The month of November in the year 2013 will go down as documented proof that history runs on repeat. The irony of life is that time is ever evolving; yet the pains of being human are ancient. The citizens of the United States of America has re-elected Barack Obama as their 44th President. When the numbers are exposed, the story that is told revolves around the theme of divisiveness. The red states remained red. The blue states remained blue. Once again, two men battling to govern over hundreds of millions of people depended on the few battleground states that could have been persuaded either way. Yet and still, there were very few surprises.
That story reminds me of how timely Steven Spielberg’s epic motion picture, Lincoln, really is. The script, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, follows the 16th President during his last few months of living after being re-elected in 1864. The United States is engrossed in a brutal civil war that’s near its end. The Lincoln administration has placed a 13th Amendment to the Constitution before Congress; that if passed, would abolish slavery in every state. Lincoln is faced with the difficult decision of pushing the bill forward while the end of war is in sight. The performances were nothing short of enthralling, most notably Daniel Day-Lewis as the title character and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Sally Fields put ten years of desiring to play Mrs. Lincoln into one Hell of a performance. The cast was packed with familiar faces that although takes away from the experience of realism, prove to be well rounded and deeply committed. The lights went down and Spielberg delivered two and a half hours of well-crafted, ingenious filmmaking. The film held on its last shot as Day-Lewis as Lincoln delivered a speech about staying current and moving away from evils that would poison the hearts of men. If you’re like me, you were wondering why the movie hadn’t ended on a previous spectacular and haunting image of Lincoln departing the White House for his last night of entertainment. Good thing there are no teasers when it comes to a movie about Abraham Lincoln. Which may have been the reason the theater lights came on to no applause. Just a thin silence followed by the heavy drone of footsteps headed toward the exit.
This is not a movie review. Instead, this is a critique of a missed opportunity. This is me really trying to understand the decisions that were made when it came time to tell this story. Today, I shared a cab with a co-worker of mine that happens to be a Caucasian woman. As we cruised toward the AOL building for an evening of live stream video recording, the topic of discussion fell upon Lincoln. She asked if I had seen it and I informed her that I had. She asked my opinion and I spoke nothing but praise. I wasn’t sure if I could actually explain the real issue I have with the film. After asking of her opinion, she told me that she couldn’t connect to the story and didn’t understand why. I explained that traditional storytelling techniques work because the listener, or viewer, signs on for a ride of unpredictable events. The excuse was that her emotions were not wrapped up in the characters because she knew every single outcome of the plot before the first second of film even rolled. The 13th Amendment is passed, the Union troops are victorious in war, and Abraham Lincoln meets his fate at the hands of an enraged actor. You allow yourself to get caught in the tension of the film, but moments befall upon you when your minds says, “Hold up. Why am I invested? I know what happens.” This isn’t a sporting event. No one’s behind is on the edge of his or her seat.
But then again, I wondered if it was deeper than that. Why didn’t anyone clap? Why were there a hundred solemn faces departing the space after such a well-made movie? Could it be that the culture of America is changing? The 2012 presidential election has shown us that a new agenda is required of our politicians. Conservative Republicans believed they could rely on the same principles and demographics that came to symbolize the party in the early 80’s. They were wrong. The United States of America is becoming less White. The power of representation has shifted. After that became so apparent from a loss that Republican candidate Mitt Romney has yet to fully accept, I went to see Lincoln in a theater packed with Caucasian moviegoers. The race of the room doesn’t matter. What DID matter was the color I saw on the screen. In a biopic about one of the most popular leaders the United States had ever seen, Spielberg and the screenwriter chose to focus on Lincoln’s tenacity in freeing the Black slaves. Although that was the case, the most important color on that screen was White. ALL WHITE protagonists. Allow me to clarify that statement. The definition of a protagonist is “one who plays the first part or the leading character or advocates of a political or social cause.” In theory, protagonists are main characters that fight for a specific goal with interests of bettering a situation. Before anyone makes a point to state that the movie had a couple of roles played by actors of color, I’d like to make the point that none of those characters are protagonists. Not one Black character in the film had an interest in being proactive in the fight for their humanity. Not the Black butler who had never been a slave but was still a servant. Not the Black caretaker who couldn’t take the nature of White politicians of the time being White politicians. And surely not Thaddeus Stevens’ Black life partner who received the signed bill from her White lover as a gifted gesture saying, “There you go, baby doll. Now all of your family can be free just like you.” There were just a number of Black characters standing around and applauding the cause. I have no qualms with service roles. The year was indeed, 1864 to 1865. I also know my history and the hard truth is that there were no African-American members of Congress at the time. And that’s what this film was about, right? The battle within Congress to allow Black people their freedom and to make the country whole again.
