Why does Hollywood keep distorting history to portray exceptional individuals rescuing America from collective problems?
**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**
Recently, a number of acclaimed films focusing on the life of Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War have distorted historical reality to suggest that exceptional individuals, rather than social movements, are responsible for progressive social change. From serious historical dramas based on historical texts (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, Salvador Litvak’s Saving Lincoln) to fictionalized dramas set in historical times (Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), to works of fantasy and science fiction (Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Richard Schenkman’s Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies), these films work to further entrench a hegemonic neoliberal economic and political system.
The only film listed above that manages to offer moments of subversion is 12 Years a Slave, the sole film directed by a Black artist, with a screenplay written by an African-American, and with its three leading actors all having been born and raised outside of the U.S. The varied backgrounds of the film’s primary creative forces help explain why the film has a greater sense of ideological complexity.
Yet even 12 Years a Slave is flawed in its refusal to represent slavery as an economic system of extreme labor exploitation, such as when a slave in the film is casually murdered by one of his kidnappers (a ludicrous situation within the economy of slavery, where murdering a strong, able-bodied person was tantamount to setting a small fortune of currency on fire, and also inconsistent with Solomon Northup’s memoir upon which the film is based.)This distortion contextualizes slavery as less an economic system and more a system of psychological cruelty.
The screenplay for 12 Years a Slave also erases Northup’s insightful analysis on how enslaved people were in a constant state of rebellion. Like Tarantino’s Django Unchained, McQueen’s film is obsessively focused on Black passivity. The Black male protagonists in both films are exceptions to the rule of Black abject conformity.
Indeed, all of these films embrace narratives of exceptionalism. This fixation helps to explain why representations of Abraham Lincoln have become so popular—a trend perhaps best exemplified by the film Lincoln.
In interviews, Tony Kushner (the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright behind Lincoln) has repeatedly said that his interest was in creating a narrative that would relate to our time (and specifically to the struggles of the Obama administration). To do this, though, Kushner engages in a conscious act of misremembering historical facts.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Team of Rivals, upon which Lincoln is based, is conceptually brilliant: rather than a linear history of Lincoln’s presidency, Goodwin offers a parallel biography of Lincoln and his three primary rivals—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860. By placing Lincoln within his broader social context, Goodwin highlights both what was extraordinary about him, as well as what was typical of other male political leaders in this extraordinary time.
Kushner, on the other hand, created a largely fictionalized drama that emphasizes the greatness of Lincoln, portraying him as a man who had the good sense to not go too far in terms of granting African-Americans full civil rights and who is applauded for his great patience. (Kushner doesn’t seem to consider that it is rather easy to be patient about the human rights of a group to which you yourself do not belong.) The antagonist of the film is not a Southern leader of the Democratic Party but rather the Northern Radical Republican leader and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.
Kushner seems intent on denouncing radicalism as unrealistic, portraying the radical wing of the Republican Party as a bunch of hyper-emotional “wild boys.” In his casual disregard for historical facts, Kushner’s larger aim becomes clear—that is, to mount a critique of contemporary progressive critics of the Obama administration rather than any attempt to realistically portray political life during the time of the Civil War.
In one profoundly disturbing scene in the film, Kushner and Spielberg conspire, with great artistry, to suggest that the suffering of African-Americans for almost a century under Jim Crow and the continuing legacy of poverty that disproportionately affects the African-American community are worth it because any other historical course would have been impossible. The forces that moderately wanted to maintain class and race privilege are depicted as the “reasonable” forces. People such as Stevens, who demanded full civil rights for all humans, are depicted as “unreasonable”.
Kushner thus becomes an apologist for the rampant human rights and civil rights violations of contemporary Democratic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He stated that the election of Barack Obama “changed his politics” and that he now understands one has to “work within the system” if one really wants to help people1.
In a later scene in Lincoln, Kushner and Spielberg portray Stevens and Lydia Smith, an African-American woman Stevens employed as his housekeeper, in bed together reading the official copy of the 13th Amendment. By framing Stevens’s commitment to Smith as the motivational force for his politics, the film attempts to justify its argument that Lincoln had the more rational political analysis. Kushner manages to lodge a powerful critique against Stevens in a way that also engenders contemporary audience sympathy for his alleged extremism. The film is arguing that Lincoln wanted African-American political liberation as profoundly as Stevens did but that he was the more pragmatic political force.
