Where Are Black Americans in Lincoln?

Lincoln PosterI saw Lincoln.  It was my first film of the New Year.  I love Sallie Field.  I was happy to see Gloria Reuben and S. Epatha Merkerson again, too.  And for some reason, that might have to do with him reminding me of one of my best friends’ moms (even though she is a redhead with finer features), I just think Tommy Lee Jones is so cute and real.  And Spielberg has widened and brightened my world since JAWS, ET and, of course, The Color Purple Schindler’s List remains a finger on my hands when I am asked to account for my favorite movies.

However, I am unsure how much to celebrate of a film that took nearly 3 hours to depict our 16th U.S.  President from my very own state of Illinois fighting for a world-altering decision to grant equal consideration under the law to Negro Americans- but there is scarcely a Negro in the film.  As a matter of fact, in The Lincoln Institute’s online classroom for educators and classrooms, no Black Americans appear on the character or actors credits list which precede the educational content for the film.  So essentially, a new generation of Americans will approach and study this film to see and learn how much White Americans actually did love us.  Awww….  There will not be time in the classrooms, just as there was not time in the 3-hour film, to show just how much White and free Black abolitionists had to coddle Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to budge on what the wiser consider to have been an aloof approach to federal involvement in slavery and its eradication.  Here, even Frederick Douglass could not muscle his way to a significant part.  I could be missing an artistic point.  Or, I could be being honest: after so much has been done, Black Americans just may never satisfied with anything done about it.

As a Black American woman with many White friends and indeed friends of all races, I was supremely touched to see a cinematic dilation of an amendment that had always just been a mere fact in our history books and shared national conscience.   I brought a print-out of Tony Kushner’s script to the theater, offered on Roger Ebert’s website, to trace how the final scenes mapped onto a text where the House debates read as smoothly yet playfully as Shakespeare; Lincoln’s most famous lines could very well become the dozens played and “signifying” typically associated with Black working-class and hip-hop cultures. 

Lincoln validates my life choice to forbid my American origins in slavery, segregation and discrimination from defining and restricting my relationships by and to only those who share these origins.  It was a relief to see that White men and people who held the most power were also varied in how they wanted to define and restrict their lives–without a monolithic commitment to dehumanizing my people, but instead wide variance in their feelings about this humiliating historical period for their people.  And maybe that was the entire point of the film, beyond showing Lincoln’s distressing and nearly-debilitating conundrums: to move our nation closer to face values, understanding, acceptance, peace and healing by giving a diversified portrait to the scores of White men who were not “like that” back then.

It is a necessary and admirable point.  But I still missed seeing firsthand just whom these unequal Black American people were, from Abraham Lincoln’s weary and haunted eyes.  Mrs. Lincoln’s Black assistant and seamstress (Reuben) figures prominently at her side throughout and stays a dutiful object around which the Lincolns’ Negro sentiments pivot.   Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), the primary covert operative in the Republican playbook to outlaw slavery, has an interesting relationship with his housekeeper (Merkerson) as well.  A mute bundle of Blacks appears in the balcony at the final voting to pass the 13th Amendment that changed history for Black people across the world; in essence, the climax of the film is this January 31, 1865, Congressional voting day that decided Black Americans would no longer be vulnerable to sudden kidnapping from our native homelands to serve as unpaid, tortured workers on American soil.  

Despite Spielberg’s heavy hand in filming nearly palpable visions of human barbarity inflicted upon Jews in Schindler’s List, soldiers in Saving Private Ryan and African Middle Passage travelers in Amistad, Lincoln can hardly be considered gruesome;  it is quite gentle given its Civil War setting.  Its merits of realism lie strictly in its eerily-evocative ambience of Civil War America, almost as if the actors and crew had journeyed through a time capsule back to mid-nineteenth century America to show us how we may have seen it then if we had gone too.  About as flinching as it gets is a numbing scene where blood drains from a creaking wheelbarrow before the severed and mangled body parts of amputee soldiers are dumped into their ready-made collective burial plot; I can not remember if two or three Black men push the wheelbarrow, but more or less would not change my point.

Spielberg omits a grand finale showing Abraham Lincoln’s April 14, 1865,  assassination at the Ford Theater (that I remember being mercilessly quizzed on as early as 5th grade).  Instead, a character just announces it.  The grand finale he wished to leave with us, the last frame in our picture of Abraham Lincoln, is a calmed man hoping for happiness after the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to outlaw slavery in the whole of the United States of America and change the whole world as a result.  John Wilkes Booth, who ended Lincoln’s life, is not even a character in the film.  So I have to hope Spielberg gave similar pause and aesthetic judgment to the omission of Black Americans in a movie where Black Americans are the primary characters discussed.

One thought on “Where Are Black Americans in Lincoln?

  1. Kalisha-

    I wondered about the film. The advertisements for it were a little unimaginative. And though it sounds like a great cast, it seems the imagination could have been stretched. Perhaps someone will tell the story again and this time it will reflect the “primary characters discussed.”

    I enjoyed this review.

    Shaunda Holloway-

    Like

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