“Lincoln” ignores historic self-agency of black Washingtonians

Spoiler Alert: In the pursuit of pre-ordained film awards and potential box office receipts, famed director Steven Spielberg and screen writer Tony Kushner have minimized and distorted, intentional or not, the historic self-agency of black Washingtonians in “Lincoln,” according to a recent New York Times Op-Ed.

Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern University, writes that for decades “historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation.”

The voices of radical Republicans, such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade, were in Lincoln’s ear advocating for the rights of black folks, as well as black folks themselves such as Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne and Frederick Douglass.

In fact, Spielberg, who’s been working on this project for many years, originally wanted to concentrate on the relationship between Douglass and Lincoln, which was dramatized at Ford’s Theatre last year.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Kushner came aboard ‘Lincoln’ after a few other screenwriters had tried and failed to deliver a script to Spielberg’s liking — one early take focused on Lincoln’s friendship with Frederick Douglass.”

But the script was flipped. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a confirmed plagiarist, and her 2006 book “Team of Rivals” (which has now been re-released as a “Film Tie-In Edition”) became the guiding historic source. Douglass, says Masur who saw a screening in Chicago, is now “nowhere to be seen or heard.”

What the movie is left with, is by all accounts, a captivating performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and strong supporting roles by Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Fields as Mary Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Hal Halbrook as Francis Preston Blair (the founder of Silver Spring), and others.

Leaders of Washington’s black community and intimates of the Lincoln White House, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade are portrayed but, as Masur notes, come across as though they’re fresh from “central casting.”

The film tells an incomplete story, Masur contends.

“The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr. Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April — these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets, markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.

Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,” where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he encountered on the street near the White House.

In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes.”

In Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. I briefly touch on what Masur recognizes; when Washington swelled with “contrabands,” it was the black churches and their parishioners that took the lead in forming “Relief Associations.”

According to records of the Christian Recorder from November 1862 the Union Bethel Church (later Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church) announced, “Brethren and Sisters: We appeal to you for aid in behalf of our poor, destitute, and suffering people from the South, who have come amongst us destitute of all the comforts of life, and in the most abject poverty and want, from the hoary-headed old man and woman, to the infant at the breast.”

Washington’s black community, largely free persons of color, did not sit idle waiting for the omnipotent benevolence of President Lincoln; the paternalistic spirit of which is captured in the Emancipation Statue at Lincoln Park in Northeast.

There’s plenty of good scholarship on how Washington’s black community organized to advocate and prepare for emancipation. Unfortunately, Spielberg, Kushner, Goodwin, and others who ushered “Lincoln” to the box office seem to have been oblivious.

 

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  1. #1 by Marcy Tanter on November 20, 2012 - 3:43 pm

    I look forward to Masur’s film. When is it coming out?

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