the prevarications of Buchanan and other previous Presidents. You can also look at Karl Marx’s famous letter to Lincoln — Marx was a man who could recognize a fellow radical when saw one. Lincoln’s political skills and concessions to moderation are real, but his underlying radicalism is what gave him the steel to match the will of the South to protect slavery and fight the most destructive war in American history.

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Harold 11.28.12 at 5:00 pm

Lincoln’s line in the sand and his politicking both were based on his interpretation of the rule and purpose of law — which could be flexible but was not “snake oil.”

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PGD 11.28.12 at 5:04 pm

Harold @269 — exactly. Well put. Lincoln’s interpretation of the law (as informed by reading the compromises of the Constitution through the principles of the Declaration of Independence) fueled both his initial rejection of abolitionism and his determination to defend the Union at all costs against the expansion of slavery and the aggression of the slave power.

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Bruce Wilder 11.28.12 at 5:18 pm

CR: “In Spielberg’s [film], blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group that has ravaged and ruined them.”

If this is a premise for the argument, it is a false premise. Lincoln most emphatically does not belong to the “very group”, which enslaved blacks. He was not a slaveholder, nor did he come from a slaveholding family. As the character in the film reveals in a story, his father was one of those, (one of many, historically), who left the South in the early years of settlement west of the Appalachians, in order to avoid slavery. Politically, the country divided geographically along roughly horizontal bands. The abolitionists were from the northernmost band: the band of settlement by Greater New England across the Great Lakes region of northern Ohio, northern Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc.

The southern reaches of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, were the band dominated by the descendants of men, like Lincoln’s father, who had left the slaveholding South, to escape, frankly, being collateral damage, in the oppression of the slaves. Politically, they shared many attitudes with an adjacent group, who had remained in the slaveowning South — the so-called Middle South region and Appalachia — who were also hostile to slavery and, especially, to the slave owners, as a social and political class. The issues, for them, were economic competition with negro slaves, whom they often despised with a deep racism, and the corruption of local politics and property rights by the class of wealthy slave owners. (The property claims of small farmers in the territory subject to the Northwest Ordinance, north of the Ohio River, were usually easy to secure; in Kentucky and further south, they were often easily lost to powerful and ruthless, manipulative men. Lincoln’s father may have been a victim of such machinations, with respect to his claims in Kentucky.) By the 1850s, the slave owners, as a political class, had become identified with opposition to western expansion and development of the country; the “Slavepower” in the Senate was widely believed to be blocking statehood for Kansas, a transcontinental railroad, free homesteading in the west, and the Morrill Act, granting land to endow State universities. These were the issues, beneath the issue of the right or wrong of slavery, which formed the subtext to the struggle between Lincoln and Douglas, in their famous debates and in the Presidential election of 1860.

Douglas was prominently identified with railroads and western expansion, but he had also been tainted by his attempts to reach compromises with the “Slavepower” in the Senate, compromises, which had borne repugnant fruit in Bloody Kansas and the Dred Scot decision. Douglas argued that the country could be held together by a common commitment to a democracy of white men; Lincoln argued for a common commitment to the principle of political and moral equality, saying that Douglas’ unwillingness to declare slavery a moral wrong, made Douglas a tool of the “Slavepower”.

In the film, an attitude typical of people in this middle band of the country, is given voice by the lady from Missouri, who speaks for her husband, and, under questioning by Seward, articulates her conditional support for the 13th amendment. And, conservative leadership in the middle South, is personified by Bates, the patriarch of a family deeply influential in Maryland and Missouri politics.

It is Lincoln’s ability to shepherd people identified with the conservative “faction” of the Republican Party, and people, who voted for his fellow Illinoisan, the Democrat, Douglas in 1860, which enabled him to hold the Union together in the Civil War. He was able to lead people in these middle bands of the country, in the southern reaches of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, where the Democratic Party was strong, and in the middle South and Appalachian hill country, where slavery was weakest, from a politics of deep resentments and racism, thru the idealism of the Gettysburg address, to enactment of the 13th amendment.

