Tag Archives: Tony Kushner

Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy

25 Nov

Two weeks ago I wrote, “When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.”

My comment was inspired by historian Kate Masur’s excellent New York Times op-ed, which argued that Spielberg’s film Lincoln had essentially left African Americans offstage or in the gallery. In Spielberg’s hands, blacks see themselves get rescued by a savior who belongs to the very group that has ravaged and ruined them. Just as Jews do in Schindler’s List. The difference is that in the case of emancipation, blacks—both free and slave—were actually far more central to the process of their own deliverance.

Thanks in part to documents from the National Archives that historians began to rigorously amass and organize in 1976—resulting in the multi-volume Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867—students and scholars have come to a completely different view of how emancipation happened. As three of the historians who were involved in that project wrote in the path-breaking Slaves No More:

The Destruction of Slavery [the first essay in the book] explicates the process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and the slaves’ determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda. In documenting the transformation of a war for the Union into a war against slavery, it shifts the focus from the halls of power in Washington and Richmond to the plantations, farms, and battlefields of the South and demonstrates how slaves accomplished their own liberation and shaped the destiny of a nation.

Emphasizing the agency of slaves and former slaves does not simply alter the cast of characters in the drama of emancipation, displacing old villains and enthroning new heroes. Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans do not play less significant parts once slaves gain an active role in their own liberation, but they do play different ones. Focusing on events beyond Washington and outside formally constituted political bodies does not excise politics from the study of the past. Rather, it reveals that social history is not history with the politics left out, but that all history is—and must be—political. The politics of emancipation in the countryside and the towns of the South makes more comprehensible the politics of emancipation inside the capitol and the presidential mansion.

Which made Spielberg’s decision to focus on Lincoln and a few politicians in Washington all the more perplexing.

After I posted my comment, the estimable Freddie DeBoer asked me a simple, blunt question: Had I seen the film I was pontificating about? Shamefacedly I admitted I hadn’t. (One of the things I love about Freddie’s writing is how quickly and cleanly he cuts into his opponents. I love it even more when I’m not one of them.) But I promised I’d see the film—in return for Freddie reading some of the historical literature. He agreed.

Last night I saw the film. I’m pleased to admit that I was wrong—but in one of those ways that reveals I was more right than I realized.

One of the points my critics made in response to my original claim—Michael Brendan Dougherty pursued this line most forcefully (on Twitter)—is that the film is a biopic called “Lincoln.” Of course Lincoln is going to be center stage. (To which my exasperated wife responded, “Schindler’s List also has Schindler in the title. So what?”)

But here’s the thing. Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment—and the politics of emancipation more specifically and more generally. The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.

The film in fact does a remarkable job—this is one of its chief virtues, I think—of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes—one is played by James Spader—to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.

Lincoln is obviously important as a steward and an oracle: one of the other things I like about the film is that it shows what a fine line there is in politics between the prophet and the windbag; Lincoln’s stories and pronouncements often prompt either bemused bewilderment (in the case of William Seward, played by David Strathairn) or frustrated rage (in the case of Edwin Stanton, played by Bruce McGill). But his presidency, as it is depicted by Spielberg/Kushner, actually comports more with how the bloggers over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, and the poli sci literature more generally, understand the presidency: as a radically constrained institution, which is often buffeted by forces it can’t control—in Congress, and elsewhere.

So, yes, Lincoln plays a role in Lincoln, but it’s just that: a role. Seward, Spader and his goons, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), even crazy Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields)—everyone has a hand in freeing the slaves.

Everyone, it seems, save the slaves themselves.

For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.

What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from Masur’s op-ed—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in its objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.

The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.

Lest I be accused—as I already have been—of imposing some kind of PC orthodoxy on a piece of mass entertainment, or of applying an anachronistic standard of inclusion to a film that marches under the banner of fidelity to historical truth, let me reiterate one point and add two others. Emancipation was not a white man’s affair. It was a multiracial affair, in which blacks, slave and free, played a central role. Spielberg and Kushner are not being faithful to the historical record; they are distorting it. Not by lying but by constructing the field glasses through which they would have us look at, and misperceive, the past.

Aaron Bady will be blogging about the film too, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But he’s dug up two interesting factoids that are relevant: First, Spielberg was originally thinking of making a film about the relationship between Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This is a topic that has generated a large and growing literature. Spielberg opted not to go that route. Second, though Spielberg chose to base the film on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, he decided essentially to use three pages from the book as the basis of his story. It was his decision to focus on the few months that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House.

These unforced choices—his choices—effectively precluded the inclusion of blacks as political agents in their own right. It was not the constraints of history or genre, in other words, that produced this film; it was the blinkered vision of Steven Spielberg.

And, I’m sorry to say, the blinkered vision of Tony Kushner. If you think my pre-Civil Rights claim above is unfair, consider this statement that Kushner gave to NPR, which Aaron also found and pointed out to me:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.

When you have a screenwriter with Kushner’s range of historical vision, and a filmmaker with Spielberg’s gift for compression, it should be possible to make a different film. A truer, better—and, yes, entertaining—film. For reasons I can’t comprehend, they chose not to, opting instead for a 19th century American version of Schindler’s List.

I didn’t like the original. And I’m not crazy about the remake.

Update (8 pm)

Anthony Kammer on Twitter reminded me of this great quote from Stanley Kubrick about Schindler’s List: “Schindler’s List was about 200 Jews who lived. The Holocaust is about 6 million Jews who died.” I’ve never been able to find confirmation for the quote, but it’s so perfect that I had to repeat it here.

Update (9:45 pm)

From Michael Brendan Dougherty (with whom I argued earlier; see above) tonight on Twitter:

After seeing the film, I’m closer to your view than I anticipated. I think you argued better than the other professor.

I’ll admit it: it’s always gratifying to hear this kind of thing. Though I think “the other professor”—Kate Masur—did quite well.

Update (November 26, 12 am)

On FB, Ian Zuckerman brought to my attention this great speech of Frederick Douglass on Haiti.

Speaking for the Negro, I can say, we owe much to Walker for his appeal; to John Brown [applause] for the blow struck at Harper’s Ferry, to Lundy and Garrison for their advocacy [applause], We owe much especially to Thomas Clarkson, [applause], to William Wilberforce, to Thomas Fowell Buxton, and to the anti-slavery societies at home and abroad; but we owe incomparably more to Haiti than to them all. [Prolonged applause.] I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. [Applause.]….the freedom of Haiti was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right ! [Applause.] Her people fought for it. They suffered for it, and thousands of them endured the most horrible tortures, and perished for it.

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