So far, I haven’t had a chance to see Spielberg’s latest — I suspect I’ll be content to wait for the DVD. Erica Wagner’s column in today’s Times [£] certainly didn’t make me want to rush out and buy a ticket:
It is also too obviously a lecture, a demonstration to America’s present, bitterly divided legislature, of how it’s possible for us all to work together to achieve great ends, whether that’s ending slavery or increasing restrictions on the ownership of firearms. But a lecture doesn’t a drama make… The essential failing of the film is that — out of fear? — it has backed away from the story it could have told. This is a story that, one would have thought, would have been better suited to a Hollywood film, since Hollywood loves nothing better than a transformative “journey”.
You can find the story of that journey not in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals”, on which Lincoln is based, but in Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery”, which charts Lincoln’s political evolution towards the 13th Amendment.
It’s not always comfortable reading. How can it be that the Great Emancipator was in favour of what was called at the time “colonisation” — that is, sending former slaves “back” to Africa to live (never mind that they’d been born in the United States)? Lincoln’s transformation was due in large part, Foner writes, to “the slaves themselves, who seized the opportunity offered by the Civil War to strike for their freedom and who overwhelmingly rejected Lincoln’s hope that many of them would agree to emigrate to some other country”… But most strikingly, men and women of colour are almost entirely absent as any kind of force in this film. This, surely, is shocking for a tale of slavery’s end.