In our own time, I see that idealistic liberals have a great difficulty in understanding that the price of political power in a democracy, is finding ways to pry those, whose political psychology is founded in the resentful, cynical and conformist attitudes of authoritarian followers, away from the demagogues offered to them by the would-be plutocrats. There’s no political alchemy, which can transform the base lead of authoritarian followers into some pure, ideal gold of liberalism, but it is possible, through patient leadership, to lead them toward support of better policy and patriotic support of political ideals, in place of ugly expedients.

Lincoln’s politics provides a great lesson. It is not, strictly, a lesson in the agency of the oppressed, though, maybe, it is a lesson in the dynamics of political triangulation, in how indifference becomes either complicity or decency.

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JanieM 11.28.12 at 5:38 pm

CR: “In Spielberg’s [film], blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group that has ravaged and ruined them.”

If this is a premise for the argument, it is a false premise. Lincoln most emphatically does not belong to the “very group”, which enslaved blacks.

BW: Thank you! And again!

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Bruce Wilder 11.28.12 at 5:40 pm

Mary Lincoln was the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky slaveowner, and Lincoln’s best friend in early manhood was also from a family of Kentucky’s slaveholders. He was intimately acquainted with those in the Middle South, who were both dependent on slavery, economically, and, yet, ambivalent and dubious in their complicity, but, perhaps, not quite as intimately acquainted with African-Americans themselves — at least not before his Presidency. In the film, he articulates this ignorance, when questioned by Mary’s servant. This adds to the mystery of what relates imaginative empathy to abstract ideals in the formation of political character, attitudes and policy.

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Corey Robin 11.28.12 at 5:58 pm

271: Lincoln was white. And as everyone from John C. Calhoun to Wendell Phillips to John Brown understood, slavery was sustained by much much more than the slaveholders. I don’t think it requires all that much to say white Americans (and Europeans) ravaged and ruined people of African descent.

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William Timberman 11.28.12 at 5:59 pm

This adds to the mystery of what relates imaginative empathy to abstract ideals in the formation of political character, attitudes and policy.

FDR, LBJ as well. Whatever it is, I count us damned lucky it exists.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.28.12 at 6:13 pm

“I don’t think it requires all that much to say white Americans (and Europeans) ravaged and ruined people of African descent.”

It’s a rhetorical device. Presenting it as a matter of fact would be a big mistake, I think.

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JanieM 11.28.12 at 6:15 pm

Lincoln was white ?

So it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s the color of your skin that counts after all.

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Palindrome 11.28.12 at 7:10 pm

@268
“Lincoln was a canny politician all right, but that is not what set him apart. What set him apart was the opposite — after 70+ years of canny political compromises over slavery, Lincoln drew a line in the sand on slavery and fought a war over it. His willingness to exit the realm of political compromises is what made him distinctive. Lincoln was willing to stand up to the slave power in a way that other politicians were not.”

Except that this wasn’t what happened at all. Lincoln made no attack on slavery when elected – he fought the war to preserve the union, as he stated on numerous occasions. In his first inaugural address, he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

This is not to say that the war wasn’t about slavery. Of course it was. The Fire-eaters seceded over the slavery issue, but this was suicide from fear of death. Rather than use the 3/5ths clause, the Senate, or the Supreme Court to block any potential threat to their peculiar institution, the southern states instigated a war of rebellion that ironically brought about the destruction of the very system they sought to save.

However, Lincoln hardly eluded canny political compromise. His one unbending principle was the preservation of the country, not eliminating slavery. He wrote to Horace Greeley in August of 1862: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Can’t get much clearer than that.

