2013 Academy Awards

12.26.12

What ‘Lincoln’ Gets Wrong About Black Leaders and the 13th Amendment

Lincoln is an epic yarn, worthy of our praise. But where are the historic black leaders? You’re better than that, Spielberg, writes Allison Samuels.

A year ago, I began hearing chatter from those in the know in the entertainment industry about the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, the movie is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Team of Rivals. The book masterfully follows the Lincoln presidency through the lens of his relationships with three key cabinet members who were also his opponents for election in 1860. 

Spielberg’s film is more narrowly focused on the last four months of Lincoln’s life and his efforts to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed by the House of Representatives to formally end slavery in the United States. 

Though several of my friends ventured out to see Lincoln and eagerly came back with rave reviews, I had little interest in revisiting the painful past of slavery—especially through eyes of white Hollywood or a heroic biography of Lincoln. 

Like many, I watched one of the first mainstream accounts of slavery in Roots with my family several times as a child. And despite Quentin Tarantino’s recent harsh critique and dislike for the '70s television miniseries, I admit I rather enjoyed Alex Haley’s account that traced his lineage back to Africa. The names “Kunta Kinte” and “Chicken George” continue to be strong cultural touchstones for an entire generation of African-Americans.  

Roots notwithstanding, the majority of Hollywood accounts of slavery and the African-Americans who were enslaved in film and television seemed both contrived and absent of many of the crucial facts that actually shaped that violent and cruel period in American history. They also seemed more concerned with the stories of the enslavers and not the enslaved. With that in mind I often tried to avoid Hollywood’s treatment of that period at all cost.  

Two weeks ago my decision not to see Lincoln ended abruptly as a friend kindly invited to me a reception and viewing hosted by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for screenwriter Tony Kushner. The award-winning actresses have been friends with the writer for years and wanted to show support by hosting an intimate gathering in his honor.  

As I prepared for what I assumed would be yet another sweeping drama about the great white men who worked tirelessly to end slavery, I reminded myself of the immense respect I’ve always had for the talents of Spielberg, Day-Lewis, Jones, and James Spader.  But would that be enough? 

The opening of the film was exactly as I expected—grand and magnanimous as films like these tend to be. For nearly three hours, I was absolutely absorbed by the amazing story of what’s arguably one of the country’s most prolific and brilliant leaders. Daniel Day-Lewis embodied Lincoln’s essence in every sense during the film. The seven Golden Globe nominations are surely only the beginning of the awards that will pour in for Spielberg and his crew.  

Still, no matter how skillfully written Lincoln was or how masterfully acted the performances were, I still walked away from the viewing with the same exact hollow feeling I’ve had with every other film about that period. The story was woefully incomplete. How could Spielberg, and what I assume were a host of consultants and historians feel so comfortable in completely omitting the role of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and other black leaders during that time? How could they so boldly imply that no one of African descent was involved in pressuring Lincoln to free slaves? To suggest that blacks, freed or otherwise, were mere bystanders in these decisions is factually incorrect and just plain offensive.

And it could have been remedied so easily. I would have been appeased by a simple line indicating Lincoln had met with Douglass at some point. Anything to avoid the oversimplification and total lack of a single prominent black presence during such a well-documented historical act. 

I was certainly not alone in my frustration that such a great film would leave such a gaping hole. Rutgers professor Jelani Cobb tweeted nonstop about the glaring omission of Douglass and even felt compelled to give his more than 8,000 followers a history lesson on what actually happened as Lincoln negotiated the 13th Amendment.  

“Douglass pushed Lincoln on this issue constantly and was consistently critical of him,” wrote Cobb. “Lincoln met with other black leaders in the White House where Lincoln floated the idea of black people leaving the country once we were emancipated. But Douglass blew a gasket. Lincoln sent several hundred blacks to Haiti where he envisioned creating a colony to deport African-Americans.” 

I would have been appeased by a simple line indicating Lincoln had met with Douglass at some point.

Could all of that historical information fit into a film focused on the last four months of Lincoln’s life? Of course not. No one is suggesting it should have been. But having interviewed Spielberg several times while he filmed Amistad—another slavery-themed film released in the ’90s—I know full well he’s aware of the significant role abolitionists played during this period. Maybe because he used them so significantly in Amistad he felt there was no need to mention them again in Lincoln. Or maybe the fact that he had both Debbie Allen and Henry Louis Gates as producers and consultants on Amistad made the difference.

Either way, history is history. Fact is fact. Telling the complete truth about a great man doesn’t make him any less great nor does giving credit where credit is due to another notable figure in history.