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The white supremacism of “Lincoln”

The one truly good thing about Lincoln is that it’s inspiring some great articles and opinion pieces examining Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy, the Civil War, and slavery. There was an excellent article in the NYT that pointed out how the movie never touches on the efforts of African Americans to free themselves. And here are excerpts from another thoughtful critique of Lincoln by Corey Robin (with a few parts I bolded):

Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment…The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.

The film in fact does a remarkable job…of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes…to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.


For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.

What is so odd about this film…is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in it objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.

The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.

Robin also points out that Steven Spielberg was initially thinking about doing a movie focusing on the relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (why hasn’t there been an epic Douglass biopic instead of yet another Lincoln movie?). Additionally, Spielberg used Team of Rivals as source material, but chose to focus on 3 pages in the book—3 pages that happened to not discuss the role of black people in abolition efforts. All in all, the movie didn’t have to sideline black people in showing how the 13th Amendment was passed—that was a choice.

As for Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, he seems to hold some seriously messed up views about Reconstruction. In an interview with NPR, he said:

The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.

This is a really backwards, revisionist, white supremacist view of Reconstruction that focuses on the supposed plight of white southerners at the hands of a vengeful north. Please remember that many Reconstruction laws were passed specifically to protect freedmen and integrate them into society. Despite what some white southerners would have you believe, Reconstruction wasn’t entirely an effort by the north to humiliate and punish the south.

Kushner’s references to “the abuse of the South” and the rise of “self-protection societies” (what a fucking euphemism!) like the KKK has its roots in a white supremacist historical school of thought. Dunning argued that freedmen were incapable of participating in government and that white southern terrorism and barbarity to black southerners (e.g. the KKK) was a somehow justifiable or understandable reaction to Reconstruction.

Here’s historian Eric Foner’s criticism of the Dunning School:

Their account of the era rested, as one member of the Dunning school put it, on the assumption of “negro incapacity.” Finding it impossible to believe that blacks could ever be independent actors on the stage of history, with their own aspirations and motivations, Dunning, et al. portrayed African Americans either as “children”, ignorant dupes manipulated by unscrupulous whites, or as savages, their primal passions unleashed by the end of slavery.

When you get down to it, white southerners thought that not being allowed to prevent African Americans from exercising their newly won civil and political rights was a form of ‘abuse’ by the North. They were afraid of blacks gaining any measure of political and economic power. So the KKK and similar groups arose to terrorize black southerners into docility. As with the Confederacy itself, there’s no way to spin the KKK as anything but an expression of white supremacy. And if you do hear such spinning, watch out.

So don’t believe revisionist depictions of Reconstruction as a horrible, terrible thing. Despite the corruption and inefficiency, Reconstruction was overall better than the alternative. Remember that when Reconstruction ended, white southerners immediately passed laws that basically nullified the Fifteenth Amendment and kept black southerners politically and economically marginalized for decades, essentially ensuring that blacks would remain a source of cheap labor. When you hear Kushner refer to groups like the Ku Klux Klan as ‘self-protection’ societies, remember what those societies were actually protecting: white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

What’s important about Kushner’s reference to the Dunning account of Reconstruction is that it highlights the main problem with Lincoln: it suggests black incapability. It doesn’t matter the film’s depiction of whites as saviors and blacks as hapless victims was created without malicious intent—it still upholds a white supremacist historical narrative.

Lincoln is what happens when you have white people in charge of the story—white faces and white voices are centered and a white supremacist view of history is put forward. This is particularly problematic because the white people in charge are prominent artists like Spielberg and Tony Kushner and the story they tell will be viewed by millions of people, many of whom are unaware that the abolition of slavery is a bigger, more complex, and far more interesting tale than whites freeing blacks. There’s nothing artistically challenging or novel about yet another narrative in which whites save hapless, nameless people of color.

What do Oskar Schindler and Abe Lincoln have in common??


When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about the Holocaust, he focuses on a German. When he makes a movie about abolition, he focuses on a white man. Say what you will, he’s consistent.