Wednesday, November 21, 2012

More on "Lincoln"

An interesting article from Kate Masur, writing for the New York Times:
Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together — reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role.
Masur's argues that, beyond the film's beautiful opening scene, the African Americans in "Lincoln" do not have a material influence on the outcome of the film. She doesn't mean that the characters themselves are passive, because in several instances African American characters speak out about their experiences. She means that the film does not show African American characters having a direct influence on Lincoln's (or any other politicians') thinking about slavery or the 13th amendment.

I would quibble with this a little bit, because the opening scene, in which a black soldier confronts Lincoln about equal pay and equal rights, frames the rest of the film. But certainly "Lincoln" could have done better showing how escaped slaves worked and argued for their own freedom.

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