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Slavery’s Grotesque and Relentless Violence

As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, historians are raising different issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.

Lincoln tells the story of slavery’s demise in the United States by charting the president’s battle to secure passage of the 13th Amendment. Steven Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, give us a history of emancipation set primarily in the White House and Congress during the final four months of Lincoln’s life.

Gruesome scenes of war and its aftermath illustrate the larger context. Lincoln’s commitment to the constitutional abolition of slavery risks prolonging an already lengthy and bloody war. As he verbally spars with both allies and critics, he explains the legal and moral imperatives of abolition. Slavery is thus central to the film’s story of emancipation.

Enslaved people, however, have no place in the film. Although there are three black characters—Elizabeth Keckley, William Slade, and Lydia Hamilton Smith, all servants—as well as a number of black soldiers and civilians shown in various crowd scenes, they are all marginal to Spielberg’s story.

The film’s depiction of emancipation largely excludes African-American women and men as anything other than the patient and grateful recipients of the gift of freedom. This is, of course, Spielberg’s prerogative as a filmmaker.

The unfortunate outcome of his creative and editorial choices is not simply that the film offers a set of African-American characters grounded in well-worn stereotypes. Rather, it is the film’s inability to come to terms with slavery’s grotesque and relentless violence, especially sexual violence against black women, that is most objectionable.

The film momentarily calls attention to enslaved people’s lives by highlighting wartime photographs of enslaved people. In one or two scenes, Lincoln’s young son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), looks at a collection of glass-plate negatives, supposedly delivered to the White House by Alexander Gardner, a well-known Civil War photographer.

The camera lingers on an image of a young, black boy in tattered clothing and then on an image of a self-liberated man named Gordon, who poses with his whip-scarred back facing the camera. Both images circulated widely during the Civil War and were intended to arouse viewers’ sympathies for enslaved people and support for the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Nothing is said in the film about those photographs or the people they depict.

When Tad looks at an image of a black woman, he asks his older brother, Robert, about the prices charged for slaves. Robert explains as a matter of fact that women who could bear children fetched higher prices than those who could not.

In a film that runs for two and a half hours, this is the only discussion of enslaved women’s lives. There is no indication that Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) was born into slavery, probably became pregnant from rape, and worked to purchase her freedom and that of her son long before she secured employment as Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and trusted servant.

Not long after Robert’s passing remark, Lincoln informs Tad that the images must be returned to the photographer. In this film’s history of emancipation, enslaved people are simply the objects of a child’s curiosity and, we are told, his nightmares.

Barbara Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is the author, with Deborah Willis, of Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery, just out from Temple University Press.

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