by Alec Ryan
Steven Spielberg’s latest “historical” sermon begins with The Bearded One smiling beatifically at two black Union soldiers, who recount their exploits at a battle that is a figment of Mr. Spielberg’s imagination. The bolder, more intelligent of the two hectors the President on the pay inequalities between black and white soldiers. The scene is interspersed with footage from the mythical battle, in which black Union troops overcome white Confederates in brutal hand-to-hand combat. A white face is stamped, drowning, into the mud by a booted black man.
This may be all you need to know about the movie.
Two white, hick Union soldiers run up breathlessly and ineptly try to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address for the President. They forget how it ends, and the recital is finished by the intelligent, complaining black private as he saunters off into the night. Stupid whites and smart blacks. We get it. We see that in every TV commercial during basketball timeouts.
It is all downhill from there, as Daniel Day-Lewis’s simpering, unbelievable Lincoln is surrounded by saintly, misty-eyed, cardboard-cutout blacks, as he battles courageously against the reactionary elements in Congress who would never give votes to “the Negro.” In fact, blacks had been voting in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey since the Articles of Confederation, and the 15th Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote, was passed just a few years later, in 1869.
Someone remarks that the Confederates “want to take slavery even into South America.” The Spanish brought black slaves to the New World more than 100 years before the first slaves appeared in the British colonies, and slavery wasn’t abolished in Cuba until 1886 and Brazil in 1888. But who cares about the real story? Apart from a few enlightened men such as Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, all whites were rabid racists all too willing to sell out blacks for peace with the South, even when it was in its death throes. Mr. Spielberg knows that such distortions will slip past uncritical audiences.
The subtext, of course, is that the Union could not have defeated the Confederacy without the valiant efforts of black soldiers. Since the Union was full of vicious racists, they would have left blacks as they were had Lincoln not listened to urgings of his sanctified black housemaid and other ebony worthies.
In the modern Hollywood narrative, all American history revolves around the Sacred Black Experience. Lincoln confirms this, bending historical truth to paint the most ruthless, bloody-minded, strong-willed American leader in history as some kind of smug, pre-post-modern storyteller croaking gamely through the difficulties like a paleface Obama sans teleprompter. The few Southerners are snarling, greasy bigots, recoiling before the erect, scowling black Union guards as they slink by during a meeting that led to the Hampton Roads peace conference of February 1865.
No noble Lee, courageous Stonewall or knightly Forrest to see here; but why should we expect that? I was surprised not to see the Southern delegation accompanied by blond, Afrikaans-speaking advisors from South Africa, along with a few monocled British Empire villains. Another surprise was that General Grant was not played by Morgan Freeman or that Magic Negro extraordinaire, Samuel L. Jackson.
The film has throughout a sense of hushed awe, as if kowtowing to its own self-evident righteousness. There is no balance, no complexity, no sense of inner struggle or desperation. No opposing arguments. Its simplistic outlook more closely resembles the popcorn-psychology Avengers or Justice League rather than the serious historical movie that it clearly wishes to be acclaimed.
Mr. Day-Lewis radiates pompous self-absorption, and his interpretation jars against my gut-feeling of Lincoln, the rawboned, shrewd backwoods attorney–Lincoln, the Illinois rogue so memorably sketched in Flash for Freedom! by George MacDonald Fraser. Yes, Lincoln is involved in political skulduggery and intrigue, as the three fixers/bribers blunder and cajole their way through improbable situations in an effort to sway the House for the 13th Amendment, but it comes off as silly capering.
There is not the slightest hint, of course, that Lincoln wanted to free the slaves and then send them out of the country. No dramatic scenes from August 14, 1862, when Lincoln invited five black preachers to the White House and asked them to persuade other blacks to resettle in Central America. No earnest conversations between Lincoln and Rev. James Mitchell, whom he had put in charge of exporting blacks. All this would make eye-opening cinema, but why let the truth spoil an image of Lincoln as a pioneer egalitarian?
To Mr. Spielberg’s credit, the cinematography is superb, as is the period detail. Articulate speeches are also a welcome respite from the usual lowbrow movie soundbites. Yet the work is let down by the smarmy lead performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, as well as the historical inaccuracies and stereotypes, which have obviously been inserted to foist a politically-correct message onto the audience. And when will we get a realistic, multifaceted black character in a movie, instead of the constant stream of sinless, chocolate-hued demigods? When will the Magic Negro finally be retired? No time soon, judging by this travesty.
An interesting movie about black battlefield valor might be made about the troops who served in General George Crook’s Apache campaigns during the 1870s and 1880s. But would we see a black boot trampling an Apache face?
It is hardly astonishing that Hollywood has turned out yet another movie with an anti-white agenda this time from the director of the execrable Munich, which also played fast and loose with history in its sordid depiction of Israel’s use of a team of bungling amateurs to carry out a series of cold-blooded assassinations. Mr. Spielberg has, however, accomplished the unthinkable with this one. He has actually succeeded in making the Civil War look schmaltzy and one dimensional. The Sacred Black Experience is the only history that matters, and the only thing that ever prevented these noble Negroes from attaining their uplifting potential was foaming old white guys with mutton-chops.
As my wife and I left the cinema for the cold night, a pair of young black men swaggered by, baggy pants sagging past their buttocks, communicating in barely decipherable ebonic grunts.
We looked at each other with wry smiles and sighed.
Mr. Ryan describes himself as an ordinary working American with a strong interest in history. He lives in Las Vegas.