Share

Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley

lincoln11

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.

  ELIZABETH KECKLEY
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.

LINCOLN
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.

ELIZABETH KECKLEY
Then you’ll see to it.

Lincoln looks at her, considering. Then:

LINCOLN
Are you afraid of what lies ahead? For your people? If we succeed?

ELIZABETH KECKLEY
White people don’t want us here.

LINCOLN
Many don’t.

ELIZABETH KECKLEY
What about you?

LINCOLN
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.

ELIZABETH KECKLEY
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.

38 Comments on this Post

  1. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I probably should watch this film again.

  2. Bryce Forestieri

    Yo LINCOLN sweep at the Oscars!

  3. I enjoyed “Lincoln” and am an admirer of Lincoln. It doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have been a better man. Some people found slavery to be morally repugnant well before the 1860’s.

  4. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    Could have been a better man??!! As I live and breathe I may have a heart attack.

  5. This was the best scene in the film, I’d say. I too wish they’d done more to include the black abolitionists and their role. I believe there is record of Douglass meeting with Lincoln twice during the period of this film. Would have been nice to see him. We didn’t get it. At least they threw a bone with Keckley though they never say who she is at all do they? I remembered thinking she must have been their maid who had a close relationship with Mary Todd. Also, the opening scene was very nice.

    There will always be wishes, especially when it comes to a movie about such an important and sensitive topic. It is still a goo film, just does a couple things I wish it didn’t.

  6. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    By the way, worth noting, many abolitionists didn’t believe in equality between black and white; they were as racist as any other – but they felt that slavery was wrong in the eyes of God and their religion led them through. Frederick Douglass, Keckley and others eventually educated whites on equality. Took a while for minds to change – hell, minds STILL haven’t changed.

  7. Tony,
    Lincoln thought slavery was morally wrong by the 1840’s or maybe even before. But he was a gradual emancipationist at first. Why? Becuase there were two pro-slavery clauses in the constitution and the south constantly threatened to secede over them. Unfortunately, his generation inherited these ugly Faustian bargains in the Constitution. To many Northerners, the Union collapsing was a terrifying concept (especially if states seceded unilaterly or through force), they thought it meant social anarchy and the unraveling of our democratic process…(just threatening to secede anytime a vote doesn’t go your way..). Unfortunately, compromises at the expense of southern slaves were made (the Missouri compromise which kept free states free and slave states not free and which enforced the fugitive slave law to appease the south) to keep the Union intact.

    I am not saying LIncoln didn’t have his racism, but he genuinely disliked slavery and might have for most of his life. some people thought the Union should fall if slavery were left intact for one more day. Other people thought the Union should be preserved and slavery eventually die through economic and political limitations placed on it (This is what Lincoln believed). some people broke the fugitive slave law because it was morally reprehensible. Other people upheld begrudgingly because it was the law and part of the Missouri Compromise (which kept Northern states free states) and an off-shoot of a slavery enabling clause of the constitution. Others wanted it reformed and softened.

    Lincoln didn’t lack racism, but many abolitionists were racists as well. Remember Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by an abolitionist. In fact, most white people were white supremacists back then. (There were exceptions obviously, but it was rare and mostly due to religious principles and upbringing. One of the only founding fathers, in fact, who thought slavery was indefensible, was Alexander Hamilton, but that’s becuase he was born in the West Indies…
    Anyhow, Lincoln always thought black people were people (not chattle), always thought that they could be self-sufficient, and never thought their rightful place was as slaves. He evoved from there more and more as he got older. He always worried about racial strife and that never went away, but he started admitting them into positions of some power (like field officers etc) and he started advocating some voting rights…and of course that, he eventually become an abolitionist.

  8. Thanks Sasha for posting that scene. Also wanted to say that Elizabeth Keckley speaking that way to the president of the US took balls. To have the ear of the president is probably even more important than attending abolitionist meetings.. We don’t see her doing those things but she spoke the truth to the man who could help make a difference. Sure, that’s not the same thing as runaway slaves joining contraband camps or the Underground Railroad, but that conversation is not insignificant. And since Lincoln did at times have similar conversations with Frederick Douglass (over equal pay and Confederates killing black P.O.W’s), obviously Lincoln occasionally had important conversations like that with black people which influenced him.

