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In the theater, Lincoln asks us to forget that African-Americans had any significant role in the abolition of slavery. While humorous and well-acted, we should be concerned about the revisionist message of the film and critical of Hollywood’s continued mistreatment of issues of race and gender.
‘Lincoln’ is an entertaining movie – I loved the suspense of the legislative battle, the ways in which Lincoln’s team politicked for every last vote. I managed to stay wide awake for a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie. That says something about the movie (and also something about me).
But a film this prominent, one which instills such intense national pride, has a responsibility to be more accurate. As it is, ‘Lincoln’ tells the story of the abolition of slavery as a battle only among white men, some of them ‘enlightened’ and some of them hopeless.
I am no historian, but I learned in history classes, even the watered-down, elementary school ones, that reformers like Frederick Douglass and fugitive slaves were critical in the movement to abolish slavery. Professor Kate Masur of Northwestern contributed a powerful op-ed to the New York Times calling out the errors in the film, and lists ways that it could have dealt differently with the role of African-Americans in the politics of the Civil War. Reading her piece, it seems like the Lincoln team really didn’t try. “The capital was … 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,” Masur wrote. While Keckley and Slade are portrayed in the film as well-respected domestic workers, none of their leadership was reflected in the film. Not one character, not one scene. Or were we collectively hallucinating in that movie theater?
Like Masur, I also found the brief appearance of Lydia Smith, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens’ African-American housekeeper and supposed lover, to be disturbing. Stevens hands Smith the official copy of the 13th Amendment as a “gift,” right before they go to bed together. Here, gender roles accentuate the racial hierarchy constructed within the story. By contrast, Mary Todd Lincoln’s character is more nuanced than her popular reputation as mentally unstable. Through intimate discussions and arguments between Abe and Mary about the 13th amendment and whether or not to allow their son to enlist in the army, we are able to see Mary as an individual, a mother, and an advisor. Her calling out Thaddeus Stevens in front of a roomful of guests was bold and entertaining.
We need to demand more from Hollywood, a lot more. Every representation on the big screen, especially in big-ticket movies, is an opportunity to validate and give voice to historically marginalized communities: from African-Americans to Asians, from LGBT people to women. We can’t be complacent. We can’t defend the prejudices ‘Lincoln’ perpetuated in support of the “aesthetic” and the “Oscar-worthy” performances. This story is too important to our nation and the world for that.