While ‘Lincoln’ May Be a Wonderfully Crafted Film It Still Fails At Honestly Reflecting History


'Lincoln' movie poster

It comes as no surprise that Steven Spielberg’s latest work, Lincoln, is garnering rave reviews. It is, after all, about one of America’s favorite historical icons, Abraham Lincoln, the president who is most notable for and credited with freeing the slaves and saving the Union. Just a glance at some of the reviews of Spielberg’s Lincoln:

In Steven Spielberg’s brilliant, brawling epic about the last four months in the life of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln takes a few hits up there on his marble pedestal. Political double-dealing was not beyond this American icon, not when his country was struggling in the darkness. What Honest Abe gets back from this defiantly alive film is his humanity – flaws, fears and personal feelings that serve to deepen his thoughts rather than distract them. – Rolling Stone

To say that this is among the finest films ever made about American politics may be to congratulate it for clearing a fairly low bar. Some of the movie’s virtues are, at first glance, modest ones, like those of its hero, who is pleased to present himself as a simple backwoods lawyer, even as his folksy mannerisms mask a formidable and cunning political mind. – New York Times

“Lincoln” is one of the best movies I have seen in years……Lincoln served our country, and we are forever indebted to him. “Lincoln” has restored my faith in humanity. President Lincoln once said that he dreamt of a “place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” I now know that we will see that day, because I believe there is a Lincoln within all of us. – Lancaster Online

Of the many reviews I read, the words from Lancaster Online stayed with me most, because when I think of the many quotes by the former president that Americans and most historians take great pride in repeating, I often think of the ones that somehow seem to get left out of the history reports — ones such as the words he spoke regarding racial equality in a debate against Democratic challenger Steven Douglas on August 21, 1858.

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.

I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

- Abraham Lincoln

Later on in 1861, after the Civil War began and the issue of freeing the slaves arose Lincoln responded to his many critics who accused him of being an abolitionist by saying:

If I could save the Union, without freeing the slaves, I would do it. If I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because I believe it would help to save the Union.

These words, by his own admission, paint a very different picture of the Abraham Lincoln most Americans choose to apotheosize. His Emancipation Proclamation, contrary to widespread belief was in fact not an emancipation of slaves nor abolition of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation freed only some slaves. It did not apply to those states, such as Kentucky, West Virginia or Maryland that were of the Union.

This American fairy tale I learned growing up as a child that is espoused throughout all classrooms and history books that the Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln were liberators of African-Americans is exactly that, a fairy tale. The notion that Lincoln was a “friend” and advocate for Black liberation is a farce. As Lerone Bennett, author of Forced Into Glory, so accurately expressed, had Lincoln had his way all Black people in America would have been shipped back to Africa from whence they came. Had Lincoln had his way there would not have been a Civil War let alone a Civil Rights Movement.

The fact that the film Lincoln chooses to portray the 16th president as a hero not only of Blacks but America, and the idea of American exceptionalism is merely indicative of the cognitive dissonance within American society. The reality that many Americans prefer to believe America, a land already belonging to and inhabited by another people, was ‘founded’. That slavery was somehow not so bad and we’s colored folk was happy picking cotton in the fields of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

Americans by and large are notorious for canonizing their history as opposed to factually reflecting it. The perpetuating belief that America is the land of the free and home of the brave. It is one big melting pot. Its founding fathers were trailblazers, heroes and freedom fighters as opposed to occupiers, exploiters and, by definition, criminals.

The real American history is one of brutality, one drenched in blood. But as James Baldwin so eloquently wrote in his essay “White Man’s Guilt,”

what they see is an appallingly oppressive and bloody history, known all over the world. What they see is a disastrous, continuing, present, condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility. But since, in the main, they appear to lack the energy to change this condition, they would rather not be reminded of it….history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do….it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror, one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.

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