Slavery in Recent American Films: "Lincoln"

Previous posts centered on films about heroic African-Americans who were enslaved. Because slavery permeates American history and is our American tragedy no single film can represent the entirety of its story. Using a larger format the renowned television series, "Roots," broadcast in late January 1997, added needed substance to the history of slavery and its aftermath.

Parallel to "Roots" are recent films about Abraham Lincoln. One is "Lincoln" (2012) directed by the maestro, Stephen Spielberg. That film joins many dozens of films about the 16th president. Added to these films are approximately 15,000 books about Lincoln.

Lincoln's story--from poverty to President and the moral light of his century's greatest struggle--justified building the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 . In American history, illustrious moments of national advance occurred in front of the Memorial. The great statue looked upon Marian Anderson when she sang there on Easter Sunday in 1939. Having been denied use of Washington's Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Anderson performed on the steps of the Memorial as the guest of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Idealizing Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Similar events occurred in 1941, 1957, and in August 1963, when the March on Washington concluded in front of the Memorial. On August 28, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech, "I Have a Dream" in front of the Lincoln statue. It is impossible to not feel that Lincoln is meditating upon these events from his god-like throne as we witness them from below. Certainly King had immersed himself in Lincoln's writing.

Spielberg's film presents Lincoln as wry, savvy, and of implacable moral will. During the film we yearn to hear Lincoln's prose poem, The Gettysburg Address. Somewhat awkwardly Spielberg has a black Union soldier recite that speech back to Lincoln. Good enough. Those sentences, later engraved on an interior wall of the Memorial, discern the course of America's past and future. Lincoln speaks about the nation that will emerge after the War is ended and slavery will have been banished. As Garry Wills noted, Lincoln's grammar and style is muscular (masculine in that sense) while his imagery is about delivery, a nation that was conceived, a new birth of freedom, and the struggle to preserve that newborn nation (feminine in that sense).

In speeches that won him the Republican nomination for President, Lincoln looked back to the intentions of the Founders, "Our Fathers" as he called them. In his debates with Stephen A. Douglas, his Democratic opponent for the US Senate, and in his speech at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, Lincoln also looked forward. He recognized that the US began with an accommodation to slavery. While the Constitution of 1787 embodied compromises with slaveholders, that was an expedient. The Founders tolerated the existence of slavery; they did not promote it. For that reason, Lincoln said the Constitution did not contain the words "slave" and "slavery." This was done "on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man."

Lincoln's speeches and his address at Gettysburg were about expectancy. He hoped to reveal the intentions of the founders; he wished to identify their best selves with himself; he sought to visualize their promises fulfilled.

King was acutely aware of the location of his speech and the time, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (issued on January 1, 1863). He began by recalling the Proclamation and its hopes not yet fulfilled. In King's words, which amplify Lincoln's, the Declaration of Independence was "a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir."

The rousing conclusion of King's speech-"I have a dream"-embodied his religious genius for grounding political struggles in the Hebrew Bible's promise that justice emerges out of God's will. King cited the Prophet Isaiah's proclamation: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight." (Isaiah 40:4-5)

The Cost of Idealization: Our Tasks

Because Lincoln and King represent our better selves we idealize them. Persons who lived through the news of the assassination of either man (deaths that made them martyrs) remember the suffering each death caused for those who loved them. Spielberg's film deserved its dozen nominations for the Academy Award in 2013. Daniel Day-Lewis earned his Oscar for giving us the illusion of knowing Lincoln in our time. However, the cost of idealizing Lincoln and King is that we may value the feelings they arouse in us and go no further. Our task is to move from feeling linked to them through our emotions to being linked to them through our actions.

Forthcoming Book: On the Pleasures of Owning Persons: the Hidden Face of American Slavery (April 2016).