I did my best when I reviewed Lincoln, and it was pretty good because I’m a certified genius, but to a certain degree, my analysis of it as entertainment value doesn’t matter nearly as much as how accurate it was as history. Because while certain biopics about historical figures go more for historical fiction than literal history (Braveheart, say), the ones that do purport to be factual have a certain amount of responsibility. It’s scarily easy for popular myths to drown out actual truths in the popular memory, like that time Teddy Roosevelt ate three whole pheasants and still mollywhopped a Cossack. I’m not a Civil War historian, so I leave the historical analysis up to the experts, like Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College Jim Downs, who recently wrote a nice piece on Lincoln for Huffington Post.
Downs’ take on Lincoln is, predictably, nuanced. He refutes other historians charges that Spielberg portrayed blacks as passive, arguing that the subtlety of their objections to the proceedings in the movie actually seems period accurate. He praises Gloria Reuben’s performance as Lincoln’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Keckley, as “a masterful portrayal of subtlety and dissemblance” – a delicate balancing act of dual consciousness, fulfilling white expectations while maintaining an inner self.
Meanwhile, Downs takes Spielberg (or screenwriter Tony Kushner, depending on how you look at it) to task for failing to present Lincoln and others’ true motivations for wanting to abolish slavery, a good deal of which was economic. (This part involves some spoilers):
At that point, I wanted to jump up in the theater in the spirit of Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire and exclaim, “show me the money.” Were there no economic motivations for abolishing slavery? Economic concerns were integral in starting the war — the South wanted to move west to expand cotton production and needed slave labor to ensure its capital growth. The North feared that if slavery expanded to the West, then the Northern economy would crumble as a result of competition and the general desolation that slavery left in its wake. Yet Spielberg’s Lincoln never tips his stovepipe hat to economic considerations for ending slavery nor do any of the members of Congress who speak ardently for passage of the bill. In the film, the Speaker of the House, in an unprecedented move, interrupts the proceedings to announce that he wants to add his vote to the tally, claiming that he was breaking parliamentary procedure and voting for the bill in the name of history. Are we really supposed to believe that the whole of Congress voted to end slavery based solely on how they thought history would remember them, or did their economic self-interests play a part?