    Reading that scene again reminded me how good Kushner’s writing is.

  9. Love how passionate you are about Lincoln, Sasha!
    Are there any other movies nominated for Best Picture, though?
    You seemed extremely passionate about Amour in Cannes – would love for you to write some more about this film and how wonderful it is.

  10. Bob in Vegas

    I am staring at a great book, “Douglass and Lincoln.” Wonderful story about the two and their conflict, animosity, and grudging respect. I always thought Denzel Washington would be a great Douglass . . . what a dream duo if DDL would reprise the role as Lincoln!

    As I mentioned in the PGA post, I saw “Lincoln” for my 2nd time today, loving it even more. I was amazed at all the different stories Kushner & Spielberg were able to weave in here . . . adding Douglass may have tipped it over. But I agree, especially looking at that book, it is a great story which needs to be told. (I’m blessed to have a job where I was essentially paid to read the book and write and direct a skit about Douglass for students.)

  11. Its simple the movie is a portrayal about Lincoln, the human being trying to abolish slavery. Fredrick Douglas isn’t in here because the movie isn’t about Fredrick Douglas or the conversations Lincoln had with Douglas. I hate stating the obvious but its about Lincoln! Kushner and Spielberg had the right to portray whatever story they wanted to portray and leave out whatever characters they wanted out of the film. It’s their choice and not the critics.

    As for racism, it still exist today, but 50 years ago we threw it in the closet but its still on the hanger. We can’t get rid of it because its ugly and we can’t burn it because its inhumane, they only way we can do is fix it by cleaning up this ugly coat of hate and turning a negative into a positive.

  12. Mohammed

    Sasha, Spielberg made a film about a Lincoln from a 2012 standpoint. Making him closer to the 1860’s Lincoln would not have been as pleasent a person. He would’ve been a much more contradictory character, but not pleasent. But Spielberg did not want to make such a film, because he isn’t that kind of filmmaker. The man makes pleasent films that go down as easy as apple pie and vanilla shake.

    Spielberg is a filmmaker that can make a movie about charachters that must cross a mindfield. But instead of showing people doing unpleasent things to survive and live he’d invent a hovercraft and make the characters fly over the whole field.

    Lincoln is neither bold, nor challenging.

  13. SeattleMoviegoer

    Her story was a nice accompaniment to the main narrative. The exchange between her and Lincoln was one of those gems written by Kushner that gave the film resonance and a bit of mystery to the main character…where his feelings were a bit ambiguous about the slaves themselves–not so much the movement. With the success of this movie, i’d love to see Spike Lee take on Harriet Tubman.

  14. Robin Write

    I don’t think people really hate Lincoln. People perhaps think Spielberg is a bit preachy and political. That he does not make those magic movies anymore. Where is that adventure and those thrills? Perhaps people are bored of him. Or that they don’t find the subject matter of Lincoln compelling. Or both. But I don’t think people really hate Lincoln.

    I personally did not find it super riveting, nor was I on the edge of my seat. It is definitely not my favourite movie of the year. But I liked the movie a lot. I enjoyed looking at it like a painting, and sitting up and listening whenever Lincoln went off on a rant or tried to be funny. That was pleasing, very pleasing.

    Lincoln’s lack of a punch, excitement, heck, big battle sequences, are not faults with the movie at all…

  15. It’s very funny to see Sasha deffending Lincoln above all things. She’s like a lion mother. Kkkkkk!!!!!

  16. @Mohammed: Making movies that are hard to digest is not a quality in itself. Nor is making movies that manage to reach and touch millions in itself a guarantee for low quality of content.
    @Critics of Spielberg and Kushner’s choices on how to tell their story:
    From a filmmaking point of view, it’s all about how well you master your own choice of personal storytelling. Not wether or not everyone agrees with the choices. You might as well say you don’t like Lincoln, because you’d rather see a movie about Nixon.
    No film this year is across the board as well made and no story as well told within the conditions and artistic choices made as Lincoln.

  17. That screenplay is even better when read than heard.

  18. Josh, thanks for dumb post.

    He is overrated because there is no other director to get both artistic and commercial success like him?

