It’s been a month now since the Academy Awards, enough time to process why the most heralded movie since “The Twelve Commandments” didn’t command the type of recognition most thought it would. “Lincoln,” which will be released in DVD this week, was supposed to be the biggest thing since…Lincoln himself, didn’t quite measure up to the industry award expectations. Nor the public’s. It was a great movie. But it wasn’t true. It was a gross dramatization of a period in a man’s life. That’s it.
Winning only two out of twelve Oscar nominations, “Lincoln” landed with a big THUD…even with the Best Director field stacked in favor of its director (Steven Spielsberg) by excluding Best Picture winner, “Argo,” director, Ben Afflack. He still didn’t win.
And it’s not like Steven Spielberg didn’t know black history. He’s appropriated it enough in the past with his infamous account of black life in post slavery Americana in the 1985 movie, “The Color Purple.” Spielberg knows African American history. He claimed to have researched “Lincoln” for ten years. If that is the case, why was the movie so inaccurate?
His screenwriter, Tony Kushner, also claims to have researched the history of the Lincoln presidency and stated directly that he followed “to a tee” one of the most comprehensive biographies of Lincoln ever written, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling book, Team of Rivels. Goodwin’s account is one of the best representation’s of a very controversial period in American history, in particular—the cause of the Civil War being over slavery and not “states rights” as many of the over 200 Lincoln biographies suggest. Many critics called out the inaccuracies of the movie that were blatant.
The most blatant, of course, was the exclusion of Frederick Douglass in the anti-slavery, emancipation and 13th Amendment debate. There’s where the movie, “Lincoln” lost all credibility. Sure, Daniel Day Lewis brought the American icon to life, but was it a true depiction of what actually happened?
I, and others, suggest that it was not. Entertaining, yes. Emtional? Surely, as slavery is still the biggest scar on America’s conscience. True? Not even.
“Bio-Pics” have their own politics when it comes to industry recognition. Who can forget the controversy created around the movie, “Hurricane,” when Denzel Washington was the heads on favorite to win the Best Actor award before a national campaign of the movie’s accuracy sunk his chances (the Oscar went to Kevin Spacey that year). Daniel Day Lewis would suffer no such backlash, but Spielberg and the rest of the movie would. And it should’ve. There should be true context to a movie that goes beyond make-up, costumes and scenery.
The story matters.
First of all, any story about the 13th Amendment isn’t complete without talking about both 13th Amendments. Yes, there were two, which most people don’t know.
One was passed before Lincoln became President, and another one was passed, and ratified, after Lincoln was assassinated. The one passed before Lincoln was sworn into office in March of 1861, was completely opposite of the one eventually ratified. The first was rushed through Congress after Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 to ensure that Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance would never prevail. And for the sake of accuracy, we should note that Lincoln wasn’t opposed to slavery. He was opposed to the expansion of slavery. He was fine with maintaining slavery in the areas where it existed at the time of his election.
Aware that Congress has passed a 13th Amendment before his inauguration that stated slavery would remain in effect forever, Lincoln stated in his first inauguration speech that he would not do anything to upset Congress’ wishes. Seven states seceding from the Union took the focus off ratifying that amendment.
Lincoln’s position changed over the four years of the war, and one person was responsible for that, Frederick Douglass. How is that not a factor?
Frederick Douglass met with Lincoln in the White House on two occasions; once to discuss black men fighting in the war (which Lincoln resisted) and once on emancipation (which Lincoln also resisted but reconsidered when the Union was losing the war).
They made a big deal about the party crashers of a State dinner during Obama’s first term. Well, Douglass also crashed Lincoln’s second inauguration party, to talk about Lincoln’s colonization plan. Lincoln was reconsidering abolishing slavery if agreement could be reached to colonize blacks outside the United State, which Douglass opposed. How is that not significant? And it made for great theater. There was a State dinner scene in the movie, “Lincoln.” Frederick Douglass was nowhere to be found.
In fact, he was not even mentioned in the whole movie. Over two dozen books have been written on the turmoil around slavery and freedom inspired by the frequent interface between Lincoln and Douglass. It is part of the American story. Lincoln has been elevated in American folklore for saving the Union. Douglass has been nearly written out of history for his role in helping to abolish slavery.
Critics focused on the inaccuracies around the vote that takes place in the movie where Connecticut votes against ratifying the amendment. That’s a trivial inaccuracy in comparison to the exclusion of Douglass from the movie.
Telling a Lincoln story on slavery without Douglass is like telling a Roosevelt story on World War II without Winston Churchill or Kennedy story on the Cuban missile crisis with Kruschev. In each instance, they were pushed to make the bold decisions that made their legacies great and stand the test of time. Lincoln was pushed to greatness, but not by his Radical Republican counterparts. It was an outside force, one of conscience and conviction, that spoke for those whose couldn’t speak and had no power to influence the outcome. Frederick Douglass was that person and the movie omitted this whole dynamic of the social reality of the time.
History is history. You can romanticize it. You can dramatize it. But you can’t change it.
Spielberg not only changed it, he misrepresented it. I’m glad the academy didn’t reward him for it. Lincoln was a story that had to be told. But it needs to be told correctly.
Inaccuracies cost the movie its shot at greatness. Now it’s just another movie, art imitating a life but not the reality of how the course of history was changed.