Spielberg the Historian?

Lincoln posterA while back we noted that Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln, was receiving extraordinarily positive responses from film critics who had seen advance previews of the movie. (And asked if any of our students or alumni would be interested in writing their own reviews — that invitation still stands!) But now that the movie is in wide release, it’s been interesting to see how historians and other scholars have responded.

One early response was rather negative in one important respect. Historian Kate Masur wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting the scarcity of significant African-American characters in a movie about the liberation of enslaved black people:

As a historian who watched the film on Saturday night in Chicago, I was not surprised to find that Mr. Spielberg took liberties with the historical record. As in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” his purpose is more to entertain and inspire than to educate.

But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.

This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “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for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.

(On race, Lincoln, and this film, see also this response from Atlantic editor and cultural critic Ta-Nehesi Coates.)

On the other end of the spectrum of response, Philip Zelikow (U. Virginia) went so far as to suggest that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had actually added to the accumulated scholarship on the Lincoln Administration. Zelikow recently wrote on the Times’ Civil War blog, Disunion (previously featured here in our “Blog of the Month” series) that

Having worked before at the intersection of Hollywood and history, helping a tiny bit with a respectable movie about the Cuban missile crisis called “Thirteen Days,” I approached the new movie “Lincoln” with measured expectations. I had seen how a film could immerse viewers in onscreen time travel without messing up the history too much. But that was the most I hoped for.

“Lincoln,” however, accomplishes a far more challenging objective: its speculations actually advance the way historians will consider this subject.

Rather than focusing on the filmmakers’ (and actors’) attention to detail in bringing alive a certain time and place in the past, and the people (some iconic, some familiar, and some largely unknown) who inhabited it, Zelikow goes even further and suggests that Spielberg and Kushner actually advanced two significant historical arguments. First, that Lincoln pushed to pass a constitutional amendment banning slavery in January 1865 because he feared that the war’s end might come at any time in early 1865, and with it, the momentum to pass such legislation might have dissipated. Zelikow notes that this is not the way that Doris Kearns Goodwin — whose Team of Rivals is the attributed main source for the script — or renowned Civil War historian James McPherson have explained Lincoln’s motives, but he finds the Spielberg-Kushner thesis more plausible. Second, he applauds the filmmakers for paying significant attention to Lincoln’s giving the okay to conservative Republican Preston Blair (one of the “rivals” on the team described by Goodwin’s book) undertaking a secret trip to Richmond to initiate peace talks with Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

…here again it turns out that the filmmakers have made a persuasive case, and in a way that written history usually fails to pursue, let alone accomplish. Historians, driven by a focus and a thesis, rarely recognize that their chosen issue has to be seen in the context of all the other issues in play at the same time. But this is exactly what presidents do. And to their credit, this is also what these filmmakers have done in re-enacting a president’s world.

Steven Spielberg
Licensed by Creative Commons (Georges Biard)

Zelikow goes so far as to suggest that Spielberg and Kushner engaged in something very much like historical scholarship, reading sources and interviewing historians, with the result that “puzzling over the coincidences and conjunctures, they developed their own original and plausible interpretation of what happened, peppering the script with lines drawn from documents and memoirs.” He concludes, remarkably:

Because filmmakers can often devote far more resources to research than scholars can, because the sheer process of a painstaking reconstruction of a past world can itself yield insights about it, it has always been possible that filmmakers might add to our collective historical understanding, rather than either popularizing or debasing it. In Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” that possibility is happily realized.

That post prompted an interesting response (also on the Times, at its philosophy blog, The Stone) from philosopher Gary Gutting. Acknowledging that (for better or worse), “Movies are the source of much of what we know — or think we know — about history,” Gutting thinks through how filmmakers like Spielberg and Kushner approach the past. He concludes,

It tells an engaging story, depicts fascinating characters, and has sets and costumes that seem to take us back to Washington in 1865. But to what extent can we trust “Lincoln” (or any other dramatization of history for popular entertainment) as a source of historical fact and understanding? A film drama can present historical events, vividly and movingly perhaps, but it has no place for evidence supporting the truth of the presentation. As a result, simply looking at the movie, we have no way of knowing to what extent “Lincoln” is accurate.

He doesn’t dismiss the research that the filmmakers seem to have done, but he does ask whether a performance like Daniel Day-Lewis’ acclaimed turn as Lincoln does not inevitably include dramatic license: “…what Day-Lewis conveys inevitably goes far beyond what our sources tell us Lincoln said and did. His performance may be highly realistic, but we cannot know how close it is to what really happened.”

In the end, Gutting neither dismisses the value of well-made historical dramas, nor substitutes them for actual historical scholarship:

…merely seeing the movie — even if we know that it is based on a great deal of sound historical research — does not allow us to tell which details are accurate or even which aspects of its interpretation are plausible. To learn this, we need to put the movie in dialogue with the work of historians, as Zelikow has done in his post…. Without the active engagement of such dialogue, our experience of “Lincoln” will be entertaining but not instructive.

But, particularly with a film as well done as “Lincoln,” the dialogue will be a genuine two-way exchange.

What do you think? Can filmmakers add to scholarship? Do they have similar obligations (e.g., of truth-telling)?

Cross-posted at The Pietist Schoolman

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