After my review yesterday on the book Lincoln’s Melancholy and mentioning that I had read that prior to seeing the movie, I wanted to share some of my reflections from my experience in the movie.
First, the movie wasn’t what I expected. I thought it was a more biographical movie, but was surprised to find out that the movie really only covered the last 4 months of Lincoln’s life, corresponding also to the ending of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment. This made me even more thankful I had read Lincoln’s Melancholy first and that I had previously read the well known and long Team of Rivals which the movie is partly based on.
The movie is pretty accurate in its portrayal of Lincoln. I’ve read a lot on him – thousands of pages worth, and it’s a great illustration of strong and secure leadership in the midst of untold horrors and pressures and pain. The politics of it was enjoyable too as was Tommy Lee Jones’ performance. It captured well the imperfect and flawed motivations of many on both sides of the 13th amendment debate and the entrenched racism of the time. As an illustration of high level leadership and leadership in anxious times, it was phenomenal and fairly honest and accurate.
It’s been interesting seeing some of the critiques of the movie, particular from some in the African-American community. There’s been some critique that this movie is a white guilt alleviation tool and another example of the white man celebrating itself while the true story of slavery is once again minimized and glossed over. I think there is some truth in this, though I think the criticism has to be viewed in context of expectations of what one would want the movie to be. But given the central theme of slavery, it was pretty glaring that Frederick Douglas was nowhere to be found. That alone is enough to alert folks to maybe some limited storytelling.
However, the movie is about Lincoln. And in doing so I think it does a great job even illustrating the politics around slavery. It does not attempt to tell the story through the African American perspective. I think that would have enriched the film and brought a greater weight and truth to its content and ethos. But it would have been a very different movie. I’d be equally interested in watching one that was focused on slavery and the 13th amendment from the African American perspective. But I also enjoyed the movie for what it was and that was a treatment of Lincoln’s political genius in very complicated times – and in this view, the movie was exceptional.
I think there’s things the movie could have done better to honor the African-American experience and perspective. I think there’s a kernel of truth in the criticism and I’m no one to say that people shouldn’t feel that way about the movie. I do think it’s unfortunate and unfair to judge the movie as a white feel good movie. I don’t think anyone in the movie except Lincoln comes off anything less than racist – and we all know Lincoln had his moments too in reality. The movie I think gives a pretty sober and unflattering portrayal of how the 13th amendment came to be and just how racist and dark those times were in how our country engaged diversity.
I think it’s fair to criticize the movie with what was desired to be reflected about the reality of slavery at the times and its aftermath. I think criticism must also be tempered in considering that the movie was about Lincoln and his political genius as the centerpiece, which is the centerpiece of Team of Rivals on which it’s based. And I don’t believe a movie that chooses to portray the life and politics of a significant figure in such a way should be automatically judged as racist or ignorant. Though I concede – it’s tricky business to do a biographical treatment of a white hero in the context where slavery is the center of the story’s conflict. And I will say that maybe such reactions show that we’re not able to celebrate some of these “political victories” together when there have been so many failures and painful ripples from the story of slavery. There is so much more work done for the sake of reconciliation that is still needed.
I want to say that I walked away more convicted as a white person as opposed to having my guilt about slavery alleviated. Maybe that’s because I’ve worked for a while in ethnic minority contexts – that I’m more attuned to how deep racism and power dynamics go. But I’m still white and my understanding only goes so far. Some of what impacted me though was the movie itself – whites were not the “heroes” (though Lincoln is portrayed that way, though with flaws). Whites were in two categories. Good racist and bad racist. There were courageous racists and jackass racists. It’s remarkable to me that the 13th amendment passed at that time. I think it should be celebrated – but it’s not the white establishment that is to be celebrated, and I don’t think the movie goes there. If anything, the movie shows just how toxic racism and discrimination is and how hard it is for people who benefit from power to consider an alternative reality that is inclusive of all people.
So if you find the movie to be a celebration of white, paternal leadership – I can live with that. I can see some of why one might see it that way despite my own perspective being much different. But I do think it’s a great movie that provides a remarkable window to the flawed, yet genius man and politician that God used in unbelievable ways at a crossroads in American history.
Feel free to share your own perspective if you’ve seen it. I’d love to hear your thoughts!