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Score One For Lincoln

[ 76 ] December 4, 2012 |

I know I need to see it before I blog about it again, but since we’re not talking aesthetics I might as well discuss this now. Coates is right that to the extent that it doesn’t engage in any lies about what the Civil War was about, it’s a pop culture advance:

The implicit message of Lincoln (the necessity of political compromise) isn’t very radical. But when you consider the film, as a whole, against the backdrop of how America has handled the Civil War in popular culture, it is shockingly radical.

It may seem ordinary to those of who study the War to feature the USCT. Their role is simply a fact of history. But this is decidedly not the history presented in Birth Of A Nation, in Gone With The Wind, in Hell on Wheels, in Ride With The Devil.

Lincoln says the Civil War is about slavery. Full Stop. No mealy-mouthed “brother against brother” nonsense. No vague whining about tragedy. Slavery is the tragedy. No homilies to states rights. The right at stake is the right to enslave. And the black people doing the killing and dying are not confused. Nor are the authors of the Confederacy. I have never seen these facts—basic history though they may—stated so forthrightly, without apology, in the sphere of mass popular culture.

It seems to me that other big middlebrow Civil War event of the last 20 years — Ken Burns’s documentary — does the opposite. It’s better about emphasizing the agency of the slaves in their emancipation than Lincoln is by all accounts. But particularly because of the major role given to Shelby Foote, there’s also way too much space given over to “states’ rights” and other bullshit evasions of the reason the South seceded.

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  1. Cody says:

    To be fair, “States’ Rights” and other bullshit arguments are extremely prevalent in Republican policy right now to justify bad things.

    The media seems to be willing to give a lot of leeway to these. Anything calling them out in any form is worth praise!

  2. rea says:

    because of the major role given to Shelby Foote, there’s also way too much space given over to “states’ rights” and other bullshit evasions of the reason the South seceded

    I don’t remember any of that in Foote, who really doesn’t spend much time on the causes of the war (it’s a narrative of the war, not a cause and origins analysis).

    • Richard says:

      I agree. Foote talks about the fighting of the war, the persons involved and the tragedy of any war that kills 600,000 persons. He doesn’t pontificate on the reasons for the war as far as I can recall.

      The portions of the Burns documentary that do talk about the reasons make it pretty clear that the reason there was a war was slavery but Burns was more interested in telling the story of the war and its impact on the people who fought it or were affected by it.

      As far as the agency of the slaves in their anticipation, the documentary was much better because it had a lot of time to devote to this (and anything else Burns wanted to cover). The movie, on the other hand was limited by the running time of a feature movie and was a scripted plot. It would have been hard, if not impossible, to include a believable subplot illustrating the agency of the slaves

      • c u n d gulag says:

        I agree, I didn’t think Foote did anything but provide some narrative about the people involved in the war.
        His history of the Civil War is one of the best (3) history books I’ve ever read – and I’ve read a lot of history. What he lacks in Catton’s details, he more than makes up with his ability to tell a story.
        Except the battle for Texas, where it dragged – at least for me.

    • ploeg says:

      Foote dealt with the question about why a southerner who didn’t have slaves would fight for the Confederacy by quoting a soldier: “We’re fighting ’cause you’re down here.” Which is a tad flip, but is certainly part of the conglomeration of reasons why a Confederate would fight (in addition to maintaining white supremacy and satisfying the desire to “see the elephant” and participate in the greatest historical event in American history). But one must distinguish personal reasons from causes, and Burns dealt very clearly with slavery as the cause of the Civil War at the beginning of the series.

      The flaw of the Civil War was the sentimentalization of the battles and the postwar relations between white Northerners and Southerners, to the point where, at the end, Shelby Foote could relate a story about a veteran who wished that North and South could re-fight battles over and over in heaven, and then all the dead and wounded could get up, dust themselves off, and have dinner together afterwards. The sentimentalization of the war does a lot to make people forget about the history that the series covers.

      • charles pierce says:

        I gotta go with the consensus here, and I remember similar arguments about Foote’s role at the time the series originally aired. You can hardly pin it on Burns, who has made race central not only to his Civil War series, but to Baseball and Jazz, as well. I thought of Foote as kind of filling in the humanity between the battle maps. I would have liked to have seen less of him than of, say, Barbara Fields or Stephen Oates, but I don’t see him as an apologist of any kind.