  19. There is no doubt in my mind that Sasha Stone is for Lincoln! She is investing too much time, effort and energy on it! Is there bias against all other nominees the way she puts lincoln to a pedestal, I definitely say “YES”!

  20. Sasha said:

    “By the way, worth noting, many abolitionists didn’t believe in equality between black and white; they were as racist as any other – but they felt that slavery was wrong in the eyes of God and their religion led them through. Frederick Douglass, Keckley and others eventually educated whites on equality. Took a while for minds to change – hell, minds STILL haven’t changed.”

    Marie said:

    “And since Lincoln did at times have similar conversations with Frederick Douglass (over equal pay and Confederates killing black P.O.W’s), obviously Lincoln occasionally had important conversations like that with black people which influenced him.”

    This reminds me of the very first scene of the film, where two black soldiers talk with Lincoln; one more or less making small talk and the other calling Lincoln’s attention to the inequality in the army’s ranks between blacks and white. It feels like some critics are not really paying attention when watching the film. (During that scene we can even notice the difference between both black men in how they interact with Lincoln; one more “passive” and the other a little more “defiant”).

    I understand that disappointment will happen when we don’t get what we were expecting to see on the screen, but I would expect too that most would judge the film as it is, for the story which is trying to tell and not for something which is not there. The character of Frederick Douglas could have been the one, in some capacity, saying those words to Lincoln at the beginning of the film, in a more reverential way to Douglas’s name in history (a lot of people didn’t like that beginning so much either). But I don’t think the likeness of a soldier is any less important within the film’s context.

    I would love to see a film about Frederick Douglas or any other black man or woman who fought their whole lives for the right to be a free citizen in their own country. Lincoln was not this film specifically. However, to me, it accomplished what it has tried to tell.

  21. A Fredrick Douglass film has recently been green-lit by a major studio.

  22. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    There is no doubt in my mind that Sasha Stone is for Lincoln! She is investing too much time, effort and energy on it! Is there bias against all other nominees the way she puts lincoln to a pedestal, I definitely say “YES”!

    What was your first clue? I have never tried to hide my bias, RCA. I have come straight out and said it is my favorite film of the year and the one I would hope wins. Unfortunately, given that the majority of voters will probably go with their heart, Lincoln doesn’t appear to have the “passionate vote.” That means something else will probably win – Argo or Silver Linings Playbook – or even Life of Pi (which is the only film, other than Beasts of the Southern Wild an Amour that would not be disappointing if it won). Look, Lincoln needs the help. The other films have been winning shit right and left yet Lincoln has not yet won a single major award. Even though it’s made $161 million and is one of the top five best reviewed films of the year the critics can’t get behind it. The New York Times has made not one but two videos trashing it. The New York Times! So yeah, I’m biased. Doesn’t mean anything in the big picture but if it bothers you there are more Oscar sites now than there ever has been so feel free to go visit one of those. The great thing for me is that I run my own business so no one gets to tell me what to do.

  23. rufussondheim

    The above scene is indeed a great scene, and when I watched the movie it was easily the scene that jumped out and grabbed me by the balls and made me love the film (until the last 30 minutes).

    But since then, I’ve done some research, did some digging, and now this scene doesn’t hold up at all and it’s worthy of criticism.

    But, first, some background. Mary Todd Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and at some point lived in a building that was close to slave quarters. It’s believed that her strong anti-slavery positions were rooted in this experience as a child.

    Now Elizabeth Keckley is a woman who bought her way out of slavery (and her sons). A very talented seamstress, she soon was making dresses for many in Washington, at which point she became friends with Mary Todd Lincoln and worked with her full-time from March 1861 and onward.

    Now, the following takes some supposition, but personally, I don’t see how it couldn’t have happened. Surely, at some point Mrs. Lincoln must have had a conversation about Keckley’s past. I’m sure this topic was even broached on March 5th, the day after the inauguration when Keckley interviewed for the job.

    And, similarly, how could Lincoln and his wife never have a conversation about Keckley’s past? The film shows Lincoln at various points in the film talking to various “common people” – the soldiers, the telegraph operators. I just find it unfathomable that Lincoln wasn’t aware of Keckley’s past and didn’t talk to her at some point. If he didn’t, I think it’s fair to call him willfully ignorant. Keckley’s story is so inspirational, it’s hard to believe her story wasn’t celebrated within the confines of the White House.