The culture of Hollywood may be on the fringe of discovering that America requires more. Steven Spielberg had an opportunity to really say something impactful. The issue is that he isn’t aware of the separation caused by his interest in casting away America’s prejudices. Spielberg dreams of a utopia where the American citizens grasp one another’s hands and realize that we are all in this together. Every color of the rainbow. The rich and the poor. He’s out of touch with the new audience. When interviewed about the inspiration behind the project, Spielberg was quoted saying, “what permanently ended slavery was the very close vote in the House of Representatives over the 13th Amendment– that story I’m excited to tell.” Screenwriter Tony Kushner was quoted saying he was interested, “in the relationship between Lincoln and the abolitionist GOP.” From the outset, pertinent roles of color are navigated around to arrive at a story that at its core is about a triumphant moment of African-Americans being saved. Nothing about this movie actually focused on the complexities of Abraham Lincoln. Yeah he was in a complex situation. But Abraham Lincoln was a political genius. That was continuously expressed. Nothing is new here. What would’ve been new was the original screenplay for the film. The one about Lincoln’s relationship to Frederick Douglass. Spielberg refused to shoot that script and Mr. Douglass ultimately became invisible in Lincoln’s journey to abolish slavery. This was to Steven Spielberg’s choosing. When the story becomes Congress’ success in bringing this country together and alleviating the bondage of a million people, African-Americans become a microcosm of their own history. When this history is taught through the lens, Spielberg justifies the current stereotype that Black people are not taking the responsibility to advance their community. Mitt Romney recently made a comment about Democrats giving us gifts. This insinuates that supporters of Obama are making it through life only with the total dependence on government. Obama’s largest supporters are people of color and the LBGT community. What I’m trying to get at here is that Hollywood refuses to teach us that Black people fought damn hard to be free in this country. And that Black people fought damn hard to be respected in this country. Yes, a Congress of all White males had to vote on a bill that abolished slavery. On the flipside of the coin, Black people fought in a way that left that all White Congress no other real logical choice. Do we deserve at least one role of significant notice in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic? Goddamn right we do. This movie could have been about Abraham Lincoln growing up in Illinois. This movie could have been about Abraham Lincoln losing the Illinois Senate race to Stephen Douglas after delivering his famed “A House Divided…” speech. That loss was one of the most important political defeats in American history. The movie could have even been about Lincoln’s first term in office. None of which were the case. Audiences around the world will see two and a half hours of Abraham Lincoln trying to free the slaves before the sun sets on the Civil War. And they will see this movie without the pleasure of seeing anyone Black fighting alongside him.
And maybe the audience believed they would get to see a complicated man. The Abraham Lincoln that history books fear would break the little hearts of many children in this country. Not the man we were given who was passive about his feelings toward Black enfranchisement. But the Abraham Lincoln who was disgusted by the physical and psychological effects of slavery, but equally unnerved by considering Black people to be equal to Whites. The Abraham Lincoln that felt Black people was better suited back in Africa. The Abraham Lincoln that would have had an interesting second term battling the impressions of Thaddeus Stevens and Frederick Douglass on the rights of man during Reconstruction. Steven Spielberg and Disney made it okay for us to believe in the invisible Black man and the Willy Wonka version of Abraham Lincoln. Thus, we were given the same old medicine. Look alive, Hollywood. Your audience is not suffering the same symptoms anymore.