        • Richard says:

          Burns is probably the last person to be accused of ignoring slavery and race. His newest film, out soon, is an exploration of the Central Park jogging case, he’s doing a documentary on Jackie Robinson and also one on country music (where the question of race and country music will be seriously examined)

      • Decrease Mather says:

        That documentary is loaded with Civil War Poetry. Not literal poetry, but all kinds of flowing words about hallowed ground of batlefields and whatnot. Like Baseball Poetry, only worse.

      • rea says:

        Foote dealt with the question about why a southerner who didn’t have slaves would fight for the Confederacy by quoting a soldier: “We’re fighting ’cause you’re down here.”

        Note, though, that there is a big diffeence betweeen what motivated individual Confederates to fight, and what was the cause of the war.

        • greylocks says:

          Maybe, but a lot of non-slave-holding southerner were motivated at least in part by racial fears. “You’re down here” has a subtext of “…trying to make the n*****s our masters.”

      • jefft452 says:

        “Foote dealt with the question about why a southerner who didn’t have slaves would fight for the Confederacy by quoting a soldier:”

        How about “because they sent me a draft notice and I just watched them hang draft evaders on the town green”

        Foote droned on at length in Burns’ documentary on how the valiant southron flocked to the colors, and how “you couldn’t hire a substitute in the south – the southern women wouldn’t allow it”
        Ignoring the fact that the CSA started conscription in the first months of the war (when the Federal army was still volunteer”
        And dodging the draft was easy – if you were an overseer or slavecatcher – if you were “a southerner who didn’t have slaves” not so much

        • The Dark Avenger says:

          One of my ancestors deserted from the Texas Rifles 2 weeks after he had been in arrears of pay, it’s the first documented instance of intelligence in my family.

    • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

      On a related tangent, in Tony Horwitz’ Confederates In The Attic, he interviews Foote:

      Many Southerners I’d spoken to felt betrayed by Foote’s appearance in the Burns series, which diehards regarded as wicked Northern propaganda. Foote disagreed, though he did feel “there is some justice to the claim that slavery was overemphasized.” To Foote, the Confederacy’s avowed commitment to states’ rights wasn’t simply a fig leaf defense of slavery. “It’s ridiculous now to talk about the right to secede; it was not ridiculous in 1861,” he said. “Not one of those thirteen colonies would have joined the Union if they hadn’t believed they could get out of it.”

      If I’m not mistaken, I believe Scott recently pointed out that this flies in the face directly with the wording of the very documents that the colonies signed to create the Union in perpetuity.

      He also discusses fighting for the South:

      His great-grandfather had opposed secession but fought without reservation for the South. “Just as I would have,” Foote said. “I’d be with my people, right or wrong. If I was against slavery, I’d still be with the South. I’m a man, my society needs me, here I am.”

      So perhaps TNC is confusing statements of Foote from other sources. I read about 3/4′s of Foote’s first volume, and I don’t remember much about slavery either.

      • adolphus says:

        I think the relevant Foote reference is by our host, not TNC. Least it falls outside the block quotes.

      • One of the Blue says:

        Just for what it’s worth I’m in possession of a copy of a letter from my great grandfather, who wore a blue suit in the war, where he describes the aftermath of his first battle, in western Kentucky.

        One of the guys his unit captured, was a Kentuckian who opposed secession. He told the union soldiers he was grateful to have been captured because his confederate fellow-soldiers were getting ready to string him up for opposing their “cause.”

        The Kentuckian was offered the option of joining the union army and chose to do so. The letter goes on to say he fought heroically and was killed in action a few months later.

        There was an awful lot of very under-reported coercion on the confederate side.

  3. Joe says:

    I haven’t see the movie yet but a teacher I know showed a bit of the Burns documentary to her students and they were bored out of their minds.

    Hey, I liked the documentary though it isn’t you know perfect or anything. Kids today.

    Anyway, why not wait until you watch to film before you comment about what it does?

  4. Complaining that a film titled “Lincoln,” which revolves around the character of Abraham Lincoln, foregrounds the role of Abraham Lincoln in events seems a bit precious. There are many things one can talk about in regards to the Civil War.

