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Screenwriter Tony Kushner Responds to Congressman


The Carpetbagger has done the reporting no one else cared to do  on this story (leave it to the NY Times, that’s why I pay $20 a month to keep them around) about Congressman Joe Courtney’s “before the Oscars” plea — this year, everyone wants to tell the Academy what to do – to write their individual wrongs, whether it’s Ed Asner and Martin Sheen, or this guy.  Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner responded:

Rep. Courtney is correct that the four members of the Connecticut delegation voted for the amendment. We changed two of the delegation’s votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them. In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House. These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the 13th Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote. The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is. I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.

I’m proud that Lincoln’s fidelity to and illumination of history has been commended by many Lincoln scholars. But I respectfully disagree with the congressman’s contention that accuracy in every detail is “paramount” in a work of historical drama. Accuracy is paramount in every detail of a work of history. Here’s my rule: Ask yourself, “Did this thing happen?” If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, “Did this thing happen precisely this way?” If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama. The 13th Amendment passed by a two-vote margin in the House in January 1865 because President Lincoln decided to push it through, using persuasion and patronage to switch the votes of lame-duck Democrats, all the while fending off a serious offer to negotiate peace from the South. None of the key moments of that story — the overarching story our film tells — are altered. Beyond that, if the distinction between history and historical fiction doesn’t matter, I don’t understand why anyone bothers with historical fiction at all.

I’m sad to learn that Representative Courtney feels Connecticut has been defamed. It hasn’t been. The people of Connecticut made the same terrible sacrifices as every other state in the Union, but the state’s political landscape was a complicated affair. The congressman is incorrect in saying that the state was “solidly” pro-Lincoln. Lincoln received 51.4 percent of the Connecticut vote in the 1864 election, the same kind of narrow support he received in New York and New Jersey. As Connecticut Civil War historian Matthew Warshauer has pointed out, “The broader context of Connecticut’s history doesn’t reflect what Courtney had said in his letter. The point is we weren’t unified against slavery.” We didn’t dig into this tangled regional history in Lincoln because a feature-length dramatic film obviously cannot accommodate the story of every state, and more to the point, because that’s not what the movie was about.

I’m sorry if anyone in Connecticut felt insulted by these 15 seconds of the movie, although issuing a Congressional press release startlingly headlined “Before The Oscars …” seems a rather flamboyant way to make that known. I’m deeply heartened that the vast majority of moviegoers seem to have understood that this is a dramatic film and not an attack on their home state.