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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.

20 Comments on this Post

  1. Right on. As an African American I agree completely.

  2. That moment where she came in to tell Lincoln of Mary’s breakdown was so special! So subtle and such a dignified performance from Gloria Reuben. She holds back, beautifully, and expresses so much in not showing, rather than showing. She’s perhaps the antithesis of Sally Field, yet their (mostly wordless) moments together are lovely – they play off one another marvellously.

  3. I have this crazy ‘onepercentitwillhappen’ hunch that if the Academy goes all-in for Lincoln – which is very likely at the moment – they will nominate Sally Field in lead and shock even the studio – who decided to avoid split votes and refused to campaign for her – by nominating Gloria Reuben in supporting. I KNOW, Field’s supporting campaign is very succesfull and her screentime doesn’t back up a lead nod BUT she won that category twice, one could argue that even if she isn’t THE lead, she is definitely the FEMALE lead and if there is a supporting actress contender this year whose role is prestigious enough for an upgrade, well then, that’s Mary Todd Lincoln. Again…1%. I KNOW.

  4. Spielberg naysayers (and I usually include myself in that group) love to go after him for pushing the audience instead of allowing us to discover for ourselves.

    The scene with Reubens shows just how much he has matured. He was mindful of the 19th century mindset and got his point across masterfully.

    There should be no debate in my book.

  5. sucesfull minus an ‘l’

  6. My problem with Lincoln is just that it just is not very engaging. It feels very much like being told by your mother (Spielberg) “No dessert until you eat all those vegetables!” It is all very edifying and interesting to see history well-acted, well-enacted (although not terribly well-lit) unfold before us.

    I kept on thinking…”OMG! Ending slavery was just yet another political battle!” (and this as a black man –Caribbean-American– myself who teaches about the 14th amendment)

    But that is probably what Best Picture films are about–they are not the films that were the best of their year, or the ones that will be remembered the longest, they are the pictures that Oscar decided to award best picture. That’s it.

    For me, I had more emotional resonance with Cloud Atlas and the best film I have seen this year was A Separation but of course that was in last year’s pile. For this year’s contenders I would have to go for Argo right now for the best time I’ve had at the movies watching a serious film.

    I still haven’t seen Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Silver Lining Playbook or Django Unchained.

  7. linc4jess

    Couldn’t disagree more with anyone who says “Lincoln” is not very engaging and or boring as some young people have stated. Perhaps they mean to say for THEM politics is not very engaging and they probably would be more right because from where I sat the film was a beautiful compelling engaging film with a phenomenal script by Kushner and Logan but I love political films so maybe that is why I am partial to the film and like it so much. “The Best Man”, “Advice and Consent” are two of my favorite movies. In “Lincoln” every word spoken seems to ring true and says and mean something of importance not only to those times but to today as well. Perhaps those that say Lincoln wasn’t engaging meant they were looking for more civil war battles and or action sequences and I suppose that would have made it more entertaining but not more engaging or compelling per se. I mean many people were leaving the theater with tears in the eyes. They must of have felt it. As much as I liked “Argo” that was a film that was probably more engaging because the filmmakers went out of their way to make it more entertaining and suspenseful with many facts that aren’t true in the real life drama of the event. As I research “Lincoln” more each day I find out just how close the general events as portrayed in the film are real and true. As for the African American characters being passive I don’t know what movie these people were watching because these actors all gave stately and powerful performances. IMHO.

  8. unlikely hood

    This professor reminds me of Angela Davis in her book about Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Obviously Davis did not say that these seminal blues singers were on the level of active suffragettes, but she made a strong case that they expressed a sort of proto-black feminist consciousness in myriad ways. Former Black Panther Davis is one black woman who knows the difference between engagement and passivity. Based on her book, I would cautiously say she’d agree with this take on Reuben-as-Keckley.

  9. Interesting that I came here to read this blog, after reading a blog by the African American Civil War Memorial. Apparently, they didn’t like so much that NYTimes op-ed as well…

    http://afroamcivilwar.blogspot.com.br/2012/11/the-interpretive-choice-in-spielbergs.html

  10. rufussondheim

    I can understand when someone says this film was not engaging. I don’t think they mean it wasn’t exciting or even enthralling, but that the substance wasn’t deep enough. I can’t get behind this reaction.

