Barbara Krauthamer: Slavery’s Grotesque and Relentless Violence





Barbara Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is the author, with Deborah Willis, of Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, just out from Temple University Press.

As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, historians are raising different issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.

Lincoln tells the story of slavery’s demise in the United States by charting the president’s battle to secure passage of the 13th Amendment. Steven Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, give us a history of emancipation set primarily in the White House and Congress during the final four months of Lincoln’s life.

Gruesome scenes of war and its aftermath illustrate the larger context. Lincoln’s commitment to the constitutional abolition of slavery risks prolonging an already lengthy and bloody war. As he verbally spars with both allies and critics, he explains the legal and moral imperatives of abolition. Slavery is thus central to the film’s story of emancipation.

Enslaved people, however, have no place in the film. Although there are three black characters—Elizabeth Keckley, William Slade, and Lydia Hamilton Smith, all servants—as well as a number of black soldiers and civilians shown in various crowd scenes, they are all marginal to Spielberg’s story....

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