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. :))

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15 thoughts on “Filmmakers Aren’t Historians …. And Shouldn’t Pretend Otherwise

  1. Hi Brooks,

    Those passages by Kushner are indeed garbage. Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that historians should not criticize the historical content of movies like Lincoln. What I’ve been trying to emphasize is that to evaluate Hollywood movies along those narrow lines is problematic. I’ve been laying into movies for their interpretive shortcomings for years and will continue to do so.

    Hope you and your family had a Happy Thanksgiving.

    • I don’t take your comments that way. I think historians sometimes review movies the same way some folks review books: “this is not how I would have done it, and so the author should have written the kind of book I think someone should write.” I pushed back at the attempt to make me the icon of historical accuracy when a local news outlet had me in studio. But the pattern’s predictable … and you can see that assumption in Holzer’s efforts to break free from it, even as he’s an adviser. It’s a no-win situation.

  2. Kushner is just a defensive white Southerner. I imagine he he may have put the Jenkins Ferry battle in the script as a nod to his Trans-Mississippian roots.

    Send him some stories. Colfax and New Orleans might interest him.

  3. Filmmakers Aren’t Historians and Historians Aren’t Film Critics, yet each will have their say, perhaps beyond their areas of competence.

    Not sure if Lincoln would have been so magnanimous had he know he was going to be murdered after the war was effectively over by agents of the Confederate secret service.

  4. The problem is that filmmakers are by necessity focused on creating a visual narrative that must be entertaining in order to please audiences. Nuance, complexity and reality are inevitably sacrificed in the name of dramatic license. Lincoln is a wonderful film and it brought me to tears several times (as I am sure Spielberg intended). Perhaps it even provided some interesting insights into the leading personalities and important events of the times. However, no one should confuse the film with actual history and Kushner is no historical scholar.

    It could be worse. Filmmakers can easily turn into shameless propagandists. I just read somewhere that Oliver Stone has produced a multi-episode expose for Showtime of the so-called “secret history” of the Cold War. In Stone-world, Truman dropped the atomic bombs on Japan not as a means to quickly end an awful war but to instead prove that he wasn’t a weakling. Of course, Stone doesn’t mention that a mounting toll of dead and wounded from all combatant nations engaged in fighting in Asia and the Pacific was piling up each and every day the conflict dragged on. Stone believes that Henry Wallace came close to becoming president and would have found a way to get along with Stalin, but doesn’t tell us that Wallace himself later renounced his own views towards the Soviets as too naïve. Stone also believes JFK would have withdrawn from Vietnam and initiated détente with the Communist bloc, but fails to mention that JFK was a dedicated cold warrior who kept upping the ante in Vietnam (and Laos) up to and including green lighting the US supported coup against Diem. Stone doesn’t give you the other side to his arguments because they involve nuance, complexity and reality, thus undermining the simplicity and elegance of his pre-conceived good guy/bad guy narrative. Stone uses his considerable talents as a filmmaker to persuade his audience of his worldview without regard to other arguments and thus merely produces left-wing propaganda to counter the right-wing propaganda he despises.

  5. Film makers should accept the fact that what they are doing is the same as what the writers of “historical ficton” are doing. They are producing art which is to one degree or another loosely tied to historical facts, not a documentary. Many seem instead to fall into the trap of thinking that they are educators.

    • John’s point is well taken, If the Film Maker is successful, he or she will excite us and make us go find more information about the topic, to search for what is right and what is wrong on the subject. Somewhere Albert Castel wrote it was GWTW that go him into Civil War history. In the 1990s Ken Burns and the Gettysburg movie had huge impacts. I wonder how many Lincoln scholars of the 2030s will say it was Spielberg who go *them* into Civil War scholarship!

      • Well said, Bob. I think Castel’s statement appears in his Decision in the West book. Instead of looking at these films as history, folks should see them as entertainment which happens to provide an “impression” of history rather than the genuine article (which for the vast majority of the population would not be truly “entertaining”). If they stimulate an interest in finding out what really happened, all to the good. The key, of course, is that people understand what they are watching in the first place.

  6. And…Eric Foner weighs in with a letter to the NYT:

    “… This was indeed an important moment in political history. But Mr. Brooks, and the film, offer a severely truncated view. Emancipation — like all far-reaching political change — resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.

    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.

    The film grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared more than three million of the four million slaves free, and Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, exempted in whole or part from the proclamation, had decreed abolition on their own… ”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/opinion/lincolns-use-of-politics-for-noble-ends.html?ref=opinion

  7. The statement, “Filmmakers aren’t historians,” is a dangerous cop-out. Anyone who creates a work that millions of people will view about an historical period or issue most people know little about, portraying the events of that time, is an historian. He or she is an historian because his or her work will teach the history embodied in the film. The filmmaker is entitled to a realm of artistic license, so long as the fundamental truth is portrayed. (I’ll leave aside the what-is-truth discussion.) When it is not, any defense that a film doesn’t have to be historically accurate is a kind of lie.

  8. I admit I am collapsing history-tellers and history-teachers with history-investigators (perhaps what you mean by “historian”). But maybe it is a matter of scale? When I “teach” an individual something about history, I’m a historian in a very little way. What Spielberg teaches millions of people something distorted, I am saying he can’t avoid responsibility (and we shouldn’t avoid it for him) based on the contention that he is not a historian. One who conveys “history” (true of false) has the responsibility of an historian.

  9. Anyway, my core point is not about how we define “historian.” It is that one who conveys a position on an important historical event, taking a position on it, cannot evade responsibility for distorting the presentation of the event in a fundamental way on the basis that he is “not an historian.” So what?

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