    Similarly, noting that something called “The Civil War” spends more time on the role of black soldiers and escaped slaves in the Civil War than does a movie titled “Lincoln” strikes me as an apples and oranges comparison. Of course it does.

    • That’s not the knock against it. The knock against it is that it

      - treats public opinion as an important force that both sides fighting over the 13th Amendment had to reckon with while ignoring how blacks helped shape that force to allow the Amendment to pass

      - portrays the mechanisms of racial justice as a matter of whites becoming more moral instead of allowing blacks to acquire political economic power

      - buys whole hog into Dunning school “The North provoked the South’s civil rights atrocities after the war with heavy-handed reconstruction programs” silliness

      In short, it makes specific choices to render the political agency of blacks invisible, unnecessary and undesirable.

      In the cultural context the movie exists, eg coming only a few weeks after Bill O’Reilly declared that “there is no traditional America anymore” because the minority composition of the electorate increased a few percentage points, this is . . . problematic.

      • Richard says:

        Did you see the movie? Because that is not the movie I saw. You’re making this stuff up out of whole cloth, especially the claim about Reconstruction.

        • UserGoogol says:

          Yeah, Tony Kushner as a person seems to buy into that theory to some extent, but he didn’t write it into his screenplay.

          • Richard says:

            He may buy into it but it fucking isn’t in the movie. The movie ends with Lincoln’s death – you know, before Reconstruction – and there is nothing in the movie about what was done during Reconstruction and what the response of the South was to that (much less buying the argument that atrocities were provoked).

          • When Lincoln meets with the delegation from the South, I think it’s Jackie Earle Haley who gives a nice little soliloquy as Vice President of the Confederacy about how if the North is too heavy-handed in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Amendment’s passage it will inevitably cause enormous resentment and very heavily implies that there will be violence and retribution against blacks because of it.

            That’s pretty Dunning, idn’t it?

            It’s worth noting that Kushner has stated this is what he in fact believes history to show.

            Also, the logic of the movie almost requires it. Lincoln can’t be the pragmatic hero who saves the country from the radical Republicans unless their program will result in harm. The movie gives Lincoln’s death more poignancy because in his absence that naive program gets enacted, at a terribly heavy cost. That’s the point of the Jackie Earle Haley speech. And it doesn’t work without a Dunning view of Reconstruction.

            • Richard says:

              You read much more into that little speech than what is said. I would like to see a transcript because I recall very little about “post war treatment” of the South or threats of future violence toward blacks. And as I saw it, the movie was NOT about the pragmatic Lincoln who saves the country from the Radical Republicans. It was about the pragmatic Lincoln who has do do whatever is needed to get the Amendment passed and slavery abolished. I did not see anything there as a warning about the evils of radical Reconstruction or anything that sets up Lincoln as the person with a post-war policy that would prevent what we know actually happened. And I certainly don’t see that the logic of the movie requires that Lincoln’s death be more poignant because we know that the Radical Republicans are going to triumph and bad things will happen. Thats not in the movie.

              And Kushner’s private views on Reconstruction really don’t matter. He was hired to write a script which Spielberg filmed. Spielberg didn’t film Kushner’s private views.

              And are you still claiming that Kushner and Spielberg are brothers with O’Reilly in presenting something that can be considered as an attack on untraditional America? Or do you realize that this claim is somewhat farcical?

            • UserGoogol says:

              I really didn’t interpret the overall logic of the movie to be “Lincoln saving America from the Radical Republicans.” The movie didn’t (as far as I could see) take the stance that the Radical Republicans were bad, but that they had to suck it up and work with Lincoln on this particular issue. Thaddeus Stephens was the main voice of the Radical Republicans throughout the movie and he was quite solidly depicted as a good guy. The need for compromise was a major theme, but the Radical Republicans weren’t necessarily the opponents to need.

              And as for Jackie Earl Haley’s speech, the Vice President of the Confederacy seems like a character who should be treated as somewhat unreliable. Of course he’d say that, he was there to try to negotiate on behalf of the Confederacy.

              Also, MAJeff’s post seems extremely relevant.

