Filmmakers Aren’t Historians …. And Shouldn’t Pretend Otherwise

First at his blog Civil War Memory and then at the Atlantic Kevin Levin takes to task those historians who are criticizing the movie Lincoln on grounds of historical accuracy.

Over the past few days I’ve read numerous reviews of Spielberg’s Lincoln by professional historians, both in print and in my circle of social media friends. All of them are informative, even if they tend to reflect individual research agendas much more than the movie itself.

Beyond nitpicking specific moments such as the roll call in the House or whether Lincoln ever slapped Robert, my fellow historians have pointed out the lack of attention on women and abolitionists, as well as the free black community in Washington, D.C. Do any of these critiques help us to better understand the movie? No. They simply reinforce what we already know, which is that Hollywood will never make a movie that satisfies the demands of scholars. Nor should it ….

As historians, we need to be much more sensitive to the artistic goals of filmmakers and the limitations they face. In short, we need to stop critiquing them as if they were something they are not. They are artists, not historians.

Someone had better start telling the filmmakers that instead of wagging one’s finger at scholars.

Take, for example, screenwriter Tony Kushner, who weighs in on the question of what had Lincoln lived … and what that meant for Reconstruction:

I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of 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 the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered, and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there’s a good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles, because he meant them. We know that he meant them literally, because he told [Ulysses S.] Grant to behave accordingly.

[Expletive deleted.]

What sort of Lost Cause-Gone With the Wind-Birth of a Nation garbage is this? Does Kushner know anything about Reconstruction? Has he done any reading, let alone research? Are we going back to that white supremacist romantic fantasy that the KKK and white supremacist terrorism in general was a reaction to a Reconstruction policy that was not even in place when the violence began?

There’s rich irony here. Those people who speak glowingly of Lincoln remind us that it puts the destruction of slavery at the center of the story of the Civil War. Indeed, the racism we see most movingly portrayed in the movie comes from northern Democrats determined to resist emancipation. It’s as if white southerners had nothing to do with slavery … that, to use a turn of phrase often embraced by my colleagues, it is as if the film deprives white southerners of agency by making this a story of white northerners. Are we really to believe that white southerners had nothing to do with the course of Reconstruction? After all, who followed Lincoln as president? Not Thaddeus Stevens … but Andrew Johnson, perhaps the archetypal white supremacist president. Don’t you recall, Tony, that Johnson was … gasp! … a white southerner?

Kushner’s ignorance is as breathtaking as his arrogance.

This isn’t about a movie, including what was put in and what was left out. This isn’t about what filmmakers should have done by following the scholarship of a scholar-critic. What this is about is a filmmaker pretending to be a historian and holding forth on Reconstruction by embracing a fairy tale immortalized on film nearly a century ago.

Perhaps the whining of scholars has offended some folks, and I think the whining about the whining should have run its course. Now that everyone feels smug and warm about holding forth on the shortcomings of scholars, their egos, and so on, and about art for art’s sake (and entertainment), let’s not go too far. Ken Burns did that some time ago when he had no problem becoming “Homer with a camera.” Tell you what, Tony; I won’t disrespect your craft …  so long as you don’t disrespect mine. Talk all you want about your film … but you’re fair game when you go beyond that to tell us what you think about Reconstruction. Try doing a film about the Memphis and New Orleans riots or the Colfax massacre first. Try reading this first.

(This is all your fault, Noma. :))

Predictability

I’ve been asked by several people why I’ve had nothing (or next to nothing) to say about the movie Lincoln. The reason is simple: predictability. If anything, I’ve been bored by what I have read, in part because it was so predictable. I understand that some people were breathlessly awaiting the movie’s premier (goodness knows I read enough blogs announcing one’s anticipation, sometimes in wording that reminded me that Chris Matthews isn’t alone in feeling a little tingle). I also know that there would be others who were already denouncing something they had yet to see (but then many of the same people criticize books they have never read, so what’s new?). There were even commentators anxious to stir things up (in large part because they have nothing better to do) who made what they could out of what they read. It was all so predictable … and boring.

I was also prepared for the reaction to the movie when it came out. The people who had criticized the movie before it appeared continued to sound the same notes … without viewing the movie. Non-historians who like history generally enjoyed the movie, as one would expect from a well-executed production with able actors. Professional historians offered their reservations, although in some cases those were muted by involvement in the production of the movie. Those reservations followed a predictable pattern, as did some of the responses to those criticisms. Again, boring.

My sole contribution to the post-release discussion locally was a television interview that could have been conducted with or without actually having viewed the movie. It was the usual “historian compares movie to history,” a construct designed to allow a cranky scholar to pick away at some minor points (and perhaps a few major ones) because no movie can bear the burden of the entire story of emancipation (or even Lincoln, slavery, and emancipation). I did my best to stay away from that format precisely because it was so … wait for it … predictable.

Most of all, I am very aware of how movies shape how we understand history, to the point that historians need to be aware of the interaction between the silver screen and the audience. This is especially true of the period of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, where movies such as Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Glory, Gettysburg, and now Lincoln have done so much to shape popular impressions of this period. There are even those who celebrate such films as Gods and Generals because they affirm their own personal take on what happened. So be it. Given that historians often express reservations about the work of their peers, it should come as no surprise that they would express reservations about the impression left by a film (as well as point out various issues of fact and fiction). It also now comes as no surprise that we now see folks chiding the critics for not simply seeing a movie as art, craft, and entertainment as well as education. Whatever. I hope y’all feel better now.

What interests me more is thinking about how to break out of these patterns to use these moments as opportunities to enlighten and educate, as ways to open discussions and conversations that engage more of us in constructive ways. I’m far from having the answers there, but it may be time to start asking the question of whether we can all do better, or whether we will continue to settle for bland predictability in such discussions.