Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley
One of the more irritating boils on the ass of this year’s Oscar season is that the moment has afforded the opportunity for all Lincoln haters, critics, truthers to the light of day. Some of the criticisms have been floating around for decades and just now bubble back to the surface. Some of the criticisms are absurd. Those criticisms come flailing at the film Lincoln like so many angry fists of children railing against the wrongs their parents done them. One of the common complaints is the absence of Frederick Douglass. People say this because they not only don’t know who Elizabeth Keckley is but don’t care to find out. In a season where the majority of the films are about men, made by men, Kushner and Spielberg put a landmark African American woman in their script.
Also dragging along behind President Lincoln (because gosh, freeing the slaves, saving the union and taking a fatal bullet in the back of the head just wasn’t enough — that underachiever) is the oft brought up “Lincoln was a racist!” accusation. While it’s true he was no abolitionist, his biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin said he became more so as his presidency wore on. Who knows how his mind would have changed if he hadn’t been killed only a month into his second term. We can’t judge all Americans in 1865 by 2012’s standards. At any rate, though in a subtle fashion (as with most of Tony Kushner’s complex script) it is all summed up so beautifully in this scene:
EXT. THE PORTICO OF THE WHITE HOUSE – A SHORT WHILE LATER
The carriage has pulled up and Mary is entering the White House. Lincoln helps Mrs. Keckley down from the carriage.
She hesitates before proceeding in. Then she faces Lincoln.
I know the vote is only four days away; I know you’re concerned. Thank you for your concern over
this, and I want you to know: They’ll approve it. God will see to it.
I don’t envy him his task. He may wish He’d chosen an instrument for His purpose more wieldy than the House of Representatives.
Then you’ll see to it.
Lincoln looks at her, considering. Then:
Are you afraid of what lies ahead? For your people? If we succeed?
White people don’t want us here.
What about you?
I…I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re …familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.
What my people are to be, I can’t say. Negroes have been fighting and dying for freedom since the first of us was a slave. I never heard any ask what freedom will bring. Freedom’s first. As for me: My son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?
Steven Spielberg is not the one to tell Frederick Douglass’ story but I hope there is a filmmaker out there who is and who will. It is one of the most powerful stories of an American hero. There are so many great stories to tell from that era about slaves and those were became free. Keckley was one of those. Hopefully the film will, at the very least, alert audiences to who she was.