Two of the bloggers I mention in passing in my last post have weighed in: Jimmy Price will stay with his support of Hari Jones‘s response to Kate Masur’s observations, while remaining silent on Jones’s tone; nevertheless, he adds that the time frame of the movie lends itself to arguments about the choices made by moviemakers, giving Masur and Jones an opening to argue. Al Mackey agrees that the tone of Jones’s response detracts from the message, although he remains supportive of the message as well. I thank them both for their responses.
I decided to go back to Kate Masur’s original statement to see what the fuss was all about. There’s been commentary about her wanting Frederick Douglass in the movie, but this is what she said:
The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is attentive to the language of the period and features verbal jousting among white men who take pleasure in jabs and insults. By contrast, the black characters — earnest and dignified — are given few interesting or humorous lines, even though verbal sparring and one-upmanship is a recognized aspect of black vernacular culture that has long shaped the American mainstream. Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, who in fact attended the White House reception after Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, is nowhere to be seen or heard.
That’s not a demand to include Douglass, simply an observation that he does not appear. Does anyone who’s seen the movie disagree with the content of the paragraph?
Her larger complaint is summarized at the end of her original essay:
Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.
Yes, that’s not the movie Spielberg chose to make: Masur’s commenting on the consequences of interpretive choice. I think it’s understandable to worry that after years of modifying and questioning the image of “The Great Emancipator” to look at the more complex story of how freedom came to millions of human beings that some people will find a movie that moves us back to “The Great Emancipator” might present interpretive challenges for historians, especially given that so many people have asked me, as a historian, about the movie as history. Even in the story that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner chose to tell, there are significant issues, most notably the decision to create far more drama than was necessary. Would it have made any difference had Lincoln waited to call a special session of Congress in March 1865? Really? Why mishandle the relationship between the events leading to the Hampton Roads Conference and the House vote on the Thirteenth Amendment? Was this to create more drama at the expense of the record? If that’s acceptable, where do we draw the line at when it becomes unacceptable?
And, folks, it’s far more than the story of how the Thirteenth Amendment passed the House of Representatives. If it had been that, that would have been movie enough. As Jimmy Price points out, once the movie ranged beyond that to try to incorporate other themes, it opened itself to precisely the criticisms Masur and others presented. What does Robert Todd Lincoln have to do with the Thirteenth Amendment, for example? If Mary Lincoln is to be portrayed as lobbying for the amendment, why not William Slade? If one can make up dialogue between Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Smith, why not have a little of the same between Elizabeth Keckley (who sacrificed a son to the Union cause) and Abraham Lincoln? As Masur says, “It would not have been much of a stretch — particularly given other liberties taken by the filmmakers — to do things differently.”
What Masur’s suggesting, of course, is that choices have consequences. I didn’t take her essay as telling us how Spielberg should have made his movie, but how the choices Spielberg and Kushner made shaped the story they decided to tell, and what they decided to remember … and forget. Those people who are fond of David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion should understand that.
We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.
This can be read as “this is the movie someone ought to have made,” but it also can be read as saying “film is so powerful that the movie threatens to overturn the recent work of historians focusing on the many ways that freedom came by privileging a particular narrative in the popular mind.” I think there’s more merit to the latter interpretation. Others agree.
This is why, in my opinion, Hari Jones’s criticism borders on the ridiculous. First, it created strawmen out of Masur’s original article, nearly simplifying it beyond recognition. Then it made far too much about her single mention of Douglass, while completely ignoring (and showing no knowledge of) the other African Americans she cited. You would think that he’d be supportive of her position concerning broadening the discussion to include African Americans in a position to talk to Lincoln (as, opposed to, say, fictional Union soldiers chatting with the president), but he’s not. Indeed, I don’t think Masur’s original article got a fair reading, with many people jumping to the oversimplifications that appear to play to Jones’s eagerness to take shots at historians. As to why some people simply embraced Jones’s explanation without taking a critical look at it (or even remarking on its over-the-top tone), well, they might want to explain themselves as well and as honestly as Al Mackey did.
Now, I’ve heard a great deal about the difference between history (as in a book) and film, and history and historical drama. I’ve heard that before. Indeed, that conversation is currently taking place with Ben Affleck’s Argo. So I have some questions. Given that the basis of the film is to tell a tale based on historical events, what obligation does the filmmaker have concerning historical accuracy? Are we supposed to dismiss every criticism of a historical drama by making the usual excuses … it’s the filmmaker’s story, you can’t do much in the time allotted, people really aren’t interested in having the details straight or not bright enough to understand what’s going on? If there are legitimate criticisms that can be made, what are they? At what point is the drama no longer historical? Why market a film as enhancing our understanding of history if at the same time we agree that the relationship between film and history is problematic? Why not simply make it a historical fiction, an engrossing speculation?
Sometimes the blogosphere betrays the vices of its virtues. Many people raced in to offer their assessments of the movie Lincoln, followed by assessments of assessments, in ways that were sometimes predictable and sometimes shed more heart than light. Heck, some of us knew what would happen before it did, which is quite a trick for a historian, when you think about it. But sometimes it pays to wait a bit, sift through what’s out there, and think a little before writing something a little more dispassionate and a little more reflective than much of what we often see in the world of quick analysis and instant response. This discussion of interpretive choices is worth having, because it can tell us much about the interplay between history, scholarship, and film.