              • (First: sorry for derailing)

                I think it’s fair to characterize the movie’s radical Republicans as well-meaning but naive, and that the stance of the movie is that their preferred course of moralistic political maneuvers wouldn’t enact the goals they seek. That’s in line with my interpretation of the JEH speech.

                Speaking of: here’s the shooting script (google doc). Page 117. At the very very least the movie gives voice to Confederate fears that something like Dunning’s narrative will happen. And Lincoln gives a nod in assent.

                That speech is shot absolutely straight: the camera zooms into JEH’s face, the music becomes wistful and mournful, and the next shot is Lincoln’s nod.

                Even without the context of the rest of the movie it’s pretty clear what’s intended. Combined with a Lincoln who curbs the well-meaning naivete of the radical Republicans, it’s hard to see another interpretation of what that scene is doing.

                Kushner says all the right abstract dismissals in that MAJeff link but there are still some bizarre specifics in there, like the insistence that private Southern burial societies were formed in response to the North funding efforts to locate and bury Northern soldiers, which gets it exactly the wrong way ’round, and the use of terms like “the North’s failure to pursue Lincoln’s charitable vision of reconstruction”. That’s a little incongruous with his flat denunciation of treating the North’s ignominious behavior toward the South as responsible for what happened.

                But Richard’s right in saying that Kushner’s personal views are ultimately beside the point, and what matters is what’s in the movie.

                Stevens is indeed portrayed as a good guy, and he takes heat from his fellow radicals for flipflopping at a critical moment to keep the Amendment viable. He’s won over to Lincoln’s way of doing things over the radicals’.

                Richard, artists of all outlooks are shaped by their times, and pointing out their use of decades old cultural tropes is not equating them with the same views/outlook as people who use those tropes in different arenas for different ends. I’ve done more than my fair share of derailing, so hopefully the thoughts I’ve laid out here make that more clear.

      • jeer9 says:

        The idea that a film about oppression must frame the ordeal from the perspective of the oppressed rather than from the awakening of the oppressor(s) to the consciousness of the harm they are inflicting or it is deeply flawed work remains … problematic.

        • Everything after the must is reading things into what I’m arguing that aren’t there.

          Provide just a bit of exposition or acknowledgement that blacks helped shape the political environment for the Amendment’s passage.

          Change the culmination of the House’s passage by taking out the rep who references his brother’s death to eliminate the “this racist cannot overcome his prejudice so votes against, but this racist is swayed by moral rightness so votes for” dynamic. Change conversations Lincoln has, especially with Elizabeth Keckley, so they don’t argue that “progress rests on white people changing their moral outlook”.

          Change the Vice President of the Confederacy’s speech at the end so that it’s not endorsing Dunning.

          Basically the same movie, but these problems are mitigated.

          • jeer9 says:

            Fair enough. It’s hardly a flawless film. The viewpoint I’m criticizing seems more Robin’s than yours.

          • I don’t get that last bit. Alexander Stephens was a racist, through and through; expressing any other sentiment would be to whitewash him. The way I read his speech was that the key line was: “we won’t know who we are,” that the war really was about slavery, that white supremacy and not inependence was the Confederate cause.

            • In context the conversation goes:

              Confederate Secretary of State blustering about arrogant and humiliating demands of conquerors.

              Seward’s reassurance that the confederates will have rights and live in a nation of laws under the Constitution.

              And Stephens replies with

              Which now extinguishes slavery. And with it our economy. All our laws will be determined by a Congress of vengeful Yankees, all our rights’ll be subject to a Supreme Court benched by Black Republican radicals. All our traditions will be obliterated. We won’t know ourselves anymore.

              There’s a bit of ‘bemoaning the loss of slavery’ in there which fits your argument, but it seems like there’s at least as much ‘the heavy hand of a Yankee federal government will make us incredibly resentful and who knows what will happen’. And in response Lincoln gives a nod.

              There’s a slim basis to think that the movie is making Stephens out to be hyperbolic and paranoid based on his specification of ‘Black’ Republican radicals, and so the speech could be thought of as something like an example of political mistrust and fear the rest of the movie is about.

              But that interpretation rests on the thinnest reed of a single word, and the other reasons Stephens gives for fearing the future are independent of his use of that word.

              (Just fyi in a comment above I posted a link to the shooting script, as well as a link that fleshes out the arguments you had expressed skepticism about in a comment below).

