Lessons from 'Lincoln': Has America's Race Dynamic Changed So Much Since 1865?
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, apart from the truly astonishing performance by Daniel Day Lewis (he will win the Oscar), is the pointed similarities between the country’s racial stance and political climate then and now. Yes, here in 2012 we have just reelected our first black president, but the vicious backlash from birthers, code-switching white conservatives, and hate-speech spewing trolls of the Twitterverse before and since the votes were cast do not reflect an entirely different America from the one in 1865.
As one of the House’s opposing Democrats suggests in the film that Lincoln’s 13th Amendment to abolish slavery was intended to “Niggerate” the country, so too were there an inordinate number of tweets sent following the president’s win on Wednesday, in which he was repeatedly referred to as “that nigger” who won again.
Driven by a smart if slightly wordy screenplay by Tony Kushner, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s critically acclaimed biography, A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film focuses on the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency wherein he pushes tirelessly to pass the 13th Amendment through a divided House of Representatives before the Civil War ends. Day Lewis embodies Lincoln in a way that is thrilling to watch, and carries the narrative in an almost physical way, as he does with many of the roles he plays. But it is the cast of surrounding characters and the war’s bloody backdrop that frame the central and persistent legacy of racism in America.
In one early scene, a white man comes with his wife from Missouri to petition Lincoln about a tollbooth that’s been in their family for years. In Lincoln’s chambers, Secretary of State William Steward (played by a quietly spectacular David Straitharn) asks the man why he wouldn't want to support the 13th Amendment if it bore no impact on the war or, less directly state, his toll booth: “Niggers,” he says, with an utterly blank expression. That is all. That is why he wouldn’t support a bill to free slaves if he didn’t have to.
Kushner and Spielberg don't fuss too much about the morality of Lincoln’s decision to end slavery. In fact, there’s very little in the telling of why he feels the way he does. Plus it would likely be a bit of a buzzkill to include in the film that while Lincoln claimed to have “always hated slavery,” he did not believe in, much less fight for, immediate abolition until late in his political career. Further, although clearly a deeply conscientious and principled man, he was not beyond corruptibility—he was, after all, a politician, and a very good one at that.
If getting the bill passed meant engaging in some not-altogether-lawful behavior (another thing that hasn’t changed between then and now—politics are politics), so be it. Specifically, buying off Democrats who will need work when their terms end. Secretary Seward calls upon W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) and Robert Latham (John Hawkes) to lead the charge, which involves targeting weak and unscrupulous Dems, but not, Bilbo is quick to point out, the “Kinds that hate niggers, hates God for making Niggers. We’ve abandoned these 39 to the Devil who possesses them.”
Lincoln never directly defends or speaks on behalf of black people (slaves or free)—indeed, at one point, he tells Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), the maid of Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd (a terribly histrionic Sally Field): “I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you...I expect I’ll get used to you.” He’s making a political call for the good of the nation. It’s not personal.
But like Obama today, Lincoln’s political vision and unifying efforts while simultaneously enduring angry racist attacks, as well as character criticism from both party sides, is what made him such a powerful agent of monumental change. Even if he did not live long enough to lead the nation in Reconstruction, Lincoln did lay the foundation of equal footing for black Americans. It is a footing we are still working to make firm.
Pennsylvania Rep and lifelong anti-slavery activist Thaddeus Stevens (played by a swashbuckling Tommy Lee Jones) warns Lincoln at one point in the film about his faith in the American people: “You claim that you trust them, that you know who the people are...White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this earth’s abundance with negroes.” That remains true to a certain degree, and brought to mind Bill O’Reilly’s recent statement that the country is no longer “a traditional America,” and that non-white people “want stuff.” From 1865 to 2012, if “a traditional America” includes racism and racial inequality, we need new traditions.
Image via YouTube