    Too much of the film was involved in figuring out how to turn the votes into passing the amendment and not enough of the film discussed how the change would affect the nation on a macro- and micro- level. How would people’s lives change, how would the economy of the nation change, how do we integrate former slaves into the culture and economy of the south? These are questions that would have been heavily discussed at the time and were barely addressed in the book. A fuller discussion of what they were undertaking would have been far more interesting.

    Like I’ve said before, this is a good film, but I don’t think it’s a great one. But then if he had directed the film I wanted, then no one would probably have gone to see it.

  11. I am actually starting to disregard all the criticism about Lincoln not being an engaging or compelling film. There might be something really appealing about the film because of the amount of people heading towards the theaters to see it. Its BO means anything? Not saying that every single one who saw it, loved it. But the word of mouth is proving otherwise.

    What am I missing here?

  12. rufussondheim

    What you’re missing is the concept that rational and intelligent people can have a discussion about the film that isn’t “I hated it” or “I loved it.” What you’re missing is that it’s quite possible for one to have enjoyed the film, but still find shortcomings, and that one is able to articulate these thoughts and that other people might actually enjoy reading such commentary.

  13. @ rufus

    Actually, my post was not a response to yours. Was a general comment after reading linc4jess post. If it is any consolation, I actually liked YOUR post, which I had seen after I clicked submit. Have nothing against your feelings.

    As you, I don’t find the film a perfect one. But its shortcomings are not trumping my admiration for it. This is as close as middle ground for me.

  14. —HOW could anyone be bothering with an 8th? —9th?
    Hollywood Lincoln in 2012 —and make NO MENTION of
    Lincoln’s quite possibly –FATAL– diss of the Global
    banking monopoly over the finance of the war?

    Further, Lincoln’s 11th hour alliance with Tsar Alexander II
    over this very issue probably saved his regime.

    BOTH men freed their serfs and slaves around the same moment.

    BOTH were later assasinated in circumstances that remain
    murky and unmentioned to this day.

    BEWARE. . .

  15. I’ve seen Lincoln three times so far. Each time, the audience–including kids–was completely silent, totally engaged with the film, no one getting up to go get more food, no talking, etc–just an enraptured audience each time. It’s been a very long time since I experienced that in a crowded theater, let alone three times.

    I’m sorry for those who didn’t find it engaging. I find it thrilling and can’t wait to see it again.

  16. I think some people have nailed the way I felt about the film upon first showing. I enjoyed it but not too “engaging” so to say. Don’t get me wrong, it was engaging for the most part but I put that word in quotes because I couldn’t think of a better word. I probably felt the same way a lot of critics felt when Benjamin Button first came out with all the digital photography…they said it was beautiful but they felt a little cold and detached. While I never felt cold, I did feel a bit detached. It’s just one of those cases where you see it’s a masterpiece and you know you SHOULD love everything about it and can see why everyone else does…but somehow I just didn’t. I can’t wait to watch it again though so I can try to sway my mind.

  17. Linc4Jess

    @rufussondhein….states… How would people’s lives change, how would the economy of the nation change, how do we integrate former slaves into the culture and economy of the south? These are questions that would have been heavily discussed at the time and were barely addressed in the book.

    These issues were discussed in the film and while they were barely discussed the comments made about these issues by the characters left no doubt to the viewer of what these comments meant because we already know what the outcome came to be. This is the joy that is the screenplay of this phenomenal film.

    @robert..

    I too had the same experience in the theater as you describe while viewing Lincoln. You could hear a pin drop on the quiet moments and not one viewer seem to be disengaged. Quite the opposite, they were all engaged in what they were hearing and seeing on the screen.

  18. rufussondheim

    Not sure what you’re trying to say in the second paragraph, it’s such a rambling mess of a sentence I can’t discern any definitive meaning.

    I’m sure if I could understand it, I would disagree with it, though.

  19. the other mike

    everyone sees what they see in a film, which is why its pointless debating what a film means. however, Linoln is clearly another great man theory film. I dont fault spielberg and kushner, it is their right to do whatever they want. i just get mad at the push back on anyone who deosnt fall in love with the film or has issues. its like, you must love this film or else. no. no one has to love it. the criticism of the lack of black characters to me is important. i didnt agree withthat criticsm for shows like Girls or Mad Men because those shows are fiction but this is history. this will contribute to the american consciense. and once again, its mighty whitey saving helpless negroes. that is no better than a magic negro movie.

    which is the opposite of humanity by the way. but its not spielbergs or kushners responsibility, its black peoples reponsibility to make black stories. so i dont fault spielberg for making the film, i just fault the film.

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