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Which film about the abolition of slavery was intended to burnish the reputation of a contemporary President? If you answered that it was Spielberg’s lavishly praised “Lincoln”, you were right. When asked in a November 15th NPR interview whether he saw parallels with the Obama administration, screenwriter Tony Kushner replied:
I think Obama is a great president and I feel that there is immense potential now for building – rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it. And I think that it faces many obstacles, and one of its obstacles is an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people, with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.
But you would have also been right if you guessed “Amazing Grace”, the 2007 biopic about William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who opposed slavery. Its producer Philip Anschutz, the rightwing billionaire who also recently unleashed the toxic defense of charter schools “Won’t Back Down”, clearly intended to promote the agenda of the Christian right and the Bush administration it supported. By turning the abolitionist movement in Britain into a Church-based enterprise, Anschutz sought to legitimize new missionary operations in Africa all too familiar to people with painful memories of the bible and the gun.
The paternalism embodied in both screenplays transcends narrow party affiliations. It is wrapped up in the idea that “good people” on high delivered Black people from their oppression. The chief difference between the two films is Kushner’s decision to eschew hagiography and portray Lincoln as a kind of down-and-dirty dealmaker. This Lincoln had more in common in fact with LBJ than Barack Obama whose pugnaciousness is most often directed at his voting base rather than the billionaires who financed his campaign.
Conservative pundit David Brooks told New York Times readers on November 22nd that this is what “politics” is all about:
To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.
Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir not only embraces the idea that “legalistic games” must be played; he goes one step further and likens Lincoln’s maneuvers to Obama’s use of a secret “Kill List”:
Like many other people, I’m profoundly disturbed by the way the last two presidents have employed extra-constitutional authority to send purported terrorists to secret prisons, and to order the killing of both foreign civilians and American citizens who aren’t enemy combatants in any ordinary sense. But as “Lincoln” makes clear, in practice, we have entrusted our presidents with the power to violate the law on our behalf for most of our history.
Well, of course. Deploying Predator Drones against wedding parties and freeing the slaves—what’s the difference?
A counter-attack has been emerging against this interpretation. Eric Foner, a leading civil war historian of the left, wrote a letter to the N.Y. Times on November 27th taking issue with Brooks. He reminded its readers that emancipation was as much a product of struggle from below as horse-trading in Congress:
The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Moreover, from the beginning of the Civil War, by escaping to Union lines, blacks forced the fate of slavery onto the national political agenda.
His letter was in line with an op-ed piece by historian Kate Masur that appeared in the November 12th NYT:
But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.
Like a speck of sand whose irritating qualities can generate an oyster’s pearl, Spielberg’s film might ultimately do some good by stimulating left scholars—both paid and unpaid—into taking a new look at the civil war.
It is likely that Kushner anticipated criticisms from the left and made sure to include a scene of Black soldiers imploring Lincoln to meet their demands for freedom at the beginning of the film. Once this ass-covering business was out of the way, he could go on to what he saw as the far more interesting scenes of Congressmen wrangling with Lincoln over what perks could be received in exchange for a vote for the 13th Amendment—something that to me was equivalent to watching CSPAN with a bad hangover.
The real story of Black soldiers deserves to be told in all its rich detail and all the more so without the paternalism of the 1989 “Glory” that starred Matthew Broderick as the aristocratic Col. Robert Gould Shaw leading a company of bumbling ex-slaves.
According to Guyora Binder, the author of “Did the Slaves Author the Thirteenth Amendment? An Essay in Redemptive History” (Yale Journal of Law & Humanities, Vol. 5, 1993), the Black soldier did a bit more than imploring:
[O]nce the war was won, the presence of a large number of blacks under arms continued to exert pressure on federal policy. Black soldiers were willing to remain mobilized longer than whites and hence played a greater role in maintaining the military occupation of the South after the Civil War. By constituting a substantial portion—in many areas the bulk—of the occupation army, blacks were suddenly in a position to influence the terms of the peace. This was a situation that Northern and Southern whites alike found acutely uncomfortable, impelling efforts to speed the demobilization of black troops: “In addition to charges of incompetence and insubordination, Union generals charged that black troops were hostile and insulting to Southern whites, threatening to white women, and encouraged militancy and insolence among civilian blacks.” Mary Frances Berry has argued that the quickest way literally to pacify these armed guardians of black liberty was to constitutionalize emancipation by passing the Thirteenth Amendment.
One can be relieved that Tony Kushner decided not to depict such “hostile and insulting” black troops since the film would have been a lot closer in spirit to “Gone With the Wind” given his rather shocking remarks to the NPR interviewer:
I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of the war was a very, very smart thing, and it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn’t take him literally after he was murdered, the inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way without any question was one of the causes of a kind of resentment and the perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote/unquote “noble cause” and the rise of the Klan and Southern self protection societies and so on. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe and led – helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.