In reality, Abraham Lincoln was a White supremacist who cared little about the fate of people of color. In 1862, he presided over the largest mass execution in American history, when 38 Dakota men were hanged in Minnesota. While Lincoln did also pardon over 250 men from hanging on that same day (the Army had wanted to execute 303 Dakota men), he pardoned them because of fear of European opinion, not out of any sense of humanitarian intervention2. His only opposition in Washington to his plans for increasing the intensity of the genocide of the Native American populations consisted of radicals like Thaddeus Stevens3. One might wish Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg had been questioned about Lincoln’s “pragmatism” and Stevens “lack of realism” vis-à-vis this issue.
12 Years a Slave and Lincoln are not the only Hollywood films guilty of neoliberal, historical revisionism. While Seth Graham Smith’s novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, includes realistic ties to Lincoln’s biography (minus the vampires), his screenplay imagines an almost farcical friendship between Lincoln and an African-American character, William H. Johnson, played by Anthony Mackie4. The filmmakers make Johnson into a pathetic sidekick who, in a pivotal scene, is kidnapped by vampires and has to be saved by Lincoln and two other White male friends. Their friendship allows the filmmakers to suggest that the North was a post-racial wonderland for African-Americans (a quality the film shares with the strange early scenes of 12 Years a Slave).5
Why is contemporary Hollywood prone to such acts of distortion? While there has been critique of the lack of gender and racial diversity in Hollywood films, critics have paid much less attention to the ways Hollywood has progressively adopted neoliberal positions vis-à-vis global finance capital and U.S. imperialism.
Yet the neoliberalism of Hollywood is a reflection of our larger neoliberal landscape. Liberal elites embedded in the Democratic Party would prefer to ignore the historical reality that slavery ended primarily because of the relentless resistance that existed within enslaved African-American communities, and to discount the heroism of radical White men, like Thaddeus Stevens, who worked in solidarity with African-American leadership.
To realistically portray a historical character like Abraham Lincoln as a political moderate “forced into glory”6 by the social forces of his time would help delegitimize the idea that history is made by a few great (White) men. To realistically portray Black radical insurgency against slavery as a consistent aspect of life during the 19th century would suggest that racist violence and a racist legal system has held the African-American community in disproportionate poverty since the end of slavery—not Black passivity and pathology. For neoliberals, history and contemporary reality must be recast into a form that protects the inequity and cruelties of the current global economic and political structure.
If liberals are consistently pushed by Hollywood to believe that progressives and radicals have been the “problem children” of history, is it any surprise that they shy away from working in coalition with them or even, at times, view them with hostility? If liberals are led to believe that Lincoln was a great man who would have accomplished even more if not for the distraction of critical gadflies, is it any wonder that a majority of liberals resist critiquing the Obama administration to give the President a chance to “save us”?
There is another way. The historical record supports the narrative that President Lincoln became a great President because he had so much pressure from a well-organized and militant left-wing (both electoral leaders like the radical Republicans and radical social movement leaders in the African-American and progressive White communities). We must boldly and vigorously challenge Hollywood’s tendency to distort reality in the name of elitist propaganda. Only then can we expect to get the kind of films that will enable, rather then hinder, the struggle for human liberation.
2 Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian American History of the American West, p. 40, Henry Holt, Owl Book edition (1991, copyright 1970)
3 Hans L. Trefousse Thaddeus Stevens:Nienteenth-Century Equalitarian p. 193-200, The University of North Carolina Press, (1997)
4 David Herbert Donald Lincoln p. 20-47, Simon and Schuster (1996)
5 For viewers familiar with the life of the real William H. Johnson, his representation in the film is problematic. Johnson was Lincoln’s personal valet in Illinois and he was brought with Lincoln to Washington DC upon his election as our 16th President. Johnson accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg for the famous address. While at Gettysburg, Lincoln contracted smallpox. The president was placed in isolation and was only cared for by Johnson. The president recovered but Johnson contracted the disease and died.
6 Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream is remarkable alternative study of the Lincoln presidency written by African-American historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in 2000. Bennett’s controversial book suggests that the true “great emancipators” were African-American activists and leaders and their white anti-racist allies.