Two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis will play the 16th President in the upcoming film “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg. But will slavery be depicted truthfully?
CBS News reports that the film is currently in production.
Anyone familiar with Lewis’s acting knows he will give no less than a top-notch performance.
But the real question is whether or not the movie will reveal how the slavery debate really went down during Lincoln’s presidency.
It is generally taught in high schools and universities that Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves” and was a diehard abolitionist. But his role in the slavery debate is far more complicated and nuanced than many Lincoln enthusiasts would care to admit.
In an NPR interview, historian Eric Foner says not only did Lincoln struggle with how to best deal with slavery, he was unsure of how to view black people in general .
In the Peoria speech, Lincoln said that slavery was wrong, Foner says, and then admitted that he didn’t know what should be done about it, even contemplating “free[ing] all the slaves, and send[ing] them to Liberia — to their own native land.”
“Lincoln is thinking through his own position on slavery,” says Foner. “[This speech] really epitomizes his views into the Civil War. Slavery ought to be abolished — but he doesn’t really know how to do it. He’s not an abolitionist who criticizes Southerners. At this point, Lincoln does not really see black people as an intrinsic part of American society. They are kind of an alien group who have been uprooted from their own society and unjustly brought across the ocean. ‘Send them back to Africa,’ he says. And this was not an unusual position at this time.”
So will Spielberg’s direction show audiences the complexity of Lincoln’s thought process, as Foner explains? Or will the film deprive us of this internal, psychological battle altogether?
In a New York Times interview, historian Steven Hahn says that while many slaves foresaw Lincoln’s 1960 election to the White House as their meal ticket out of the slave shack, their enthusiasm was very much misplaced.
Lincoln’s policy in 1860 and 1861 was to restrict the expansion of slavery into the federal territories of the West but also to concede that slavery in the states was a local institution, beyond the reach of the federal government. At the very time that slaves were imagining Lincoln as their ally, Lincoln was assuring slaveholders that he would uphold the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law and make no moves against them and their property.
Hollywood has a history of whitewashing the severity of slavery.
Perhaps the worst depiction of relationships between slave and master was shown in the made-for-television film “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.” In the film, President Thomas Jefferson and Hemings, who was one of his slaves, were depicted to have been in an affectionate love affair. The severity of slavery was something of an afterthought.
Spielberg, on the other hand, tends to have a very good track record on revealing the horrors of racism in his movies. He won a Best Director Academy Award for “Schindler’s List,” a movie about a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.
His other successful race film, “The Color Purple,” dealt directly with the extreme sexual and emotional abuse African American women endured at the hands of black men in their own families. The film is a very cringe-viewing experience-especially as an African American.
Spielberg rarely pulls punches when dealing with race in his films.
So let’s hope the legendary director gives us a knockout movie that shows how Lincoln really dealt with slavery.
“Lincoln” is scheduled for release next year, CBS News reports.