For Tony Kushner’s information, the North did “reconcile” with the South in 1877, when Federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the Klan was given a free rein to terrorize Black people. The notion of an “abused” South is rather obscene given the reality of lynching, prison chain gangs, and all the rest.
With respect to Black soldiers and emancipation, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. By 1864, when the 13th Amendment was being drafted, the South itself was ready to abolish slavery and draft the ex-slaves on behalf of the secessionist cause. James McPherson’s magisterial “Battle Cry of Freedom” reports the following:
Robert E. Lee’s opinion would have a decisive influence. For months rumors had circulated that he favored arming the slaves. Lee had indeed expressed his private opinion that “we should employ them without delay [even] at the risk which may be produced upon our social institutions.” On February 18 he broke his public silence with a letter to the congressional sponsor of a Negro soldier bill. This measure was “not only expedient but necessary,” wrote Lee. “The negroes, under proper circumstances, will make efficient soldiers. I think we could at least do as well with them as the enemy… Those who are employed should be freed. It would be neither just nor wise … to require them to serve as slaves.”
In other words, Robert E. Lee advocated the same exact policy as contained in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln saw the Black soldier as means to an end: preserving the union. For his part, Lee saw them as a means as well: to preserve the confederacy. Black rights were never considered as an end in themselves.
From what I have observed on the Internet, Kushner’s defenders have begun to rally around a talking point, namely that he chose to tell a story about the passage of legislation that did not directly involve Blacks. Since they were not members of the House of Representatives, who could blame him or Spielberg for leaving them out? To fully comprehend how ludicrous this argument is, we can move forward in history to imagine a film about LBJ’s pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that included not a single important Black civil rights leader: no Martin Luther King Jr., no Bayard Rustin, no Stokely Carmichael, no Andrew Young. People would scream bloody murder. How could you leave them out?
It is easier for Kushner to get away with this sleight of hand by referring to historical events a century earlier about which Americans have little knowledge. Most assume that Lincoln “freed the slaves” and know nothing about the likes of Frederick Douglass. If you refer to a “Radical Republican”, the average American of today would think you were referring to Rush Limbaugh rather than Thaddeus Stevens.
Speaking of which, one of the biggest travesties of “Lincoln” is the way that Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is represented. He is an irascible cartoon figure akin to Yosemite Sam who when given the floor in the House is more likely to call a Democrat a “nincompoop” than make the case for Black equality. Of course, since the proposal of the Thirteenth Amendment was calculated to sidetrack such a “divisive” discussion, it was in some ways accurate to depict a House with little to say about the social and economic demands of the African-American.
Kushner decided to leave out the Black struggle for full equality and to turn Stevens into some kind of comic relief for obvious reasons. He believes that progress is made through incremental steps orchestrated by wise and beneficent leaders like Lincoln or Obama.
If Hollywood was interested in bankrolling directors like Ken Loach or the late Gillo Pontecorvo, then our expectations might be different. We understand that there are class affinities between someone like Steven Spielberg and Barack Obama. Spielberg donated $1 million to Obama’s Super-PAC, the same committee that attracted $300 thousand from Sam Walton, the Walmart boss whose company Michelle Obama shills for. One big happy family.
Some day when a radicalization as deep as the 1930s or 60s grips American society once again, we might look forward to the making of a film that dramatizes the Black struggle of the 1850s and 60s—something that I and arguably most Americans would find far more interesting than the horse-trading that constitutes the lion’s share of Kushner’s dreadful screenplay.
It would focus on the elections of 1864 when those who Kushner patronized as “very good, very progressive people” but not enlightened enough to see the need for compromise (the people Obama’s ex-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs once described as needing to be “drug tested”) asserted themselves politically in the same fashion as the Black troops: “encouraging militancy and insolence”.
That year the Republicans gathered in Baltimore to deliberate on proposals being submitted to the national convention. A contingent from the Sea Islands of South Carolina—the home of the Gullahs—sought to be seated. Among the group of sixteen was one Robert Smalls, who had won fame early in the war for commandeering a Southern ship and navigating his way to freedom in the North with a group of runaway slaves. The Republicans refused to seat them since they were not prepared to accept Blacks as equals.
Some things never change. On November 26th an obituary for Lawrence Guyot appeared in the Times. It noted:
Mr. Guyot (GHEE-ott) was repeatedly challenged, jailed and beaten as he helped lead fellow members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and student volunteers from around the nation in organizing Mississippi blacks to vote. In many of the state’s counties, no blacks were registered.
He further pressed the campaign for greater black participation in politics by serving as chairman of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, formed to supplant the all-white state Democratic Party. It lost its challenge to the established Mississippi party at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, but its efforts are seen as paving the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the long struggle for freedom, both parties have found it convenient to deny recognition to the likes of a Robert Smalls or a Lawrence Guyot. If anything remains true after all these years, it will take this to establish full equality, not horse-trading:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
–Frederick Douglass, West India Emancipation, speech delivered at Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857