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Debating Lincoln, Defining History

From history professors to civil rights leaders, Spielberg’s Lincoln has become a bit of a hot-button issue, not quite on the level of hysteria Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up, but enough of a “whisper campaign” to be a threat.  This is the way it is in Oscar land, we accept that. It’s a dirty game but someone has to play it.  The complaints about Lincoln vary from historical facts to the one I think is most unfair, the notion that it has “passive black characters” in the film – one commenter I read suggested Frederick Douglass be in the film. While that would have been an interesting moment, and he’s more than a worthy subject, Lincoln is not a film that debates the rightness or wrongness of slavery. At the outset, it is a given that slavery is wrong. This was a movie about what a president had to do to overturn it, not just after the Civil War but for all time. And is usual whenever films about African Americans, or any minority, come up there is a heavy burden to tell EVERYTHING – which inevitably leads to filmmakers being too afraid to tell black stories at all, but to back off them and tell instead all white stories. This is a different kind of oppression but oppression nonetheless.

At any rate, I was glad, then, to read this Huffington Post op-ed by a history professor, who writes in defense of Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, a character most critics of the film conveniently ignore:

Gloria Reuben’s masterful portrayal of Elizabeth Keckley does not connote passivity but instead it signals a masterful portrayal of subtlety and dissemblance. Each time Reuben appeared on screen, she expressed so much in her facial expressions, gesticulations, and overall presence. She appeared in the balcony above the Congressional proceedings as astutely engaged in the debate. At one point during the contentious deliberations, a Congressman espouses racist claims, Keckley abruptly excuses herself from the crowded balcony and then deftly pauses, turns around, and then listens to the final remarks. In this brief scene, she expresses a political disagreement within the confines of what was possible for 19th century black Washingtonians in a formal political setting. In another scene, she rushes into the president’s chambers to inform Lincoln of his wife’s emotional breakdown; Lincoln’s son interrupts Keckley and asks if she was ever abused as a slave. Keckley at first avoids the questions and then manages to squeeze in a line about being violently beaten as a child. Throughout the film, Keckley does not appear as passive but as a politically conscious and intellectually astute character, who evinces more in her silence than in her speech.

Gloria Reuben’s portrayal of Elizabeth Keckley powerfully illustrates the brilliant arguments that Harvard historian Walter Johnson made in his multi-prize winning book, Soul by Soul. Johnson encouraged historians to read the subtle moments of resistance that enslaved people enacted as they stood on the action block as part of the domestic slave trade during the antebellum period. He explained that enslaved people dictated the terms of their sale by subtly modifying their body language and presentation. By revealing how enslaved people slouched, coughed, or spoke back to the buyers, Johnson demonstrated to us what Stephanie Camp in Closer to Freedom would later refer to as “acts of defiance,” subtle moments that articulated black political consciousness. Reuben’s portrayal of Keckley as a servant who says little but acts a lot embodies what cutting edge historians, like Johnson and Camp, have been arguing for over a decade.