As Hollywood films about the passage of the 13th Amendment go, Lincoln is certainly the best one ever made! There really aren't any others. I saw it with my sons, sixth and 12th graders in Brooklyn public schools. They loved the film and saw it as an exciting movie about American history. Would they recommend it to other kids, I asked. "Yes," they agreed, "Lincoln is a movie that all students should see."
I agree Lincoln is a great film. But it's not perfect.
The 13th Amendment, a law (stronger than the Emancipation Proclamation) with actual legislative power to end slavery in America, is Lincoln's explosive and learned story. Stephen Spielberg's film accurately portrays President Lincoln's vital concern for the passage of the 13th Amendment by February 1865, two months before the expected Confederacy surrender.
In the film, Lincoln strongly believes that if the war ends, without Congress abolishing slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation may collapse and slavery will resume. The whole story of Lincoln is this: The President can win with his white and black soldiers on the battlefield, but can he win in Congress? If he wins, Lincoln vows to add two more protective amendments (14th and 15th) and begin a lasting Reconstruction, for African Americans and the nation.
New York City Congressman Fernando Wood is portrayed as a hateful Democratic Lincoln enemy, insulting the President as "Africanus" Lincoln, despising blacks, and denouncing the 13th Amendment as anti-American business. As NYC Mayor in 1861, Wood supported Wall Street's substantial interests in the South's slave-dependent "free enterprise" economy, and called, unsuccessfully, for NYC to also secede from the Union. President Lincoln believes that without legislatively eliminating slavery, the South would rapidly re-strengthen itself and crush any opportunities for blacks.
Powerful and convincingly played by Daniel Day Lewis as the president, Lincoln is a tour de force exposition of down and dirty American legislative politics. To achieve liberty for all American men, this Honest Abe is as necessarily deceptive, bribing, and untrustworthy as any bigoted Civil War politician. Lincoln delays an early end to the war (allowing thousands more to die) in order to achieve his great American dream.
Throughout Lincoln, Spielberg does his usual splendid job of adventurous and exciting filmmaking. Black soldiers are prominently represented in battle scenes. Yet, a thoroughly whipped and forlorn Confederate General Robert E. Lee gets a huge Spielberg cinematic break.
On April 9, 1865, 3,500 "colored" Union soldiers stood guard along with white soldiers around the Appomattox Court House. In the film, not one black soldier is anywhere near the Lee surrender. By the end of the Civil War, 179,000 black men served as soldiers in the Union Army, another 19,000 served in the Navy. (I am still recovering from those missing 1,800 black soldiers who landed bravely on D-Day beaches in 1944, but were unseen in Saving Private Ryan). Lincoln is much better in its accounting of black soldier heroism.
Historian Eric Foner, author of the The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, told CNN that the film is a good one, but its narrow focus exaggerates the president's role in ending slavery. "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." Foner said.
An important historic scene — included in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Team of Rivals, on which Lincoln is based, but left out of the film — was the second assassination attempt made against the Lincoln administration that Good Friday evening, April 14, 1865. At the very moment Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater, Secretary of State William Seward lay asleep at home when another assassin (partner to John Wilkes Boothe) plunged a bowie knife at Seward's throat. Seward survived, but his cheek was nearly severed completely off. Vice President Andrew Johnson was said to be a third target that evening, but a last minute decision spared Johnson's life, and likely shaped his post-war legislative anti-black path. Inclusion of the broader assassination plot may help viewers (and citizens) comprehend the aborted Reconstruction, racial hatred and Jim Crow-era, which followed the Civil War.
Some commentators have criticized the film for its absence of black leaders, particularly Frederick Douglass, within the anti-slavery campaign. The film confines President Lincoln to essentially behind-the-scenes deals and clashes with an all-white congress.
For a more comprehensive view of how African Americans participated in their own emancipation, I would recommend the Schomburg Center's exhibition, Visualizing Emancipation, curated by Deborah Willis.
See Lincoln and visit Visualizing Emancipation!
The writer's sons are members of Schomburg Center Junior Scholars. Chris Moore is Senior Researcher and author of Fighting For America: Black Soldiers, The Unsung Heroes of World War II.