In Spring 1865, with the Civil War finally coming to a close, President Abraham Lincoln toured battle-torn southeast Virginia. On April 4, he visited recently vacated Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, its charred riverfront evidence of the rebel government’s hasty departure. What Lincoln found in Richmond astonished and unnerved him.
Arriving with no advance notice, Lincoln soon found himself surrounded at the docks by black Virginians, who hailed him, in the words of one, as a “Messiah.” Some kneeled at Lincoln’s feet. Embarrassed, as historian David Herbert Donald tells the story, Lincoln admonished them. “Don’t kneel to me,” he said. “That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.” Lincoln failed to deter the crowd, and the scene grew joyful and more boisterous. “Bless the Lord,” they shouted. “Father Abrahams Come.” Later in the day he met a cheering crowd of mostly freed people whose hats and bonnets cluttered the air as they cheered him. Touring the fashionable part of town still later in an open army hack with his son Tad, he found “blinds and shades . . . drawn and no faces to be seen.”
It would make a great scene in a film about emancipation.
That Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opts instead for a solemn reenactment of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, even as the narrative has brought Lincoln to Virginia to survey the damage and confer with his commander, Ulysses S. Grant, is telling. Better to give a silent cameo to Lee as a shout out to his latter-day venerators than to fill the screen with black faces whose proximity could reveal more clearly Lincoln’s lack of comfort with people of color. In this, of course, Lincoln was far from alone, and one of the best things about screenwriter Tony Kushner’s work is that in several early scenes he swiftly and bluntly shows how tightly white supremacy is woven into the American political and social fabric. But one wonders, in a film at pains to show Lincoln agonizing over the ever-rising death toll, why Lee gets his moment. The CSA had been headed for defeat for more than a year. Lee’s army had been disintegrating during the siege of Petersburg all winter. Yet he did not surrender until he had no other choice. With Phil Sheridan’s cavalry in front of him and Grant coming up from behind, there was nowhere else to go. I’ve sometimes wondered just how many extra lives had to be lost, how many widows created, how much more poverty endured, because of Lee’s and Jefferson Davis’s intransigence in 1865. “There is nothing left for me to do than to go and see General Grant,” said Lee, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” It is a trick of romance to fixate on the second part of the statement rather than on the implications of the first. The Confederates burned Richmond themselves rather than surrender. Perhaps the scene will help the picture go down better in the South.
Lincoln is a film by a director who understands the emotional power of the cinema and a screen writer who understands how drama works. One or two people must stand in for an entire class (White House dressmaker and former slave Elizabeth Keckley, take a bow). Viewers must have someone though whose eyes events may be more easily understood (Mary Todd Lincoln, are you a reliable narrator?). That Spielberg shows admirable restraint in not one-upping D.W. Griffith and staging the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, the event that made a martyr of Lincoln and spared him the tangled business of Reconstruction, is much to his credit. In fact, one of the film’s real virtues is the degree to which Spielberg and especially his erstwhile composer John Williams hold back, allowing Kushner’s tangy expositions and the makeup department’s wild run at bearded authenticity carry much of the film. Spielberg effectively recreates a world without electricity, without reliable heat, and without much in the way of scruples when it comes to arm twisting for an important vote, in this case the House of Representatives’ encounter with a Constitutional amendment to officially end slavery everywhere in the country. It isn’t pretty nor a feel-good tribute to American democratic genius, though the audience I was with desperately wanted it to be. No wonder the Tea Party likes to focus on the founding of the country rather than its breakup and reconstitution. Not so messy.
Once my students get over the idea that Lincoln freed the slaves by himself, make terms with the truth that he was a white supremacist who hatched colonization schemes even during the war, and grapple (as Spielberg does admirably in the film) with Lincoln’s constitutionally questionable doings during the war, they still tend to admire the man. But what they admire is his remarkable political acumen, remaining noncommittal and keeping his options open while pleasing virtually no one, at least no one in Washington. Lincoln does a good job of showing this important side of the president, and Daniel Day-Lewis, operating with far more restraint than he might have, shows how critical Lincoln’s political skills are in managing a four-year crisis almost moment-by-moment. And yet Lincoln pleased someone. The film shows Lincoln leveraging his 1864 electoral victory, construing it as a favorable referendum on Emancipation that opens the door to permanent abolition.
That African Americans pushed history—and the president—along is a muted element in Lincoln. The device of having black Union soldiers air their grievances at the beginning of the film is an intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying attempt to depict black agency. “Contraband” forced the issue by running away from slavery, Northern free blacks enlisted in the army, and all agitated for equality and the vote. Frederick Douglass does not appear. All hope is not lost, however. Judging by the preview I saw for Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino promises to do for the Civil War what he did in Inglourious Basterds for World War II. Apparently, revenge fantasy never goes out of style.
In the end, Lincoln the politician managed to keep the country together and remake it into something more than Thomas Jefferson probably intended when he wrote that “all men are created equal.” But another great gift, the one that somehow pleases no matter what the interpretive choices a skilled storyteller like Spielberg might make, is that of language. In Lincoln we hear Daniel Day-Lewis moving verbally from water closet humor one moment to quoting Shakespeare the next, and Lincoln’s own words are that curious mixture of the humble and exalted. They still hang in the air, in the national consciousness, straining to find that which is common to us not merely as Americans but as people. He understood, and could see vivid reminders every day of his life in nineteenth century America, that being decent and law-abiding was not the same as being kind and just. He could appeal to “the better angels of our nature” because the lesser angels were all too often in evidence. That “new birth of freedom” from the Gettysburg Dedicatory Remarks is ambiguous but hopeful, a shot at pre-empting those who would claim the lives lost to be a waste. How could a conflict that resulted in freedom for four million people be considered tragic? Lincoln asked his fellow Americans to consider this while many more thousands were yet to die. He asks us to consider how much closer we are to a truly free and just society.
Spielberg closes his film with Lincoln’s words from the Second Inaugural. Visually, it is perhaps the least pleasing moment in the picture. But the words . . . In the end, they are all the leader in a democracy has. No American leader has yet used them better. This film, anchored by Day-Lewis’s virtual inhabitation of the character and so attuned to the sounds and subtle meanings of words, could hardly have ended otherwise.