Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I saw several “historical” movies – that is, movies that depicted events and figures from the past and made claims to their historical accuracy. Both “Lincoln” and “Argo” are fine films in terms of their production and entertainment values – they are well-acted and-directed, with effective pacing and narrative story development. Both keep a viewer interested with dynamic and interesting characters. They are certainly worth a couple of hours and the cost of a movie ticket (although I did pay matinee prices). But as entertained as I was at times, I am a historian. And I cannot resist asking: how do these films do as history? Are they good history? And that, of course, prompts another question: what exactly is good history?
These are just some of the questions I posed to my students last year when I taught historical film classes in Duke’s writing program and the history department. For professional historians, the answer to whether such films do good history might be an easy one: of course not – at least not in comparison to the academic texts that we produce and consume routinely. But to be too dismissive too quickly risks ignoring the great power films have in shaping the public’s understanding of the past. I believe that we must learn to engage with such visual texts in a constructive and critical way because our students will continue to see movies about historical subjects, and these movies will continue to influence (increasingly so most likely) the public’s interpretations of historical events. So it’s better to equip them with some tools and modes of inquiry to “read” films with a more critical eye.
That brings me back to “Lincoln.” It would be easy to simply accept uncritically the passionate, driven, humorous sixteenth president that Daniel Day-Lewis portrays. Lincoln appears a likable, pragmatic yet moral crusader, a man ahead of his time in his advocacy of abolishing slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment – perhaps only surpassed by the zeal of Thaddeus Stevens and a few other abolitionist Radical Republicans. He also appears as the intelligent yet awkward backwoods figure of Lincoln folklore – the plodding walk, the high-pitched voice, the unruly hair – and always quick with a poignant story or joke. He is, in short, a more humanized yet still “great emancipator.” But what is missing here?
As I see it, there are at least two missing and relatively easy-to-produce pieces of context that would have offered a more nuanced portrayal of Lincoln and the debate over the Thirteenth Amendment. One, the most passionate advocates to end slavery were African Americans themselves, including the legendary Frederick Douglass, in 1865. Rather than depict a debate limited to the congressional chambers, the film could have offered small but vital glimpses of the true context in which Lincoln operated – a city in which a vibrant free black community made its case for abolition. Instead, blacks play supporting roles in their own history, yet again, as soldiers and domestic staff with which Lincoln engages, but only reluctantly and paternalistically.
Two, by focusing solely on the first few months of 1865, the movie offers little understanding of the journey Lincoln – or the nation, really – had taken on the subjects of slavery and racism. While there are a couple of oblique moments that suggest what Lincoln had thought about slavery and race at an earlier time, the film could have been far clearer and more suggestive of the personal journey he made from Whig politician and railroad lawyer to a war-weary second-term president. As historian Eric Foner has suggested, Lincoln was in a much different place in 1865 than he was in 1848, 1860, or even 1862. Ending the movie with Lincoln’s brilliant second inaugural address makes for excellent cinema. But it undermines this journey and risks freezing him in place – as the public memory has with so many other historical figures cut down in their prime (Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy). Viewers have less of a sense of where he has been if we only view him through the prism of the Third Amendment debate.
A movie as grand and provocative as “Lincoln” deserves a full essay, and not just a blog post. There is much more to say – particularly about how the film appears to comment on contemporary politics and the value of pragmatic, seemingly coarse horse-trading in order to achieve great things (perhaps in an allusion to another pragmatic president from Illinois). The film also illustrates the clear toll the war took on the Lincolns and how that contrasts with the political leaders in the twenty-first century. But, if anything, I encourage those interested to watch “Lincoln” and consider this: what voices are not represented here and why?