More “Lincoln” Criticism: What Does Spielberg’s Film and Ethics Alarms Have In Common?

lincoln crop

I won’t hold you in suspense, and no, it’s not that I expect or deserve any awards. What Steven Spielberg’s justly acclaimed historical drama and this blog have in common is being unfairly peppered with a presumptuous breed of complaint that nears the top of my all time “Unfair Criticisms List.”

Here, the complaint usually takes this form: “Why are you writing about Chex Mix labeling when [Pick ONE:] a) we’re about to give up our sovereignty and let anyone just break the law to come across the border? b) Fox news lies to the public every day? c) there are unethical things going on that I care about more ?” Regarding Lincoln, the favorite criticism in the media and on the web of late has been that in the process of showing the sausage-making and political maneuvers that allowed the 13th Amendment to become the law of the land, Spielberg neglected to show the evils of slavery, which, of course, if he were to do without risking the criticism (which he would get anyway) that he did so in a perfunctory and inadequate way, would require either lengthening the film to an unwatchable length, or cutting out significant portions of the story he chose to tell. This obnoxious complaint was brought to a full-throated crescendo by Tony Gittens, director of the Washington, D.C., International Film Festival, in today’s Washington Post. He writes:

“Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” will probably walk away with this year’s Academy Award for best picture, and that would be unfortunate. As Post film critic Ann Hornaday pointed out , “Enslaved people and the terror they endured in the 19th-century South are never portrayed” in the film. Mr. Spielberg did not shy away from depicting the extent of man’s institutionalized cruelty in his moving “Schindler’s List.” Why not in “Lincoln”? Worse, the film ignores the contributions African Americans made toward their own liberation. Instead, they are portrayed as loyal Union soldiers and observers from the balcony as Congress debates their fate. This was simply not the case. From the moment they were brought to these shores, African Americans resisted their enslavement, spawning leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. In fact, at the time “Lincoln” takes place, Washington had a significant free black population, many of whom walked the streets in front of the White House. But this is not portrayed. “Lincoln” concludes with stalwart abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, a white man, in bed with his compliant African American housekeeper. All of the dramatic political maneuvering we had just witnessed on the screen, the struggle of lawmakers to come to grips with how to help make right years of unjust legalized oppression — all of this is reduced to the conjugal relationship between two disparate individuals. Here, once again, “Lincoln” misses the point.”

No, Mr. Gittens misses the point, and it should be a hard point to miss. This wasn’t the movie Spielberg chose to make, or the story he chose to tell.  “Lincoln” is about one man’s efforts to achieve a legal and cultural change of epic proportions in the face of overwhelming political and human obstacles. The fact that a superb movie was made about one particular, vital aspect of the battle to end slavery doesn’t suggest that it was the only aspect,  or that other parts of the story aren’t equally compelling or important. Gittens cites Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” as a model, yet that film was assailed by some critics who asked why Oscar Schindler rated such heroic cinematic treatment above hundreds of other equally courageous  people who risked their lives to save Jews from Hitler’s extermination. For that matter, perhaps Mr. Gittens should consider asking why  Spielberg restricted “Schindler’s List” to the Nazi’s inhumanity to Jews, and neglected to make comparisons to American slavery.

It is fair to judge an artist according to his or her success at meeting the goals of the creative product the artist chooses. It is not fair to criticize an artist for not seeking the goals the critic prefers. I’d suggest to Mr. Gittens that a disturbing and graphic depiction of the horrors of slavery has been easily available to anyone interested and literate since 1852, in a remarkable novel he may have heard of, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. So thoroughly achieved was the author’s goal of portraying those horrors to previously unenlightened Americans that her novel lit the fuse that led to the explosion of the Civil War, The story told in “Lincoln” is just a later chapter in an epic tale she began. Stowe achieved her mission, Spielberg his, and yes, other chapters need to be written. By Gitten’s own logic, why is he running an international film festival in a majority African American city, if he is so dedicated to getting the full story of American slavery told? Rather than sitting on the sidelines attacking those who have done their self-assigned parts brilliantly, he should write his own chapter.

In other words, Tony, make your own damn movie.

 

28 thoughts on “More “Lincoln” Criticism: What Does Spielberg’s Film and Ethics Alarms Have In Common?

  1. Reminds me of the argument that Spike Lee had about about Eastwood not having any dark green Marines, there is no such thing as white and black in the Corps only different shades of green, in Flags of Our Fathers. It was a dumb argument then and it is now.