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PGD 11.28.12 at 8:46 pm

@278 Palindrome — sorry, I think that is a real misunderstanding of what happened in 1861. Lincoln stood up to slavery and fought it in 1861, period. Modern commenters have a hard time understanding this because they focus on immediate abolition in the old South and not on the crucial question of the expansion of slavery to new states and territories. This issue had been at the center of American politics for decades. Lincoln’s position was absolutely no expansion of slavery beyond the Old South states where it was fully established under the Constitution, and no compromise on this principle. It was clear to everyone that the internment of slavery in a small portion of the continent would lead to its gradual elimination. The South seceded and fought to avoid this outcome. Lincoln’s stand was of the highest importance, but we cannot see this today because of the near-exclusive focus on immediate abolition.

If you want an excellent contemporary description of the issue, see this 1861 article by Karl Marx , where he clearly lays out how the Southern slave power had come to dominate the union and how important the Republican stand against them was. A quote from the article:

“A strict confinement of slavery within its old terrain, therefore, was bound according to economic law to lead to its gradual effacement, in the political sphere to annihilate the hegemony that the slave states exercised through the Senate, and finally to expose the slaveholding oligarchy within its own states to threatening perils from the poor whites. In accordance with the principle that any further extension of slave Territories was to be prohibited by law, the Republicans therefore attacked the rule of the slaveholders at its root. The Republican election victory was accordingly bound to lead to open struggle between North and South… The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated outright or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should submit any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be nurseries for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed spreading of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device.

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PGD 11.28.12 at 8:51 pm

Another way to put it: Lincoln would have forsworn abolition to save the Union, but he was unwilling to permit any further territorial expansion of slavery to save the Union. That is a crucial distinction. This is clear from Lincoln’s vehement opposition to the Crittenden Compromise.

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Soru 11.28.12 at 9:26 pm

It’s certainly a relevant contrast with certain modern politicians who would, in similar circumstances, reach a compromise that involved invading Canada to spread slavery to the 58th parallel.

‘Hey they asked for the 59th – I had to pull a lot of strings to get that deal’

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Bruce Wilder 11.28.12 at 11:11 pm

CR: “Lincoln was white.”

Wow, really?!

CR: “I don’t think it requires all that much to say white Americans (and Europeans) ravaged and ruined people of African descent.”

No, it doesn’t require all that much, . . . to say it. If you make race a moral explanator, a core of responsibility, though, you’ve surrendered to the same forces of a lazy human nature, you purport to oppose. It doesn’t do much for your argument to claim that the agency of the victims has been denied, due to racism, but should be recognized and respected, if you deny the agency of a another vast multitude on account of race. I would think this would be obvious enough, that it would not have to be stated explicitly, let alone argued in this forum, but I see I am wrong.

The American Civil War is not a rebellion of slaves against their masters. Some may wish it was — some at the time wished it could be — but, it was not that. It was the struggle of a “house divided”, of one part of a nation-state committed to slavery as a “good”, against the rest, committed, however imperfectly, to an opposite ideal, an opposite standard of justice. Among those opposed to slavery, there were idealists and radicals — the abolishnists, and there were, also, conservatives. The Republican Party was, as Bates in the film terms it, a conservative antislavery party, and Lincoln came from that conservative wing of the Party. You cannot understand the true part of the antislavery conservatives, if you refuse to make the distinctions necessary to outline their position precisely: their desire to have nothing to do with slavery, and the hard lesson learned, concerning just what would be required to realize this goal.

There’s a conservative impulse to be done with all moral distinction, all moral analysis, and to blame everyone, everywhere. I don’t propose to take up a double-entry moral bookkeeping, to support an exhaustive moral accounting, in reply, but neither do I propose to assent to such a senseless apportionment of blame. Human nature is complex, selfish and remarkably reluctant to do the right thing, even when the right thing is seemingly so obvious and necessary, and, yet, sometimes courageous in doing the right thing in adverse circumstances. The moral is social, and we seem to require a degree of consensus and social support for acting morally. How that consensus forms, and is honored in law and hypocrisy, is a moral mystery worth contemplating

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Bruce Wilder 11.28.12 at 11:19 pm

Palindrome @278

I think Lincoln was articulating the principle, which would hold the Union together, in the full knowledge that slavery could not survive a long or hard war. In this, he was exercising a conservative leadership. I doubt that there were many, who failed to understand that the war was about slavery, ultimately, and Lincoln’s careful phrasing was aimed at convincing more that slavery must end, if the war was to end on terms of continued union.