          • Provide just a bit of exposition or acknowledgement that blacks helped shape the political environment for the Amendment’s passage….Change conversations Lincoln has, especially with Elizabeth Keckley, so they don’t argue that “progress rests on white people changing their moral outlook”.

            OK, I give up: what is the difference between the terms I bolded?

            Change the culmination of the House’s passage by taking out the rep who references his brother’s death to eliminate the “this racist cannot overcome his prejudice so votes against, but this racist is swayed by moral rightness so votes for” dynamic.

            Why? Did that not happen?

            Why is the topic of the Unionist political class’s progress on the issue of slavery during the war something we’re not allowed to talk about?

            • My earlier link is likely to be more satisfactory than I’m able to be here. But I’ll try answering anyway:

              1) “Moral outlook” helps constitute the “political environment” but there is a great deal more besides “moral outlook” that constitutes “political environment”. Like, obviously, right? The film takes very seriously things like political timing and public opinion w/r/t the 13th Amendment, things which were in fact affected by the actions of Blacks in both the North and South. But those actions and their effects are absent from the film.

              2) Talk about anything you like. I’m not wearing a PC police badge here. A different movie could include the exact same legislature scenes and not be problematic.

              But this specific movie has a problem with black political agency. Ignoring black political action, as above, is part of that. Another part is the enormous importance this movie places on the soul-searching of whites as a mechanism of political change. The link between the two concepts – diminishing black political agency and putting enormous importance on the soul-searching of whites as a mechanism of change – is present in dozens of pieces of entertainment and is a trope literally decades old.

              It’s not that the film contains any specific scene or concept or portrayal. It’s that it ignores black contributions to political timing and public opinion while putting enormous importance on white soul-searching while the movie expresses Dunning-esque concerns about the effects of the heavy hand of federal intervention in Reconstruction. They all re-enforce each other and make things more problematic than if the movie only did one of them.

          • John says:

            Isn’t the first part what the opening scenes, with the black soldiers, are supposed to do?

            And, Jesus Christ, you’re objecting to Alexander Stephens reflecting the Dunning School?

            • Do those opening scenes reflect how black soldiers affected the passage of the amendment? There’s a fair amount going on in them but I don’t think that’s part of it.

              The film shoots Stephens like an ominous prophet when he voices Dunning-esque concerns. And Lincoln nods at them. At several earlier points in the movie in little asides he scoffs at radical Republican plans for reconstruction. It’s not that it’s Stephens reflecting a Dunning narrative, it’s that the film agrees with him.

      • That’s not really an accurate knock, save in the first bullet.

      • Marek says:

        I’m confident it didn’t do the second and third things you list, and I’d have to watch it again to evaluate the first. When did the movie, which essentially ended with (spoiler alert!) Lincoln’s assassination, deal meaningfully with reconstruction?

        Do you really think that Bill O’Reilly and the makers of the film are on the same page about race in America?

      • Richard says:

        And you are aware, aren’t you, that the movie was finished months and months before O’Reilly’s comment and that both Kushner and Spielberg, unlike O’Reilly, were supporers of Obama and big supporters of an untraditional America?

        • These cultural trends have been in place for decades. O’Reilly is just an easy recent example that makes it clear how these tropes are dangerous. Fer instance the “for racial equality to happen whites just need to look into themselves and do the moral thing, gosh darn it” trope has been prevalent for a generation at least.

          And for pete’s sake just because someone supports a particular political program doesn’t mean they can’t make art that uses a blinkered view of cultural tropes or of history that is detrimental to that program.

          • Richard says:

            We saw something very different in the movie. I didn’t see it at all as espousing the view that things will just be all right if whites start doing the moral thing. That, IMHO, is not what the movie was about. (Although the elimination of slavery was, of course, necessary (in the absence of a Haiti type revolt)in order to allow blacks to acquire political or economic power)

  5. JoyfulA says:

    I’ve been reading about the Texas Revolution. It seems that Mexico had abolished slavery.

    Why did I not know this before?

    • Murc says:

      Most of the good people of Texas would, because they are, indeed, good people, prefer to either forget or downplay the fact that their state seceded TWICE in order to continue the practice of slavery.

      The ones who are actually proud of that fact… well.

