Monday, November 26, 2012

"Lincoln": The Films that Get Made and the Films that Should be Made

The criticism of the Spielberg/Kushner film "Lincoln" is that it continues to distort the history of the end of the Civil War, by focusing so much on Lincoln and events in Washington.  The untold historical movement of the times was the self-liberation of slaves who presented themselves to the Union army and demanded to fight.  This story is only partially told in popular film (I am thinking of "Glory"), and never from a point of view inside the slave community.  Imagine that movie, for a moment:  the disintegrating plantation life, the panic among whites, the enslaved calculating the risks of staying or going, the flight, the encounter with the resistant Union army which disdains their willingness to fight.  It is an inspiring and dramatic story and would make a great movie.

The scene at the beginning of "Lincoln" in which two African American soldiers talk to Lincoln hints at some of this drama.  One is more awed by the President, but proud to tell of his unit's fighting.  The other is bolder and presses upon Lincoln the injustices that the black soldiers have faced: the lower pay, the non-combat assignments, the segregation of the officer corps.  Lincoln has no answer for him, except to point to a bright future for the man in politics after the war.  Hanging in the air between them is the man's invocation of real political equality -- is it a prophecy?  A bitterly laughable dream?  A taunt to Lincoln?

Abraham Lincoln is such a towering and enigmatic figure in our history that all popular history tends to circle around him.  Like Jesus, we hear what he says, and see what he does, but what he thought and intended is obscured behind veils of deception and contradiction.  The Spielberg/Kushner movie makes this clear -- the central action of the passage of the 13th amendment was a skillful deception and obfuscation on Lincoln's part -- allowing the Conservative Republicans believe that negotiations with the South were imminent, while denying the same to the Democrats in Congress.

The problem is that this mystery of Lincoln's intentions (what did he intend and when did he intend it?) draws the attention of the popular historian.  And another problem is that because Lincoln dies, everyone else in the story is reduced to their relationship to him.  And so, because they opposed him on many issues, the Radical Republicans become Lincoln's nemeses.

I am not a real historian, just an interested party, but to me, there is a jarring disjuncture between the popular representation of Lincoln's postwar planning and what actually happened.

Lincoln is portrayed as taking a softer, more forgiving line on Reconstruction than the Radical Republicans.  And because he is Lincoln, and because he was shot, and because his rhetoric was never put into action, we are left with this vague vision of a lost opportunity in Reconstruction.  The South could have come back, bygones would have gone by, none would have suffered malice and charity given to all, and the widow and orphan cared for.

But the real lost opportunity was the creation of a free society in the South.  Tommy Lee Jones gave voice to that lost opportunity in a speech for Thaddeus Stevens to the effect that the slaveowners's land would be confiscated and distributed to the freed slaves, and that by the force of arms, the US government would protect them, and thus establish a free, multi-racial democratic society in the South.  As we well know, that did not happen, not because Lincoln was shot, but because the Republican party  agreed to remove federal troops in 1876 in order to win the Presidency for Rutherford Hayes.

I would be interested in understanding Lincoln's real intentions regarding Reconstruction.  I know that his rhetoric was conciliatory up to the end of the war.  I also know that his rhetoric at the beginning of the war was studiously neutral on the question of slavery itself and seemed designed to keep some border states from joining the confederacy.  I am not sure that Lincoln is himself a reliable witness as to his own intentions. Witness our peace delegation from Richmond, a group which simultaneously was, and was not.  And I am sure that Lincoln was pragmatic and ruthless.  His great accomplishment was to be able to follow the dialectical relationship between ending slavery and preserving the Union (as the institutionalization of democratic government).  In an exceedingly complex situation, he was able to shift and turn until the underlying reality was brought to the surface, that they were mutually dependent.   Both had to be done.

Stephen J. Carter has written a counter-factual novel called the "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" which imagines that he did not get shot, but lived on to be impeached by the bad-guys of all our popular history, the nefarious Radical Republicans.  I would love to read, or see in a movie, another counter-factual imagining, one of Lincolns' Reconstruction.  I still want Daniel Day-Lewis in the role, but I want to see him follow the unfolding contradiction between his irenic rhetoric and implacable resistance to black empowerment in the South.

I would like to see a happy ending to this story, if only in a movie, just so, we can all understand what might have been, and what might still be.......




1 comment:

Kim Hampton said...

hey boss.

I'm wondering if any counterfactual would change the outcome.

The counterfactual that seems to be floating in the ether right now is "imagine if Lincoln had lived."
Stephen Carter gives us one version; Lincoln gets impeached but dies before the trial. The other is never really fleshed out except that Lincoln lives and finishes his term. But there are two possible outcomes from this:

1. Democrats win the election of 1868 and Reconstruction ends 8 years sooner than it did.

2. Grant wins the election of 1868 and things end the way they did.

So in the "Lincoln wins" counterfactual, the only thing that changes is Andrew Johnson does not become President and doesn't get impeached.

But there is a counterfactual that might actually have happened.

There is some documentation that shows that Lee's surrender was not set and that many members of the Confederate army were wanting to engage in guerilla warfare (although they didn't call it that). Had that happened, the Civil War would look like the civil wars of the 20th century and instead of it lasting 4 years, it could have been more like 24 years. Which means that slavery in the US would have lasted almost as long as it did in Brazil. Which means that the fate of slaves would have been more tenuous than it already was. And imagine the wreckage the Klan could have wrought under the cover of war. Plus, what would have happened to Native Americans had the Civil War didn't end the way it did end?

Original sin is awfully hard to overcome, as this country has seen with both Native Americans and African Americans.