  2. My only quarrel with the film is that I thought it should have been called “The 13th Amendment”, not “Lincoln”. The 13th Amendment was the context and lens for the film and it was less about Lincoln IMHO.

    • But from a ,marketing and dramatic approach, you don’t really believe that, do you? “The 13th Amendment” sounds like a History Channel documentary. By that argument, “Titanic” should have been called “Jack and Rose.” “Fargo” should have been called “Brainerd.” “Casablanca” should have been called “Everyone Goes To Rick’s” (and the play was.). “Poltergeist” should have been called, if accuracy were a consideration, “That Thing that Took Carol Ann Into The TV Set.” “Tombstone” was about “Wyatt Earp, but there was already a movie out called “Wyatt Earp.” What does Scarlett and Rhett’s star-crosed romance have to do with “wind”?

      • No, you’re right. From a dramatic and especially a marketing approach, I don’t believe that. It’s just my pet-peeve that I didn’t get to see more of Lincoln’s history. See a perspective of “Senator Lincoln”. I’m sure there are other fascinating stories that can and will be told on the man, but I was just a little sad about the narrow focus of the film. But again, like I said, my own “pet-peeve” and bias.

  3. And of course, in his hurry to condemn someone else for not getting the full picture of history, he quotes a critic who forgets to mention the horrors endured by slaves in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey at the same time.

  4. I agree with the points you make here, and appreciate the modest qualifier. In defense of those who have noted other issues that scream attention (at least to them) for ethics violations or concerns, would it be too cumbersome to have part of your site devoted to “readers’ ethics requests?” I am aware that this could create an inordinately large container for your purposes here, probably be rife with redundancies (however, once keywords were attached to the issue, perhaps there could be an auto message that states “this request has already been posted”), as well as the fact this is your blog and you are busy enough already, but something like this would at least give recourse to those who would otherwise comment on their preferred issue in the wrong place anyway for lack of better forum or post. Just a thought….

    • I’ll think on it. I receive a lot of suggestions and links on proposed topics, appreciate them and often use them, at my e-mail address. The vast majority of times someone says “why don’t you write about this?” I have, and often more than once.

        • Tongue in cheek, I presume. Nobody today takes any Shakespeare history as fact–the author was no historian, and his Queen had a penchant for beheading people. Unless, of course, he WAS the Queen. THAT would be unethical.

          • And of course Shakespeare’s plays, just like Spielberg’s screenplays, were simply a story that he wanted to tell using material he found interesting and material that would resonate with the viewers.

            So, historical accuracy standards have changed little in 500+ years

          • What is the “THAT” are you referring to?

            Are you saying if he was the Queen then his pushing of his fabricated version of history would be unethical?

            Are you saying that the Queen beheading people is unethical?

            A sideways commentary on Queen Elizabeth’s beheading of her own cousin and former queen, though thoroughly dethroned still posed a possible threat?

            I see recurring themes popping up…I’m sure Elizabeth I wouldn’t have hesitated to use drones against against Mary during her stay at Tutbury Castle.

            • Are you saying if he was the Queen then his pushing of his fabricated version of history would be unethical?
              The Queen pretending to be an apolitical dramatist to promote Tudor propaganda against the House of Lancaster? Dishonest. Unethical.

              Are you saying that the Queen beheading people is unethical?
              No, but it is, you know…without due process.

              A sideways commentary on Queen Elizabeth’s beheading of her own cousin and former queen, though thoroughly dethroned still posed a possible threat?
              Mary? Mary was murdered by state decree. Unethical.

              I see recurring themes popping up…I’m sure Elizabeth I wouldn’t have hesitated to use drones against against Mary during her stay at Tutbury Castle
              .
              “Tudors With Drones” would be a good Troma horror title.

              • I agree. Just curious what “That” was referring too.

                The potential movie would be Troma’s first period piece wouldn’t it? They’d need to dust off the wardrobes of other horrible period pieces, like Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and that other movie with Glenn Close and John Malkovich…

              • Wasn’t Mary, Queen of Scots beheaded pursuant to Act for the Safety of the Queen’s Person? Elizabeth signed the warrant, but only after a trial (which would not be considered fair by today’s standards, but probably came to the right result on the facts).

  5. Pingback: Great White Father Figure: Lincoln versus “Lincoln” « The Domino Theory by Jeff Winbush

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.