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Will Boisvert 11.29.12 at 12:47 am

@ Corey, 260-1,

Again, the issue isn’t who had agency—blacks had plenty—but which forms of agency proved effective. Was the decisive factor 1) state action driven by electoral and parliamentary politics and moral suasion, or 2) the independent “direct action” of social movements, i.e. slave migrations and land seizures, black militias during Reconstruction, etc. Or was it both together?

I think the right answer is 1, not 2 and not “both.” State action was far and away the most important dynamic while direct action was merely a sideshow. And blacks did profoundly influence Northern politics and state action, mainly by joining the Union army, which materially aided the war effort and, even more importantly, made a deep moral impression that galvanized support for abolition. (And, of course, it wasn’t just soldiers; black leaders like Douglass agitated for the enlistment of blacks, helped recruit black regiments and supplied rhetorical firepower.)

By contrast, none of the forms of direct action by blacks in the South, either during or after the war, helped much in securing a permanent freedom. Had their hands not been full fighting the Yankees, Southern whites could have easily reinslaved migrating blacks and reclaimed seized land. Schooled by four years of expert military service, white racists were incomparably stronger, better organized and more numerous than Reconstruction-era black militias, which were not much of an asset even to federal forces in the region. Passage of the 13th amendment—or, more properly, the series of emancipation measures that included it—was infinitely more important to black liberation than sacking plantation houses or starting militias.

The possibility of insurrectionary self-liberation from below is a foundational tenet of left politics, but it’s not a very realistic picture of history. When we’re talking about oppressed minorities, and especially slaves, liberation cannot be won, or even substantially furthered, through the direct action of independent social movements, and efforts in that direction are almost always irrelevant if not counterproductive. They are simply too weak to win, or even fight, that way.

That doesn’t mean that social movements have no role to play, but it means they have to understand the mechanisms of deliverance. Liberation comes from state action, enacted through electoral politics and legislation. To be effective, social movements have to gain influence over those processes by shifting majority opinion through moral suasion. That’s essentially what the Civil Rights movement was, a succession of potent morality plays aimed squarely at moving whites to commit to legislative reform. It proved very effective, much more so than, say, the Panthers’ reprise of the black militia tradition.

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Corey Robin 11.29.12 at 1:21 am

284: I really urge you to read *Slaves No More*. It offers a very concrete sense of the ways in which direct action by the slaves forced the hand of the Union army, which ultimately served as a transmitting device up to the highest reaches of the Lincoln administration. You have to have a more tactile sense of the effects of military maneuvers on the ground, when suddenly thousands of black slaves flood union lines, how that forces incredibly complicated logistical questions upon very low level officers (who are also dealing with white slaveholders insisting on reclaiming their fugitive slaves), and how that very unstable metabolism on the ground eventually filters up the chain of command back up to Washington. It’s an extraordinarily unstable and destabilizing situation, and it also offers the abolitionist voices in the Republican Party a kind of on the ground realism — facts on the ground as it were — that they never had. I just think it’s wrong to think you look at high politics separate from these on the ground combustions. And what’s more I don’t think you can answer this in a generic theoretical way, as you’re trying to do here. You have to have a much more empirical sense of things. I get the sense you’re much interested in carrying out an ideological battle with a certain kind of leftist here rather than investigating the daily ins and outs of how emancipation was actually made. That MO on your part will not serve you well in trying to understand what happened between 1861 and 1865.

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purple 11.29.12 at 5:49 am

Also in the backdrop of the movie — without the evil Sherman, it’s likely Lincoln would have lost the 1864 election.

Sherman remains one of the most unappreciated Americans and is consistently shown as the Southern white aristocrat would like him portrayed.

