Saturday, December 01, 2012

In Spielberg's Lincoln, don't underestimate Thaddeus Stevens

There is a legitimate criticism to be made that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln underplays the role of African Americans in their own liberation. The charge holds, notwithstanding that the opening battle sequence prominently spotlights black soldiers in a battle tableau of intense horror, immediately followed by a powerful scene in which a young black soldier, present at that battle, challenges Lincoln with the nation's failure to live up to the lofty sentiments expressed in the Gettysburg address. Kate Masur makes a convincing case  that  "it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them." Masur's complaint that the film renders passive two African American White House servants who were in fact effective activists seems to me inarguable.

Less legitimate, it seems to me, are complaints that the film glorifies political compromise (as opposed to inviting us to assent to ethically compromised political machinations, which it does do) - or that in valorizing Lincoln's pragmatic maneuvering, it correspondingly devalues the unalloyed abolitionism and racial egalitarianism of the radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens. So argues Ta-Nehisi Coates:

What Lincoln doesn't want to admit is that the radicals were right, morally and politically. When it comes to wisdom, better late than never, as they say. But it was radicals like Frederick Douglass—long before Lincoln, and long before the vast majority of white men charged with leading the war—who understood that this was war against slavery. Lincoln was late on that one. We don't need to see these events depicted for the script to evince some awareness of them. When Lincoln upbraids Thaddeus Stevens for offering bad, overly idealistic advice on how to end slavery, Stevens could just has easily upbraided Lincoln for shocking naiveté regarding how much the South depended on slavery.
As to who was "right politically," I'm not qualified to argue the point in detail. But the film's vantagepoint was endorsed in retrospect (in 1876) by none other than Frederick Douglass:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. *
While the film gives form and figure to that view of Lincoln, I don't think it fails to leave the viewer space to feel that "the radicals were right, morally." While Lincoln is undoubtedly the presiding genius of the film (and, per Douglass, of his age), Stevens, as played by Tommy Lee Jones, is no two dimensional foil. He is a savvy, subtle, worthy frenemy -- and one whose values are closer to the presumptive values of the audience than Lincoln's. I found the confrontations between Stevens and both Abraham and Mary Lincoln hypnotic -- and that goes too for Stevens' confrontations with other erstwhile allies as well as opponents.

It is true that Stevens, long accustomed to decrying Lincoln as an equivocating, timid, ineffectual opponent of slavery, is on the receiving end of a powerful rebuke from Lincoln -- a claim that if Lincoln had followed Stevens' precepts, emancipating slaves when the South first seceded, the war would have been lost before it started without a single slave freed. Stevens does not argue the point. But then, why should he? He is not inclined at that moment not to work with Lincoln.  Given the sudden prospect of seeing his life's ambition fulfilled, he decides at each of several junctures to keep his eyes on that prize (passage of the 13th amendment) -- to do and say nothing to jeopardize it -- and indeed, as he says at explicitly in one of the film's most dramatic confrontations, to do and say anything to realize it.  In fact his silence in confrontation with both Lincolns is eloquent.  On the receiving end of sustained rebuke, he stares back with probing equanimity. You can see his wheels turning, as if he recognizes in both of them (Mary defending Abraham's greatness as well as her own will to decorate) the arc of history bending. And so he puts his shoulder to Lincoln's wheel  -- emulating both Lincoln's syntactic evasions ("I do not hold with equality in all things") and his tactical maneuvering (trading patronage for a vote).

To suggest that the film rejects Stevens' vision of reconstruction, Coates must go outside it, citing comments by screenplay author Tony Kushner:
I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. 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.
I don't see that historical view coloring the film's depiction of Stevens. Stevens hammers home to Lincoln a forceful postwar vision: confiscate land, compensate slaves, enfranchise slaves. In the film's last scene of Lincoln living, we see him moved several degrees in Stevens' direction, speaking of enfranchisement of the most able or educated "negroes."  With malice toward none, yes -- a magnanimity Stevens doesn't share. Improvising and feeling the way forward, yes, as Lincoln promises the Southern delegates his government will. As to the actual unfolding of Reconstruction, however, the film is silent. We might find comfort and sorrow alike both in Lincoln's intended "charity" and in Stevens' determination for justice.

Then too,, (spoiler alert!) both men are depicted in intimate encounters with black women, and Stevens comes off rather the better. Lincoln has a quiet, intense encounter with Mary's servant Elizabeth Keckley, in which Keckley forcefully asserts her humanity and moral right to full citizenship (as the mother of a slain Union soldier). Inn response, Lincoln offers only an emotionally guarded (if 'evolving') "I expect we'll get used to you."  Stevens, in contrast, treats us to a moment of intense dramatic surprise (those of us who don't know his personal history, that is), in which he joins his housekeeper in bed, where he plainly meets her as a respected equal, lying back in contentment as she reads to him in a clear voice the text of the 13th Amendment.  "I do not hold with equality in all things" indeed!  The full extent of his honorable deception in Congress comes home.

There's a symmetry to the broader drama. In the final act of his presidency, Lincoln suddenly morphs into an uncompromising radical -- while the most uncompromising radical, seizing on the unexpected gift of this transformation, morphs into a Machiavellian political maneuverer. Lincoln and Stevens emerge as a kind of yin and yang of abolition. Fair enough to complain, with Masur, that African Americans get relatively short shrift in this tableau.  But Stevens' ultimate end of "equality in all things" does not.

* Douglass's judgment is all the more remarkable in the full context of his Douglass' unsparing recognition that Lincoln was 'the white man's president," whose black supporters suffered more disappointment and frustration at his hands than any white abolitionist could have:
Fellow-citizens, ours is no new-born zeal and devotion--merely a thing of this moment. The name of Abraham Lincoln was near and dear to our hearts in the darkest and most perilous hours of the Republic. We were no more ashamed of him when shrouded in clouds of darkness, of doubt, and defeat than when we saw him crowned with victory, honor, and glory. Our faith in him was often taxed and strained to the uttermost, but it never failed. When he tarried long in the mountain; when he strangely told us that we were the cause of the war; when he still more strangely told us that we were to leave the land in which we were born; when he refused to employ our arms in defense of the Union; when, after accepting our services as colored soldiers, he refused to retaliate our murder and torture as colored prisoners; when he told us he would save the Union if he could with slavery; when he revoked the Proclamation of Emancipation of General Fremont; when he refused to remove the popular commander of the Army of the Potomac, in the days of its inaction and defeat, who was more zealous n his efforts to protect slavery than to suppress rebellion; when we saw all this, and more, we were at times grieved, stunned, and greatly bewildered; but our hearts believed while they ached and bled. Nor was this, even at that time, a blind and unreasoning superstition. Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.
Related: Post-truth appreciations of Lincoln
             On two sources for Lincoln

Update: Ross Douthat makes a similar point rather more succinctly:
By picking this particular moment in the process of emancipation, then, Spielberg and Kushner aren’t so much pitting moderation against radicalism as attempting to harmonize the two approaches, and show how a moderate and a radical can work together — if the moderate is willing to be more intransigent than usual, and the radical is willing to not say everything that’s on his mind — to work a revolution in the law. That harmony helps makes “Lincoln” an effective and crowdpleasing film: In the slice of history that the film illuminates, our contemporary pro-equality sympathies can be with both Lincoln and Stevens unreservedly, both men’s gifts can be displayed for the appreciation of posterity — and no violence need be done to what actually transpired.

No comments:

Post a Comment