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LINCOLN: Making History

By       Message Jennifer Epps     Permalink
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I realize that not every film that is primarily concerned with social justice takes an unmitigated stance against war. James Cameron's Avatar was vividly against empire, wars of aggression, and brutal subjugation, but it was also solidly in favor of those under attack fighting back. Robert Bolt was arrested protesting nuclear proliferation when he was supposed to be writing Lawrence of Arabia -- yet that film ended up celebrating in spectacular scenes the battlefield wins of underdogs.

However, Bolt's screenplay also criticized T.E. Lawrence's power rush and bloodthirstiness. This brings to mind what might have been achieved with a little more ambiguity in Lincoln -- even if only to acknowledge the difference between who Abe became as commander-in-chief during the most lethal conflict American troops have endured, and who he once was as the Congressman from Illinois: the quixotic sponsor of the "Spot Resolutions" in 1847, fiercely challenging expansionist President Polk's efforts to launch the Mexican Wars after the U.S. was allegedly attacked on a "spot' of U.S. soil near the Rio Grande. 

But considering that this is a Spielberg entertainment, if it's not exactly a college-level Ethics seminar we shouldn't actually be surprised. Spielberg does seem much more comfortable with complexity and restraint than he used to be. True, he can't resist beginning and ending the movie on a sentimental note: the movie proper begins after a black soldier marches away from the President, doing him the honor of reciting the closing words of the Gettysburg Address over his shoulder; it ends with a sepia image of Lincoln emerging from a candle flame, addressing a rapt army. But I can live with that. And if you're going to be sentimental about anybody, Lincoln makes a convincing case that the 16th president should be the guy.

Does Lincoln short-change its black characters? Yes, of course -- this is Hollywood. (Though Spielberg has made two previous films on civil rights issues without quite the same oversight: The Color Purple and Amistad.) Apart from a few very minor roles -- soldiers in the Union Army, Thaddeus Stevens' lover, and a male and female servant in the Lincolns' employ -- there are no black roles. The best role for an African-American character is given to David Oyelowo, who has one scene as a proud corporal petitioning Lincoln for the redress of grievances. The second-best is given to Gloria Reuben, who as Mrs. Lincoln's maid Elizabeth gets a moving scene with the president -- the two of them try to envision a post-slavery society, and to be real with each other for the first time.

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That's pretty slim pickings, however. There were of course black abolitionists, it wasn't all just achieved by benevolent white men. Though the strategy discussions Kushner has written are fascinating, and the feeling that these characters are poised on the cusp of revolutionary change is intoxicating, a film with such a progressive agenda should have tried harder to show courageous black opinion-makers too. The film is ultimately supposed to be about the equality and freedom of all African-Americans. So it would be nice if they had a chance to get a word or two in edgewise. And after all, the script for Spielberg's Schindler's List did not give all the major speaking roles to Aryans.

And considering the gigantic cast list this movie has, would it have been so hard to use a few of those names to document the role of women in this period? Many women worked very hard, for decades, in the abolition movement, including very famous national figures who also campaigned for universal suffrage. You wouldn't know it from this film, however; the only female characters are domestic servants and Lincoln's emotional wife -- who only yearns from the gallery for the 13th Amendment to pass so her son will return from the war.

However, the film matters on a broader and more immediate level. Spielberg could not have predicted, in 2001 when he first bought the rights to Goodwin's book, the timeliness of the film in terms of both the fight for racial equality in America and the re-election of a president from Illinois. Nor could he have predicted how the level of virulent opposition against Lincoln could echo some of the sentiments, of a similar economic class and geographic region, against a president in 2012: including an online campaign to secede from the Union. He may have begun to get an inkling as the presidential election neared, though, and that may be why he categorically refused to release his movie before November 6th, lest it end up being used as "a political soccer ball."

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It seems he was protecting the film, not the election -- although Spielberg is a very large Democratic donor and probably doesn't much like it when the conservative noise machine embraces Lincoln's record at the same time as they eschew his causes. But it is a civil rights movie that comes at a time when the country is again divided over race, and conservatives know it, because they have already started complaining that the movie is on Obama's side, without anything in the film making any such reference. (The griping helps prove that the right-wing blowhards really do recognize in their hearts that their opposition to Obama is racially-based.)

Yet there's more. Lincoln shows how sometimes an amendment to the Constitution is urgently, deeply, inescapably necessary, and it dramatizes part of what goes into getting one passed. (How many movies have actually done that?) A movie about this process is amazingly relevant because a strong and burgeoning movement has blossomed in the U.S. over the last two years, demanding a 28th amendment to get big money out of elections and to preserve the rights of the Constitution for people, not corporations. Several versions of such an amendment have been proposed, not just by grassroots organizations like the Move to Amend coalition, but also by numerous reps on Capitol Hill and in increasing numbers of state and local ballot initiatives and resolutions. The wake-up call was the Citizens United case; it has spawned a flurry of activity around the country to use the amendment process to gain viable campaign finance reform, and even the President has expressed support for an amendment to undo this Court decision.

But in fact, as activists have been pointing out at teach-ins and lectures, the Supreme Court began giving our rights away to corporations over a century and a quarter ago: not just the 1st Amendment right to free speech (which is the best-known of corporate usurpations), but also the rights inherent in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 14th Amendments.

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Ironically, the window through which corporations first crawled was the 14th Amendment, part of the trio of "Reconstruction Amendments' launched by Lincoln to liberate slaves and accord them their democratic rights. Instead, the 14th Amendment was hijacked by railroad companies to swell their own power, and we can see the fruition of that today in the corporate state. So it is very fitting that Spielberg's movie appear at this moment in time. It has the potential to galvanize activists -- far beyond anything Spielberg was even conscious of, I'm sure.

In short, Lincoln is on the side of the angels. When the scene we've long been waiting for finally occurs on Capitol Hill, the congressmen cast their votes on the 13th Amendment in the true spirit of a Frank Capra film: each minor politician gets his moment in the sun, grown men cry, and the forces of hatred are defeated. Of course, there's also the business of the assassination to take care of, but Kushner and Spielberg deal with that in such a way it almost seems to round off Lincoln's accomplishments, as if his task list had read: free the slaves, win the war, and achieve martyrdom. 

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)

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