Interpretive Choices Revisited

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?

4 thoughts on “Interpretive Choices Revisited

  1. Andy Hall February 22, 2013 / 1:17 pm

    Jones is best thought of as an historical activist, who’s taken the admonition to “agitate, agitate, agitate” into the realm of CW history. He really does believe that he’s making up for generations of African Americans’ stories being ignored or trivialized by mainstream history, and he’s not wrong about that — even though the landscape of American historiography is very different these days than just a couple of decades ago. He’s pushing very hard, and sometimes pushes a little too far. From what I’ve seen and read of him, if you can just mentally dial his rhetoric back about two notches, he has some very good things to say that are worth considering.

    Ever been to a history conference where, a few weeks later, you recall someone saying something really interesting, but can’t remember who it was? That’s never happened with Hari Jones.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 22, 2013 / 6:26 pm

      Sometimes we remember people for the wrong reasons: not what they said, but how they said it.

      If it’s cheap grandstanding when it concerns Gary Gallagher, then it’s cheap grandstanding when it involves Kate Masur (talk about your interpretative choices!). In both cases, as you suggest, a less aggressive response might have proved less controversial.

      Of course, this isn’t the only thing I found objectionable about the tone as well as the content of the debate over Lincoln. But that’s a story for another time.

  2. wgdavis February 22, 2013 / 1:48 pm

    In watching the film I was struck by Douglass’ absence from it. If for no other reason than his symbolic meaning to the abolition/emancipation movement, he deserved at the very least a hat tip. It wasn’t just Douglass, either, as he was often accompanied by other prominent Black leaders. Slade and the other Blacks who worked at the White House certainly had a role in the effort to pass the amendment. The opening scene with the Black soldiers could certainly have been replaced by a later scene in the film showing interaction between Lincoln and the Black leaders, and with his Black staff, a bit more than the one lady. The influence of those Black leaders and employees was certainly more integral to the passage of the amendment than the somewhat disjointed/disconnected discussion with the Black soldiers in the opening scene.

    On the whole, I think that this does not detract much from the quality of the film, especially when one considers the man purpose of the film was to depict the political efforts of Lincoln in moving congress toward passage of the amendment. Set beside the tragic personal story that was Lincoln’s life in the White House, the story of the passage still allowed for a little comic relief a la Shakespeare. It was needed in such a dark film.

    I may see this again in the theater, but I cannot wait to be able to purchase a copy to view at home. It has made my all-time top ten films list.

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