Kate Masur: In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters





Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, is the author of “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.”

THE latest film by Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln,” which opens nationwide on Friday, has the makings of an Oscar shoo-in, particularly for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the title role. The first scene is arresting: Two black soldiers speak with the president about their experiences in combat. One, a corporal, raises the problem of unequal promotions and pay in the Union Army. Two white soldiers join them, and the scene concludes as the corporal walks away, movingly reciting the final lines of the Gettysburg Address.

Unfortunately it is all downhill from there, at least as far as black characters are concerned. As a historian who watched the film on Saturday night in Chicago, I was not surprised to find that Mr. Spielberg took liberties with the historical record. As in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” his purpose is more to entertain and inspire than to educate.

But 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. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.

This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress....

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