My take on the film that has every AmericanStudier talking.
I can’t say that I have a ton to add to the interesting and evolving conversations about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. For one thing, some of our most talented and compelling public scholars and historians have already weighed in: see for this example the exchanges compiled by Ta-Nehisi Coates here; or the many posts and responses on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog. I can’t recommend strongly enough that anyone interested in the film and in the questions of how it represents Lincoln, the Civil War, African Americans, and history check out those conversations, and the many spaces and voices to which they link. And to be honest, whatever my own merits as a public AmericanStudier, I have in this case one glaring flaw compared to all those voices: I haven’t seen the film yet!
So I can’t—or at least shouldn’t, because god knows us academics are more than capable of analyzing things we haven’t actually seen but should try to resist that urge whenever possible—speak to the film’s specific choices and details. I can say that I was very excited to learn that Ely Parker shows up, played by a first-time Native American actor; but subsequently disappointed to find out that he apparently has no lines and only stands behind Ulysses S. Grant in a few scenes. I suppose that detail could be said to represent in miniature the critique of the film articulated most famously by historian Kate Masur, both in New York Times op-eds and on Coates’ blog: that it includes minority characters (specifically African Americans in her critique) but does so more as background than in the leading roles they often took in the era’s social and political movements and progress. Obviously no film can do or include everything, but just as Masur wishes for even individual lines or details that could point to such active roles for characters already present in the film (like Mrs. Lincoln’s attendant Elizabeth Keckley), so too would I love the thought of Ely Parker having even a couple lines through which to represent his amazing American life and perspective.
But if we leave aside questions of what the film does and doesn’t include (on which, again, I defer in any case to those who have seen it—if you have, add your take below, please!), these conversations have also raised for me a broader issue that I wanted to highlight and on which I would also love to hear your takes, fellow AmericanStudiers. That question, which Coates himself raises in the above-linked post with which he concludes the week’s roundtable, has to do with the effects and influences of a historical film like Lincoln. Coates argues briefly for (or at least wonders aloud about) one possibility, a positive end of the spectrum, in which a film like this prompts further conversation, additional films, new voices and emphases, ongoing investigations and researches, and so on. Since such further response is one of the central goals of my own public AmericanStudying, I certainly love that idea. But I also worry about the opposite end of the spectrum—that a successful and impressive work such as Spielberg’s film can become a main source of interpretation and thus ultimately of history for many Americans, shutting down more than (or at least as much as) it opens up in our narratives and understandings of our history and identity. It’s not either-or, but these are two hugely distinct, and in many ways opposed, effects that a towering historical work can produce—and obviously each would mean very different things in terms of the exclusions or absences that worry historians such as Masur.
So what do you think? What’s your take on the film, specifically, in terms of these broader questions of effect and influence, or on any other level? Would love to hear ‘em!
Next series starts Monday,
12/8 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two unique, witty, and very talented 20th century cultural figures, James Thurber and Sammy Davis, Jr.
12/9 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Emmett Kelly, perhaps America’s most famous clown and one of the only ones to wed that art to social commentary; and John Cassavetes, one of the godfathers of independent cinema and a truly original American artist.
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