This week I participated in a symposium devoted to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln held at Florida Atlantic University. Steve Engle organized and ran the event with his usual aplomb and skill, and the speakers — Mark Neely, Vernon Burton, Matt Gallman, Richard Carwardine, and Kate Masur – were excellent.
Conferences such as this one allow one to renew old friendships (Vernon and I have known each other since 1987), chat with people about various issues, and meet new people, notably Kate Masur (we may have been introduced before, but this was the first time we had the time to sit down and talk about a number of subjects at length). Moreover, I learned a great deal from Kate’s paper, which explored the political activism of the African Americans who worked at the Lincoln White House. She told the audience the story of William Slade, who fulfilled many roles at the White House — and even more as an African American political activist in Washington.
Slade is portrayed in the movie Lincoln largely in his role in the Lincoln household. Yet, Kate argued, it was highly unlikely that the president was unaware of his political activity, or that his fellow activists rejected colonization, supported black enlistment, and pressed for black suffrage.
Kate’s paper and our discussion reminded me of a previous exchange touching on this point. Masur earlier had mentioned the absence of Frederick Douglass from the movie, noting that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had made certain interpretive choices open to discussion. Taking exception, Hari Jones argued that “Masur’s interpretive choice would have added affirmative action fiction to Spielberg’s Lincoln.” I disagree. You can argue about whether Frederick Douglass would have been the right choice, but Jones is off the mark when he declares: “Professor Masur’s recommendation that Frederick Douglass be portrayed in the movie is an interpretive choice that would have made the movie less factual. The focus of the movie was on the passage of the 13th Amendment. Douglass did not have a role in getting the amendment passed in January 1865. His monthly had even ceased publication by then. The professor’s review was essentially an admonishment to Hollywood to do what Glory did and make history fiction in order to get the token Negro in the inner circle of the film’s main character.”
Not only is this needlessly provocative language that sounds a little too much like taunting to me, but, as I understand it, events during the movie move forward all the way to Lincoln’s assassination, including a reading of the Second Inaugural Address: the passage of the amendment is a focus, but not the only one. Jones admitted that at times he found himself nodding off a bit when he watched the movie. Perhaps he slept longer than he wanted to admit, or perhaps he quickly forgot the time span covered in the movie. No, that doesn’t seem to be the case: he reminds us when the movie doesn’t fall in line with his preferences that “The movie covers a time span from the fall of 1864 to April 1865.” In short, given that time span, one could have chosen to cover the interaction between Lincoln and Douglass if one chose to do so … which is an interpretative choice. So let’s set aside the language of “tokenism”: after all, how would the movie have improved had it discussed the commissioning of African American officers, which, as I recall, has nothing to do with the story line of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives?
You can’t have it both ways, after all, especially when it comes to privileging one’s own interpretative choices.
But Jones can’t stop there. He also declares that “Masur’s interpretive choice would have placed Douglass in the movie because she does not know who else to put in the frame.” That’s ludicrous. I venture she would have put William Slade there, and offered viewers a fuller understanding of his activities on behalf of black freedom and equality while he worked at the White House. Perhaps it is Jones who does not know who else to put in the frame: I don’t see Slade’s name mentioned in Jones’s essay.
I think that my fellow bloggers, including one who thought that Jones “nailed it,” may want to consider using the other end of the hammer to yank out that nail. After all, as even that blogger knows, at times Jones goes a bit too far in taking his swings. Rather, how might one have told the story Spielberg told while heeding Masur’s observations?