by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
I didn’t see many Black people in the theater when I ventured off midday to watch the movie, ‘Lincoln.’
And while I must admit to paying close attention to the overwhelmingly White audience’s response during various explosive moments of the film, I was nonetheless disappointed there weren’t more Black folks in the theater to watch a movie that focuses on one of the most important political debates in American history—the defining narrative that led to the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Sure, there have been Black critics of the movie, specifically its portrayal–or lack there of– of Black people in the film. Save for an accommodating Black butler and a maid who apparently had the ear of the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, the disturbing absence of ‘Colored’ folks in ‘Lincoln’ was confusing, particularly given the fact the movie focuses on our ‘liberation.’
Particularly troublesome, in that regard, is the absence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a defining player in the drama leading up to the eventual passage of the amendment that did what the Emancipation Proclamation did not: End slavery.
Douglass’s absence would not have been too hard to fathom if the movie had told the truth about the two real life ‘servants’ who were featured. The maid, Elizabeth Keckley, was in real life a Black heroine who headed an organization that assisted runaway slaves. She also authored a book that detailed what happened behind the closed doors of the White House during Lincoln’s administration. (From what I understand, the Lincoln House was ‘G’ rated compared to the Clinton House.)
The butler, William Slade, was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a civil rights organization some called a predecessor to the NAACP. If you saw the movie, you would find that information startling given the way his character was portrayed in the movie.
‘Lincoln’ trivializes both of the Black characters, which may have been intentional because their real life views on Lincoln—aside from admiration for his successful efforts to end slavery—was thought to be closer to that of Douglass, who at various times criticized the president and declared at one point that he didn’t ‘trust him.’
Some historians also believe the movie took too many liberties (no pun intended) with the sequence of events, particularly the suggestion that Lincoln pressured his Republican colleagues to bring the vote on the 13th Amendment to the floor before a delegation of Southern politicians representing the Confederacy could reach Washington, D.C. to negotiate an end to the war.
If that is true, you have to applaud Lincoln, particularly since it was obvious the amendment would not have passed if the war ended and the Southern Democrats were back in power.
That fact notwithstanding, if you believe the film, Lincoln had the delegation’s train rerouted and detained.
And when confronted with the exposure of his actions by a Democratic Party leader in the movie, Lincoln lied his butt off, an impeachable offense.
A central point the movie highlights is Lincoln’s explanation that the 13th amendment was crucial to his agenda because his Emancipation Proclamation would not withstand court scrutiny if challenged. Lincoln acknowledges that his proclamation was prompted by military necessity, versus a moral imperative.
(If the latter were the case, the president wouldn’t have rescinded an emancipation proclamation issued by a union general two years earlier. Check out that nugget of obscure historical trivia. There’s a reason why it is not taught in high school.)
Those conflicts aside, ‘Lincoln’ is a powerful movie that touches on the religious and political attitudes toward slavery at the mid-19th century, and the paradoxical 16th president, whose inner emotional turmoil were in conflict with political and social necessities. Equally significant, ‘Lincoln’ provides a rare look at partisan politics as defined by social, religious and economic conditions a century ago.
At first glance, one could easily surmise the film took bold license with the visceral and inflammatory rhetoric espoused by politicians on both sides of the aisle. That is until you compare the movie script against some of the political realities of the last four years.
It’s hard to imagine politicians displaying the blatant disrespect and disregard for civility shown in the movie, until you scan the pages of newspapers or their online counterparts, as well as what you watch on television news over the past four years and realize President Barack Obama has been subjected to the same thing—except worse—during his first term that Lincoln experienced during his presidency.
What future historian researching the political climate of the early 21st century would believe the head of the opposition party declaring he’d rather see the country enter a depression than witness Obama’s agenda succeeding? Would that historian react with incredulity upon learning a congressman once called the president of the United States a ‘liar’ as he addressed Congress? Would future historians think we were reliving 1861 once they learned many of the same former Confederate states entertained petitions to secede from the union after Obama’s reelection last month?
Indeed, under closer scrutiny, you need but reverse parties and cast President Obama as Lincoln; switch the 13th Amendment with Obamacare, and you wouldn’t have to change the storyline of the movie too much.
