Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Lincoln" Review First Draft

With its twelve nominations, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is poised for a very successful Oscars night on February 24. The film centers on President Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) campaign to pass the 13th amendment in the House of Representatives, which outlawed slavery in the United States. Through corruption, persuasion, and patronage, Lincoln is able to get the Constitution amended. At best, this film is an aesthetically-enticing period piece, Day-Lewis gives a riveting performance, and Spielberg stresses unity for a fractured nation whose 112th Congress failed to repeal Obamacare thirty-three times, blocked a U.N. disabilities protection treaty, and delayed voting on the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. But this film's Rankean stress on "great men" overshadowed the significant black participation in the abolition movement, creating an inaccurate historical representation that perpetuates black submissiveness.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner features snappy dialogue and the sense of loneliness that Lincoln experienced as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War. The sets are well done and the costumes maintain historical accuracy, particularly Lincoln's elegant-yet-Kentucky-simple outfits. Day-Lewis does a masterful job depicting the torment of a divided nation while striving to help the nation achieve higher ideals. Simply put, Day-Lewis's performance is Oscar-worthy and a reminder that if we act together, there is nothing the United States cannot achieve, even the abolition of the peculiar institution. 

Yet the overarching message of this film is fundamentally inaccurate and dangerous because of its extensive popular reach. According to Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern, "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for which movies like 'Gone With the Wind' have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress." Spielberg's film fails to highlight the participation of the free black community in the abolition movement, or even show blacks in the background of his sweeping shots of the nation's capital. He perpetuates the idea that abolition was a gift from whites to blacks, which is a skewed interpretation that needs to be re-evaluted in our historical narrative. In particular, Thaddeus Stevens giving the Congressional voting record to his black lover and describing it as a "gift" was patronizing and distorted.

The nuances of early black political activity are difficult for any director to capture, yet Spielberg's film does a particular disservice to our nation's historical understanding. While aesthetically pleasing and marked by a great Daniel Day-Lewis performance, this film's message does more harm than good.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really in-depth analysis packed perfectly into 400 words. I like your focus on the message of the film and its problems, punctuated by your glowing review of Day-Lewis' performance. Nice tie-in to present day politics, too.
    I like the part where you describe a particular scene—Thaddeus Stevens giving the voting record—to punctuate your point. It would have been nice to see a few more of these examples for those of us who didn't see the film.