    So now look at the conversation in the scene again. “I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re …familiar to me, as all people are… I assume I’ll get used to you.”

    He says these words to one of his wife’s best friends, to her confidante? Really? She’s been hanging around for four years at his wife’s side and he says “I don’t know you, I’ll get used to you”

    And that’s what’s one of the things that angers me about this movie, I really don’t think it’s very sincere.

  24. Robin Write

    It’s not always about passion though. Lincoln could still win because of the subject matter, the quality of acting on display, how good it looks pretty much all the way through, without it being everybody’s favourite. As for the anti-Lincoln campaign, that’s pretty weird…

  25. Unlikely hood

    Rufus he wasnt saying “i dont know you keckley” but obviously saying “i dont know you black people” (that’s why he followed it with “any of you”) but this was clearly meant in a polite fashion, really meaning “i dont presume to know coloreds” – or “who am i to predict what will become of a nation of free negroes?”

    If you want to ding Lincoln, your better case is with that quote “if i could win the war by freeing none of the slaves i would…” Etc. This convo isnt what you say it is.

  26. Jerry Grant

    What a powerful scene. What wise and deeply felt writing by Kushner. I agree with @paddy, even better when read.

  27. rufussondheim

    The notion that Lincoln wouldn’t have spoken to any black person in depth about racial equality is kind of absurd to me, unlikelyhood. The tone of this scene is that this might be the first conversation he’s had with a black person on this topic, and I don’t buy it for a second.

    Unless, of course, he spent all of that study time on Euclidean Geometry.

    I mean, c’mon, he’s in regular contact with a woman who bought her way out of slavery. You’d have to be completely incurious to not have a discussion with her about the topic. Lincoln was not an incurious man.

  28. Rufus is crazy. Haha, what are you talking about? It was a conversation about the future of freed slaves in the US. I doubt he had many conversations on that subject with common people until it was almost upon them. Lincoln was practical above all else. The scene was touching, gave voice to known doubts Lincoln had, was an overall excellent scene in an excellent movie.

  29. It’s a shame that Gloria Reuben won’t be awarded if they win the SAG. Whitey wins again.

    I always liked her because she left “ER” to go on tour singing back up for Tina Turner. :)

  30. I never was a fan of Reuben’s acting, but I did like her on ER. And, I also thought the reason for her departure was pretty awesome. What an exit. Wish they would have written it into the show somehow. LOL

  31. unlikely hood

    Rufus – meh. I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think the scene necessarily means he never asked her about her buying her way out of slavery. I just read it again. For all we know they’ve had 20 conversations about her life. But Lincoln is exhausted, and he’s just saying he wouldn’t presume to know what blacks will do with their freedom.

    I think there might be other scenes in the film that would make your case better.

  32. A wholly unmemorable scene in a 2 and half hour movie is nothing more then lip service. African American involvement was not on the sidelines or restricted to the sassy maids. Django does a better job of black empowerment, then Lincoln’s whitewashing.

  33. The film wasn’t about black empowerment, it was about a guy named Lincoln. It was fairly self-centered in that respect, but they did give you a hint with the title.

  34. rufussondheim

    Oh, yeah, definitely, unlikely hood. And I could forgive such a compression in a scene or two. So it’s only a minor quibble.

    But it’s part of the larger one I’ve described before. Spielberg ducks some big issues to make the film more digestible for the masses. It’s a film about ideas, to be sure, but the ideas are pretty straightforward and not that exciting.

  35. I don’t think I ever see the same film most of you all see. I think when people are discussing the ideas in Lincoln (big or little), they are discussing quite different ones than the one I saw.

  36. Speaking of historical inaccuracies, the glaring one at the beginning of Django when they said the year was 2 years before the Civil War put me off from the getgo. I spent at least the first 5 minutes trying to decide why no one had access to wiki, or a 6th grade history education.

  37. Alexander

    Thank you very much for posting this, Sasha.

    I’ve seen this film four times now and this is the one scene that always makes me choke up a little bit. Especially the final words uttered by Elizabeth.

Leave a Comment