As I left the theater after the movie, I felt unfulfilled and somewhat confused as to what were Lincoln’s true feelings about Black people—Negroes if you will, Negras if you must (but we hope you won’t).
There has been much debate about Abe Lincoln in the last few years. Some of that debate centers on whether he was truly the “great emancipator,” or a shrewd political operator who thought and acted on a higher plane of political concern that was rooted in a belief that America’s hypocrisy about human rights would lead to its self destruction.
From that perspective, slavery was not so much a moral fuse, but a political match, and as Lincoln stated in his famous address, ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand,’ and would eventually fall weighed down by the burden of its amoral hypocrisy.
Attesting to that latter theory, there is a line in the film in which Lincoln declares to Keckley that he doesn’t really ‘know’ Black people. The implication can be taken several ways, particularly when weighed against a common assumption that although many (probably not most) Americans of that era opposed slavery, they didn’t believe Black people were equal.
Indeed, like Thomas Jefferson and other prominent early American political leaders, Lincoln is said to have believed Black folks were intellectually inferior, which is not a prerequisite for enslavement. Believe what you will, but I strongly believe that’s a sentiment that is imbedded in many political undertakings today, among Republicans and Democrats.
I read a book by a Black Catholic priest many years ago that opined that we are wasting our time arguing against those slave owners and political leaders who claimed slavery was a institution justified by Biblical scripture.
While the premise that we are the cursed descendents of Ham is ridiculous, the fact is there is no denouncement of slavery in the Bible–in both Old and New Testaments. In truth, there are many references in the Bible recognizing, if not out right endorsing, slavery.
Thus, the author suggests the civil war was fought instead over whether America should follow the path of the Old Testament, or the New Covenant.
That seems to be consistent with Lincoln’s subscribed philosophy.
The fact Lincoln had reportedly considered transporting all of the Africans in America back to Africa as another option to end the war is never mentioned in the movie, although to do so would have guaranteed a continuation of the civil war and a collapse of the U.S. economy.
Among all American icons, Lincoln was probably the most complex and conflicted, misunderstood and misquoted. The movie deals with his inner demons and those of his wife, Mary Todd, who Lincoln strongly considered having committed to an insane asylum. The strains of his marriage and family life only added to the emotional burden he shouldered shepherding a country in the midst of a civil war that claimed over 600,000 lives.
The (un)civil war aged Lincoln; much like Iraq and the economic situation in this country today has aged Obama. The war burdened Lincoln’s soul and weighed on him as no other crisis has on a president before or since. It also challenged his political brilliance, a fact many of his foes often underestimated. Largely self-educated and ‘country,’ Lincoln was nonetheless a brilliant political tactician and strategist.
While the movie portrays him as a flawed being, it also suggests he was a man of destiny who was driven to make the words of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin more than political rhetoric.
That said, the best way to sum up the real Lincoln is to describe him as a man who did what was right, which doesn’t necessarily mean he was righteous.
Near the end of the movie, Lincoln asks Keckley what she (we) will do with the freedom he fought so hard to obtain for her (us). Surprisingly, she said she couldn’t answer the question. Which in introspect may have been a subconscious sociopolitical query inserted by the scriptwriter for reasons less than obvious.
Hours after leaving the theatre, that question smacked me in the face as I wondered how Keckley would answer that question if she were alive today. Would she see our political, economic and cultural gains as validation? Or would she, and Lincoln for that matter, feel we squandered our ‘freedom’ and the opportunities it provides us with; that many of us turned our backs on the educational opportunities that were denied us prior to 1865.
How would Keckley or Lincoln respond to the self destructive behavior so many Black people exhibit, how we have put marriage on the endangered species list, turned our backs on Biblical tenets and cheated most of our children out of fatherhood?
I doubt such thoughts went through the minds of the largely White audience at the theatre where I saw the movie. Some may have wondered as I did. Most, hopefully, would instead think about how far, or little we have traveled since the great debate of 1865. Appropriately, the movie ends with Lincoln’s inaugural address. That speech was as revealing and eye opening as the Gettysburg address.
October 16, 2014 //
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