(Editorial note: This essay has been revised and updated from a previous version. 11/5/2014.)
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– and not social movements–are are responsible for progressive social change. From serious nonfiction 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 affirm a neoliberal economic and political system.
The only film listed above that manages to offer moments of subversion is 12 Years a Slave. Tellingly, it’s the sole film of the bunch directed by a Black artist. Its screenplay, too, was written by an African-American, and its three leading actors were all 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 which is also inconsistent with Solomon Northup’s memoir upon which the film is based.) This distortion wrongly contextualizes slavery as less an economic system and more a system of psychological cruelty1.
The screenplay for 12 Years a Slave also erases Northup’s insightful descriptions of 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.
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 he wanted to create 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 historical misremembering.
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 plus his three primary rivals—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860. By placing Lincoln within his broader sociopolitical context, Goodwin highlights what was extraordinary about him.
But Kushner 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 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 film’s antagonist is not a slavery advocate, 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.” With such disregard for facts, could Kushner be using Lincoln to mount a critique of contemporary progressive critics of the Obama administration?
In one disturbing scene in the film, Kushner and Spielberg suggest that the suffering of African-Americans for almost a century under Jim Crow and the continuing legacy of poverty that disproportionately harms the African-American community are worth it because no other historical course toward justice was possible. The forces that sought to maintain class and race privilege are depicted as “reasonable,” whereas people such as Stevens, who demanded full civil rights for all, are depicted as “unreasonable”.
With such shadings, Kushner becomes an apologist for the rampant human and civil rights violations of contemporary Democratic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Kushner has stated in the press 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 people2.
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 slam Stevens in a way that also engenders contemporary audience sympathy for Stevens’ allegedly extreme position. The film is arguing that Lincoln wanted African-American political liberation as profoundly as Stevens did but that Lincoln was the more pragmatic, dispassionate political force.
The evidence suggests that the historical Lincoln was far less focused on achieving justice for people of color. His approach to Native Americans illustrates this. In 1862, Lincoln 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, rather than a sense of humanitarian intervention3. The only opposition in Washington to his plans for increasing the intensity of the genocide of the Native American populations came from radicals like Thaddeus Stevens4.
12 Years a Slave and Lincoln are not the only Hollywood films guilty of historical revisionism. While Seth Graham Smith’s novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, includes realistic echoes of Lincoln’s biography (minus the vampires), his screenplay imagines a friendship between Lincoln and an African-American character, William H. Johnson, played by Anthony Mackie5. The filmmakers make Johnson into a sidekick who 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).6
Why is contemporary Hollywood prone to such acts of distortion? Of course, Hollywood did not become rooted in neoliberal propaganda overnight. Steven Spielberg’s box office hit Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) were reactions against in a Hollywood cinema that had been growing progressively more daring in terms of analysis of race, gender, capitalism and imperialism. The success of these predominantly White, overwhelmingly male-oriented, and ideologically conservative films led the film industry to two conclusions: one, that more money could be made producing films with white male protagonists; and two, that films ought to embrace the idea of the superiority of middle class values and American exceptionalism. While there has been critique of the lack of gender and racial diversity in Hollywood films, media critics pay less attention to the ways Hollywood has increasingly adopted neoliberal positions vis-à-vis global finance capital and U.S. imperialism. Films that are critical of the global economic structure and US military aggression are rarely produced by the current studio system. When they are produced, they tend to be met with hostility or bewilderment.
The success of neoliberal philosophers, historians and cultural critics such as Anthony Giddens, Todd Gitlin, Jim Sleeper and Francis Fukuyama has been a key factor in moving Hollywood away from support for narratives of oppressed communities liberating themselves and toward tales of saviors granting freedom to the downtrodden.
For example, Gitlin’s books, The Sixties: Years of Hope Days of Rage and Letters to a Young Activist have had profound effects on popular culture. In both books, Gitlin argues that the hopeful nature of the 1960s was ruined by leftwing militants. He goes so far in Letters as to argue that ““You either vote Democratic, or submit to the rule of the Republicans.” Gitlin blames anyone that tries to charge the dominant system with the responsibility for placing the oppressor into power. Arguments such as this have influenced Hollywood liberals to believe that the world needs exceptional heroes and elite structures to rescue impoverished and oppressed people. They further believe that people like Thaddeus Stevens or Frederick Douglass did more harm than good because they were “too extreme” in their belief that oppressed communities could empower themselves.
Yet Hollywood neoliberalism 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 relentless resistance from within enslaved African-American communities. They discount the radical White men, like Thaddeus Stevens, who worked in solidarity with African-American leadership.
For filmmakers to realistically portray a historical person like Lincoln as a political moderate “forced into glory”7 by the social forces of his time would help to delegitimize the idea that history is made by a few great (White) men. To realistically portray Black insurgency against slavery as a consistent aspect of the 19th century would suggest that racist violence and a racist legal system—not Black passivity and pathology—have held the African-American community in disproportionate poverty since the end of slavery.
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? Or that they resist critiquing the Obama administration in order 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. We must boldly and vigorously challenge Hollywood’s tendency to distort this history. Only then can we expect to get the kind of films that will support, rather than hinder, the struggle for human liberation.
- 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)
- Hans L. Trefousse Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Equalitarian p. 193-200, The University of North Carolina Press, (1997)
- David Herbert Donald Lincoln p. 20-47, Simon and Schuster (1996)
- 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.
- 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.