The Historical Accuracy of Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

So far the most commented upon historical detail in Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is the title character’s squeaky voice. Digging a little deeper into the period Historian Kate Masur finds little to like about the film:

“Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.

It’s worth noting, first of all, that similar charges were made against Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, in which helpless, passive Jews were rescued by a heroic Christian. Historians have traditionally regarded themselves as the final arbitrators of historical accuracy, and movies have invariably disappointed them. The film 300 is something of a touchstone for historians’s grumbling about historical accuracy in theaters. No movie in recorded history, made anywhere in the world, has passed muster with historians. (The same holds true for anthropological accuracy as well.) Movies leave viewers with the impression that great historical events were accompanied by music, historians complain. In movies everyone, even the poor people, wore splendid, and well-laundered, costumes, but it didn’t really happen that way.

Unlike historians, however, movies have to earn back their costs, so films The world on the screen brings together things that, for analytical or structural purposes, written history often has to split apart. David Brooks, for example, finds another kind of historical realism in Spielberg’s film, which portrays how its subject’s leadership style actually required behind-the-scenes political debate, especially Lincoln’s talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies and personalities who could not get along with each other. The film

shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

With Lincoln an early favorite for Best Picture Oscar watch out for more debate about the historical accuracy of the film. One issue that is almost certain to come up is some sort of backlash against a defining liberal moment: Abraham Lincoln’s push for the 13th Amendment, erasing the original sin of slavery from the land.

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