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purple 11.29.12 at 5:52 am

“271: Lincoln was white. And as everyone from John C. Calhoun to Wendell Phillips to John Brown understood, slavery was sustained by much much more than the slaveholders. I don’t think it requires all that much to say white Americans (and Europeans) ravaged and ruined people of African descent.”

Can we lay the same collective guilt or your shoulders for the incarceration rate of blacks today ? or any number of gross injustices in a society as grotesquely unequal as ours ?

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etv13 11.29.12 at 9:17 am

Corey Robin @ 285: What a supercilious, sanctimonious, patronizing jerk you are.

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ptl 11.29.12 at 11:33 am

Corey Robin, 285

slavery was sustained by much much more than the slaveholders. I don’t think it requires all that much to say white Americans (and Europeans) ravaged and ruined people of African descent.

Eric Foner, linked by Corey Robin, 235

The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League,

Yes I know about Sojourner Truth, and about Frederick Douglass’s support for the women’s suffrage movement; and about that movement’s vexed history. Also, I agree with Katherine, 61. But “white Americans (and Europeans)” were no more an undifferentiated group than were black Americans (and Europeans). You mar your case.

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Corey Robin 11.29.12 at 3:13 pm

#289: If you think slavery can be explained merely by the actions of the slaveholders, and not many many other white people, you’re wrong. That doesn’t mean every white person was pro-slavery; of course there were abolitionists. But it would be like trying to explain Nazism without mentioning the Germans, or the Holocaust in Eastern Europe without mention the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians, and more. No social institution as comprehensive as slavery survives several centuries without the widespread participation and collaboration of a great many men and women, many of whom are not themselves slaveholders. To say that Lincoln belonged to the grout that had ravaged and ruined black people in this country is not the same as saying that every white person did so.

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Corey Robin 11.29.12 at 3:17 pm

287: I’m not sure what your logic is here. Is it that the unequal incarceration of blacks can be ascribed solely to the actions of the judges, prosecutors, and juries who put black people behind bars at a greater rate than white people — and the jailers who keep them there? What about the legislators who vote for the policies, the citizens who vote for the legislators, the companies and contractors who lobby for the policies, the companies that benefit from the cheap prison labor that results, and so on? Once you start taking in the full circumference of action, it’s not just a few bad apples that we can blame this on.

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William Timberman 11.29.12 at 4:16 pm

In response to the premise of this post, I don’t have much to say except that I’ve been aware since I was very young — ten years old or so — of a specifically American style of self-righteousness, sanctimoniousness, call it what you will, and it’s always grated on me. It’s not the only kind around, certainly, but it does have a flavor of its own, which is largely, if not exclusively, Southern in origin.

If you read John Adams’ correspondence, or Emerson’s essays, or indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, you get very little of it. Jefferson’s, or Washington’s, on the other hand…and by the time you get to John C. Calhoun, it’s more or less in full cry. After 240 years or so, though, its decadent forms are sometimes hard to recognize. I call it the Jimmy/Billy syndrome, after President Carter and his wastrel brother, but you can see it just as clearly in Southern evangelists on the one hand, and Texas oilmen/Karl Rove on the other. No need to point out, I think, which is the Madonna and which the Whore (of Babylon, in this case).

The moral ambivalence of a slaveholding aristocracy eventually infects everything it comes in contact with. It would be nice if there were some kind of philosophical pesticide that we could spray on the posturers of both kinds, but if even a Civil War couldn’t make them go away, I suppose we’ll just have to rely on time, and on steadfast resistance, and hope for the best.

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William Timberman 11.29.12 at 4:34 pm

@292
Sorry, wrong thread. I’ll go post it in the right one. Apologies to CR and the commenting crew.

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Bruce Wilder 11.29.12 at 4:48 pm

It seems to me @ 292 fits in to this thread, nicely.

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Glen Parker 11.30.12 at 1:16 am

The timing for its release seems to be caculated, and the heroics overdone, the prior efforts of many was takin advantage of by the politicians as expected.

