Friday, February 22, 2013

A Quick Visit to the Revisitation of Interpretive Choices

Over at Crossroads, Brooks Simpson has offered some thoughts about a critical review written by Hari Jones concerning Kate Masur’s November New York Times OP-ED on Spielberg’s Lincoln.

After viewing Lincoln for myself before Thanksgiving, I found myself agreeing with much of what Jones had to say and posted a few thoughts here.
Today’s post by Brooks lays out a clear set of arguments concerning why he thinks Jones was wrong to write what he did about Masur’s critique. He also links to my November post when observing that “my fellow bloggers…may want to consider using the other end of the hammer to yank out that nail,” implying that I might want to rethink my overall support of what Jones said.

In short, I don’t think I will.
To me, all of this boils down to arguing over preference. With no standard criterion for what the film should have been about (in other words, “A Film about Lincoln’s last days must include a, b, c, and d…”), we can only state with certainty what elements we feel should or should not have been included in the film.

Masur’s article stated that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them” and bemoaned the lack of other key players in the abolition movement. I found the statement about passivity absurd, considering that the movie began with USCTs fighting for their freedom.
Hari Jones took serious issue with the criticism that Frederick Douglass was not included in the film and said that Masur was quibbling with Spielberg because her choices were different than his.
What gives wiggle room to both Masur and Jones is what many people considered a main weakness of Lincoln in the first place – namely, that it bit off more than it could chew. As Brooks notes, “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 [13th] amendment is a focus, but not the only one.” While mainly a story about the struggle over the 13th Amendment, Lincoln tries to cram a lot of other information into the finale and it is dubious as to whether or not this is effective.  
So I’d say it is as equally valid to take issue with Lincoln over a dearth of fleshed-out African American characters as it is to suggest that Frederick Douglass would not be a good fit for the story that Kushner and Spielberg were trying to tell.

In order to sort through all of this, perhaps it will help the reader to read all of the abovementioned posts and reviews in the order they came out:
1. Kate Masur’s Review, November 12, 2012
2. Hari Jones Responds, November 23, 2012.
4. Brooks Simpson revisits the issue, February 22, 2013.
Before giving any additional thoughts, I’m going to use this as blatant excuse to view Lincoln one more time. Thankfully, I have a friend who’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild who can loan me a DVD (bwa-ha-ha!)

And as always, I’m interested in what you think.
Who do you agree with most?
Or are we all full of it?


  1. First, the premise is wrong, the movie is not about the abolition of slavery. Its about Lincoln, the giveaway was the title. Second, Spielberg is a filmmaker, not just ANY filmmaker one of the greatest of his time, so oddly he made a film, not a monograph. Third, when we write books, a historian job, we always say we are studying x because that is our focus, we should give Steven Spielberg the same courtesy. Finally, this is a beautiful film an enormously moving study of a man, his family, and their times that also happens to be one of greatest gifts Northern Civil War memory has ever received. Barbara Gannon(Could not figure out the profile on the blog-so it may say anonymous)

  2. Hi Barbara,

    Many thanks for the comment!

    Also, I apologize for the system glitch - will look into it ASAP!