‘Lincoln’ punts on former president’s ambiguous views on race

Opinion

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Still, there’s a legitimate need to explore this part of Lincoln’s history without launching what the Los Angeles Times once termed a “full scale assault” on Lincoln’s reputation. Spielberg’s treatment borders on hagiography and is heavy on piety – at one point Lincoln is called “the purest man in America,” as if it were a self-evident truth.

The movie gets burdened at points from an overabundance of speechifying and an emphasis on Congressional arm-twisting and vote-getting. Lincoln himself is depicted as waxing poetic whenever he confronts a problem; meanwhile, the narrative skips gingerly over his familial struggles and touches only tangentially on his relationship with his simmering emotional cauldron of a wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (played skillfully by Sally Field).  This aspect of Lincoln’s personality is rarely, if ever, mentioned in current literature. It also gives another example of where Spielberg punts on a chance to plumb the depths of a very complex man.

All of which begs a series of consequential questions that Hollywood and historians should strive to answer (yet, alas, queries that Spielberg ultimately sanitized from his film). If President Lincoln had troubles at home, was he a closet racist as well? Did he, as one author charges, cynically manipulate political discourse and cloak himself in a mantle of racial conciliation, just for the sake of creating a lily-white America?

Using Occam’s Razor, it seems implausible that Lincoln would save the village in order to burn it. It ties the mind up in knots just thinking about it. if separation of the races was his true objective, it’s improbable that Lincoln would use such extravagant, counter-intuitive and deceptive measures to obscure it — especially because the Republican Party was explicitly founded to abolish the institution of slavery. If indeed he did embrace racial separation as his animus, the sight of so many post-Reconstruction blacks being elected to Congress — as Republicans, no less — would have struck him as a vicious bit of irony.

In truth, Abraham Lincoln’s historical beautification is not much different from that of Martin Luther King Jr. As revealed in the decades following his assassination, the civil rights icon had far more foibles than some of his more ardent detractors would care to admit, which included having allegedly plagiarized chunks of his dissertation and being an inveterate womanizer. Popular culture largely seems to omit those parts of his biography.

Although civil rights figures are treated as sacrosanct, the truth is they should be judged by the totality of their records, and not just selectively-edited morsels that contribute to their myths. In a movie like Lincoln, it’s better to err on the side of a ‘warts and all’ portrayal, rather than a simplistic hagiography.

A broad enough body of work in existence does much to challenge the facile notion of the 16th president as a hero of black emancipation. That should not diminish his place in history, nor minimize his accomplishments.

Nearly 150 years later, it’s certainly time to shed some daylight on some of Lincoln’s darker impulses.