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dax 11.30.12 at 12:26 pm

“Tell me what the majority of Americans … have “ethnically and culturally” in common with Vito Corleone?”

Uh, especially on the cultural side, everything? Isn’t that one of the themes of the first two Godfathers?

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Corey Robin 11.30.12 at 4:52 pm

296: That’s a fair point, though I don’t think it’s as comprehensive as you make it out to be. I mean, it’s true that the immigrant striver in Vito Corleone is supposed to be a stand-in for all Americans. But the instruments of his striving — cutting off horse’s heads, raising a sociopathic son or two, resolving a mortician’s family disputes with guns and goons — aren’t what I would call constants, or obvious points of contact, in the cultural firmament. But still I take your point.

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NickT 11.30.12 at 5:54 pm

@Anarcissie

“part of the outcome of the Civil War and Reconstruction was to produce a society of three castes with mutual hatred for one another: White Americans, Southerners, and Negroes.”

Sure, let’s quietly forget about the society and history that came before the Civil War. As for the division between “White Americans” and “Southerners”… well, what can one say, really?

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NickT 11.30.12 at 6:10 pm

@31 Mark Field

The South did authorize blacks to serve, right at the end of the war (March 13, 1865).

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Corey Robin 11.30.12 at 8:20 pm

Kate Masur, who WAS the Lincoln Spielberg debate before there was one, has an excellent response to all the controversy. http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/11/30/a-filmmakers-imagination-and-a-historians/

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Donald Johnson 11.30.12 at 8:24 pm

On William Timberman’s 292 post–

Which thread did it belong in? Because it was interesting (not quite sure I understood all of it, but what I think I got I agreed with). And as someone else said, it did seem to fit here.

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LFC 11.30.12 at 8:39 pm

NickT:

The South did authorize blacks to serve, right at the end of the war (March 13, 1865)

Thank you; I thought I had been right about that, but was too lazy to look it up.

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Main Street Muse 11.30.12 at 8:50 pm

@Corey (300) thanks for the link. This is a much more completely realized description of what is missing than the NY op-ed piece.

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Harold 11.30.12 at 9:05 pm

It is one thing to say that something is missing from the film. It is another to nastily insinuate there is something missing from the film because “perhaps” the screenwriter is a blinkered, unimaginative bigot, and by extension I and my backscratching pal the political scientist are not.

If evidence abounds of Slade’s and Keckley’s leadership and advocacy, then why didn’t the film allude to it? Perhaps because the filmmakers did not—or could not—imagine black servants who had lives outside their work and were activists in their own right.

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William Timberman 11.30.12 at 9:15 pm

Donald Johnson @ 301

Sorry, I probably should have specified which thread I’d meant to attach my 292 to, but I thought that the reference to Madonnas and whores would do the trick. Anyway, it was meant for CR’s follow-up to the post above: The Madonna/Whore Complex in American Politics.

I may be wrong, but in that context I think what I was driving at should be a little clearer.

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ptl 12.02.12 at 4:48 pm

#289: If you think slavery can be explained merely by the actions of the slaveholders, and not many many other white people

I don’t.

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ptl 12.02.12 at 5:00 pm

I’ll try again

#290 “If you think slavery can be explained merely by the actions of the slaveholders, and not many many other white people… But it would be like trying to explain Nazism without mentioning the Germans,”

I really don’t know how to address something as clumsy and as insulting as this as a response to my attack on your unqualified “I don’t think it requires all that much to say white Americans (and Europeans) ravaged and ruined people of African descent”. I think I’ll just say that I, like some others here, saw your words as a version of “there are no innocents”, and leave it there.

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Jeffrey Davis 12.02.12 at 10:09 pm

I was surprised, after reading this thread, to find that the opening scenes of the movie involved black soldiers in close hand-to-hand combat.

As for the movie itself, I wish it had ended it with the scene of Stevens in bed with his mistress. He went on too long.

Sorry for the 2 weeks late and a hundred dollar short comments.

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