I had the pleasure of viewing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln on Wednesday evening and, while I am still sorting through my own feelings about the film itself, suffice it to say I was extremely impressed and any historical errors I may have found pale in comparison to the sum of what may very well be the best Civil War era film we will ever see in our lifetime.
Before I went to see the movie I was interested to know what other historians had to say about the film and it’s overall faithfulness to the historical record. And when Kate Masur published her critical review in the New York Times, stating that African Americans were portrayed as being passive spectators rather than active agents in the process of their emancipation, I thought that this could be a potentially devastating critique, if true. And I must admit I paid special attention to how Mr. Spielberg portrayed the few African American characters (many of whom, I should mention, are United States Colored Troops) when I finally got to view the film.
In the end, I think that Masur went too far in her criticism. For instance, she states that “Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.” Perhaps she missed the opening battle sequence which showed USCTs locked in mortal combat with Confederate soldiers? These African Americans were hardly being “passive” when they were shooting, bayoneting, punching, and drowning their enemies and then later bragging that they had killed 1,000 without taking a prisoner. Masur also criticizes a fictional dialogue between Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley in which Lincoln admits his unfamiliarity with African Americans and his ignorance of how they will fare after slavery has been abolished. While Masur criticizes this scene for being “awkward” and diminishing Keckley, I found the scene to be powerful and refreshingly honest.
Hari Jones of the African American Civil War Memorial has responded to many of Masur’s criticisms in his latest blog post, which can be found here.
In response to the criticism that Masur and others have made about the exclusion of Frederick Douglass from the film, Jones states that “Spielberg’s interpretive choice to note the military contributions of African Americans rather than to find a way to include an African American editor at the margins should be applauded not censured by those who seek to include the role of the enslaved in the ‘dynamic of emancipation’ that was occurring inside the frame.”It is easy to bring an entire career’s worth of historical training and inflict it upon a film that is not attempting to be purely a history lesson.
While there are some things that Spielberg and company got wrong with this film, I consider it a minor miracle how much they got right.