'Lincoln' punts on former president's ambiguous views on race

The opening scene of Lincoln, the finely-acted Steven Spielberg Civil War drama about the Great Emancipator, begins with a scene in 1865 where President Abraham Lincoln himself is engaged with a cadre of awe-struck infantrymen, who begin to haltingly recite bits of the Gettysburg Address from memory.

It’s Corporal Ira Clarke – a young black soldier who, after regaling Lincoln with the plight of black soldiers, finishes the president’s most famous speech word for word.

That poignant scene is one of several in Lincoln that function as an impressive bit of cinema magic: it manages to humanize one of American history’s most well-known figures and brings to life the aspirations of blacks born as slaves and yearning to be free.

It also highlights two of the film’s biggest drawbacks. It depicts Lincoln as a legend without deep exploration of his belief system, and very seldom shows him interacting with the very same people he’s trying to free.

Such are the wages of watching a Spielberg production, one of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers, famous and notorious all at once for his treatment of complex historical events. While not quite the masterpiece Schindler’s List was or as emotionally freighted as Amistad, Lincoln is an excellent movie that deserves most – if not all – of the breathless press heaped upon it as award season descends upon us.

It’s historically accurate, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the 16th U.S. president humanizes him, making him heroic without transforming him into a superhero (or for that matter, a vampire slayer).

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Yet at the same time, it’s hard not to believe Spielberg may have missed an opportunity to shed new light on Lincoln’s views on racial comity. A clutch of recent books and articles suggest Honest Abe’s beliefs were far more complex than the popular image of the sainted philosopher-ruler who liberated the slaves.

Historians and authors have discovered documents that show Lincoln actually harbored deep doubts about the ability of blacks and whites to live together in harmony. At one point, the Great Emancipator even embraced a plan to resettle freed slaves to parts of the Caribbean and South America before the policy collapsed in acrimony.

It’s difficult to reconcile the warring portrait of a stoic emancipator with some public utterances that make him sound like a common Confederate racist, which, granted, was par the course for the time.