    • M. Eric Gourmand says:

      The remedying of this wide-spread ignorance is a central part of John Sayles’s _Lone Star_

      • witless chum says:

        Teacher:
        We’re just trying to give our students a balanced portrayal.

        Angry white woman:
        And that’s what’s got to stop!

        That scene always cracks me up on multiple levels. Sayles casting himself as a nativist reactionary suggests he’s got a little sense of humor about it, too.

    • Joe says:

      Molly Ivins had a witty bit on this little fact.

    • Cody says:

      I assume it fit so well into your prejudice about Texas that you just assumed it couldn’t be true.

      Alas,
      the state is(was?) that messed up.

  6. calling all toasters says:

    I know I need to see it before I blog about it again

    …and this is why awareness of all internet traditions is no longer proudly trumpeted from the masthead.

  7. jeer9 says:

    You can criticize quite a bit about Lincoln but, as regards the lying, it sure ain’t Mississippi Burning or Forrest Gump.

  8. So I was talking about this with a friend recently, and we came to a point that I think is important and hasn’t really been brought up before. What Lincoln is ultimately about is not the practical end of slavery – as people have noted, slavery was already practically dead, having been killed by escaping slaves and the Union army – but rather about white America coming to terms with what that was going to mean about themselves and their country.

    A huge through-line of the movie is white people trying to come to terms with what it means to be in an America where black people are not slaves: Thaddeus Stevens’ moral compromise in the movie is to insist in equality before the law only, Lincoln admits that he’s not used to living with black people, emigration is mentioned by Benton I think, there’s the scene where Alexander Stephens says bluntly that southern whites won’t know who they are if black people become citizens, and so forth.

    And this fight within white America had huge consequences at that moment in time that had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with governance. An all-white Congress and all-white state legislatures pushed through a constitutional amendment that gave Congress the power to enforce the abolition of slavery. Those powers were used to strike down Black Codes, and to empower the Freedman’s Bureau to rewrite labor contracts that tried to re-inscribe the cultural and economic markers of slavery.

    And nothing about this was inevitable or even likely to happen – in 1862, white America had dealt the Republican Party a nasty electoral blow for supporting the Emancipation Proclamation; in 1864, there were long stretches where white America seemed poise to elect a peace Democrat who wanted to end the war without ending slavery; in 1866, the President of the United States and the Democratic Party campaigned on the explicit premise that the 14th amendment should be rejected and that America should be a white people’s nation.

    • JRoth says:

      I think this captures a fundamental theme of the movie – whites scaring each other with (completely accurate) tales of the unintended consequences of the 13th Amendment. And not once is the audience supposed to sympathize with the scared.

      I tend to think that left complainers about the movie are protesting too much. Obviously it’s flawed, like virtually all pieces of art, but there’s a desperate need to prove one’s superiority by identifying flaws as fatal – “if only Kushner and Spielberg were as enlightened as I, they would have made a far superior film…”.

      • jeer9 says:

        Spielberg also seems pigeonholed as a very talented, if terminally adolescent middlebrow artist whose films tend to be mostly superficial treatments of their subject matter (when he’s actually trying to do something more than entertain), and it seems to really bother a number of critics when he produces something of substance like a Lincoln or Schindler’s List which then must be taken down to size. (And as mainstream and absurd as Jaws may be, I cannot turn that film off if it’s playing on TV. The irony and humor are much more gripping than the damn shark.)

  9. DrDick says:

    I am only surprised that we have not heard screams of “communistical revisionist history” from greater wingnuttia yet.

  10. Jesse Levine says:

    My son majored in history at a good southern university in the ’80s. Some of his professors were quite open about teaching the “War of Northern Aggression” in a way favorable to the slavers.

  11. Bruce Vail says:

    I saw the movie and came away with mixed feelings.

    The US Colored Troops (USCT) are not really “featured” in the film but black soldiers are props in one of the best scenes in the movie. The scene gave me chills, and may be the best single scene in the movie.

  12. Bruce Vail says:

    I saw the movie and came away with mixed feelings.

    US Colored Troops (USCT) are not really “featured” in the film but black soldiers are props in one of the best scenes in the movie. The scene gave me chills, and may be the best single scene in the movie.

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