A Facebook friend of mine directed my attention to Eric Foner’s evaluation of the film Lincoln. Foner likes the film somewhat, but complains that it is inaccurate in some important respects. Foner comments, “The emancipation of the slaves is a long, complicated, historical process. It’s not the work of one man, no matter how great he was,” pointing out both that abolitionists deserve more credit than the film grants them and that slavery was already dying because of the extent to which the slaves themselves had “self-emancipated” during the course of the war.
Interestingly, the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, doesn’t respond with the usual Hollywood dodge that they had to take liberties in order to make a better story, nobody looks to a Hollywood film for learning about history, or any of that. The film is, he says, “enormously accurate”, based on consultation with professional historians. “What we’re describing absolutely happened.”
Foner agrees: it’s not wrong, it’s just “inadequate”.
This is a more nuanced version of a stereotypical kind of exchange that academic historians would do well to avoid. Even grossly inaccurate films are doing interesting cultural work of some kind or another, not always in a straightforwardly bad way–and Lincoln is not grossly inaccurate.
As I see it, Kushner is perfectly justified in claiming a devotion to accuracy in the sense that what the film portrays–the political maneuvering to get the 13th Amendment established and ratified–actually happened largely as the film shows it. Foner’s right as well: abolitionism mattered, the slaves mattered as agents, African-American leaders pressuring Lincoln and Congress mattered, Lincoln was a latecomer to its necessity, and the story was a longer and more complicated one in any event. The issue is really not about accuracy and inaccuracy, it is which of the accurate stories is most true, most important, most matters.
As I read the thoughts of other scholars piling on behind Foner or who had their own complaints, I see one of two possible alternative films to the Spielberg version emerging.
One is a terrible, unwieldy film, a towering pile of distracted attentiveness to every single causal argument and every single participant experience that historians can collectively insist belongs in the full, true, real story of how slavery was abolished in the United States. If we’re going to tell the story of abolitionism and the agency of slaves, surely we cannot leave out the larger history of slave revolts throughout the Americas and the changing role of the Atlantic system in the global political economy of the first half of the 19th Century, correct? It would be “inadequate” to assume this is an exceptional American story. Surely we’d have to continue the story into Reconstruction so that viewers don’t misunderstand and think that slavery really, truly completely came to an end? Surely we need to show what industrial labor in the North was like between the 1830s and the 1870s to give the audience a fuller context for understanding labor, freedom and rights? Surely there are other stories of antebellum political and judicial drama that need to be told alongside the story of the Thirteenth Amendment, so that it (or Lincoln) doesn’t appear entirely exceptional. Surely we need still more of the story of ordinary soldiers on both sides? Of the role of gender in abolition and slavery? I am only very slightly kidding here: this is precisely the stuff of scholarly historiography, as it should be. But when we view a film and begin to inevitably see its incomplete nature as ‘inadequacy’, we’re committing a category error on several levels.
Which is why I think Foner’s response is in some ways just one more front in the long struggle between social history and narrative. I suspect that he and many other historians would find any cinematic representation of any individual playing a key or decisive role in shaping consequential events inadequate–that what we have here is less an argument about particular discrete facts or events or people and more a deeper argument about what really matters in history.
There is certainly a second possible film in Lincoln that might satisfy the imagination of social history that would not simply be a potpourri of every possible historiographical claim: the story of a representative person traversing events much larger than themselves, enduring and navigating through transformations taking place on a vast stage. There are films of this very sort about history and even a one or two here and there about the Civil War and slavery–and here the exclusions of important or interesting stories and people are equally pronounced and, I suspect, more sharply and painfully felt. But the possibility of this kind of film shouldn’t be seen as ending the larger argument, as being the kind of film that would permit complexity or critical thought against those that tell stories of consequential individuals whose decisions are represented as having greater power to shape outcomes.
If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.
When we want to say that we don’t think that a given event–or any event–was primarily about powerful or important people and their decisions, then let’s say just that and go from there, accepting the legitimacy of the interpretative argument that follows that statement. Disagreement about interpretation involves but is not reducible to fact, to accuracy, to evidence or to comprehensiveness.