Spielberg knows right way to make history
Share with others:
On March 15, 1915, "Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's revisionist take on Reconstruction and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, became the first film ever to be screened at the White House.
President Woodrow Wilson was so moved by Griffith's racist tale of black banditry, Northern carpetbaggers and uppity mulattoes trying to "impose" their will on decent white folks, that he allegedly said its visual histrionics was akin to "writing history with lightning."
Wilson and Griffith have been dead for decades, but it would be worth a macabre court order exhuming both their graves just to see if their skulls disintegrated from the weight of history's most recent rebukes.
"Lincoln," the new Steven Spielberg film about President Abraham Lincoln's attempt to win ratification of the 13th Amendment, was screened last Thursday at the White House. Had Griffith been around to see it, he would have been appalled that a biracial man who identifies as black has been elected not once, but twice, as president of the United States.
"Birth of a Nation" was nothing if not a burning cross on America's front lawn about the inevitability of such an election, if the nation didn't turn away from the slippery slope of black enfranchisement.
In a way, President Barack Obama's screening of "Lincoln" at the White House nearly a century later was a middle finger to Griffith, Wilson and their entire generation that thought poll taxes and night riders would stave off this day forever.
"Lincoln" opens with something we haven't seen in previous films about the Civil War (with the exception of "Glory"): a regiment of black soldiers killing Confederate rebels in the brutal intimacy of hand-to-hand combat in a muddy field.
The slow motion ballet is a stunning reminder of the role blacks played in their own liberation 150 years ago, a lesson maddeningly obscured by the political debates "Lincoln" concentrates on for the next 150 minutes. Unfortunately, after the opening scene blacks play roles only marginally better than furniture.
While it would've been nice to have gotten a glimpse of Frederick Douglass or a black abolitionist or two, Mr. Spielberg was obsessed with illustrating the sausage-making that was the fight in the House of Representatives to outlaw slavery, which was sought in advance of the South's surrender and its inevitable return to the Union after the war.
Because the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freeing all the slaves in Confederate territory was a wartime act, President Lincoln feared the return of the status quo unless the Constitution explicitly outlawed it.
Lincoln as portrayed by the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis is no starry-eyed progressive cursed with melancholy and egalitarian fever dreams. He's a ruthlessly practical politician who considers slavery a barbaric practice unworthy of a great nation on the cusp of the 20th century.
The film explores Lincoln's attempts to navigate the demands of both the Radical Republican faction in his party, who called for immediate emancipation, voting rights for blacks and the confiscation of Confederate land, and the more accommodating bloc that was more than willing to live with slavery as the price to end the war.
Meanwhile, the Democrats made up an avowedly racist party that contemptuously referred to the recently re-elected Republican president as "Abraham Africanus" and "the Great Dictator." The do-nothing Tea Party brigade in the House today looks like a paragon of democratic probity and virtue compared to these guys.
Lincoln knew he could count on both wings of the Republicans to vote his way in the end, but instead of trying to persuade a minority of Democrats to live up to the ideals of American democracy, he looked the other way while surrogates hired by his secretary of state bribed, blackmailed and cajoled Democratic House members for their votes.
It will come as a shock to those who think of Lincoln in exclusively gauzy and heroic terms that he was willing to engage in sleazy tactics to get what he considered a righteous outcome -- the restoration of the Union and the abolition of slavery -- after a war that would eventually claim over 600,000 lives.
Recently, I got a call from a reader arguing that the Civil War was about the theft of the South's resources by the North and the repudiation of states' rights. What the Civil War absolutely wasn't about, according to him, was slavery. "Do your homework and study the true history of this country," he ranted.
If I knew where to find him, I'd donate a movie ticket to this idiot.
First Published November 20, 2012 12:00 am