In 1989, two major studios released films about race relations in America that couldn’t be more different. Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of Alfred Uhry’s successful off-Broadway play, was a heartwarming tearjerker about a rich, isolated elderly Jewish woman who comes to the astounding revelation that her friendly African-American chauffeur is often subject to discrimination in the South during the 1950s. Do the Right Thing, meanwhile, enshrined Spike Lee’s place on the cinematic map. Its pull-no-punches mosaic of conflicting, negotiating racialized voices in contemporary Bedford-Stuyvesant refused happy endings and clear answers, leaving critics and audiences in a gray area where they couldn’t decide whether the film was a lament over the brick-wall met by post-Civil Rights discourse, a call to violent action, or something else entirely.
The relative critical and economic successes of both Driving Miss Daisy and Do the Right Thing paved a crossroads for future representations of African Americans in mainstream American cinema: should they pursue the direction of affirmation and closure in the face of racism dismissed as a problem solved long ago, or strive for contemporary relevance and a refusal of easy answers to complex questions?
Time and again, Hollywood has overwhelmingly preferred to continue in the direction of Driving Miss Daisy.
As a retelling of history, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which chronicles the hard-won political gymnastics enacted in order to get the 13th Amendment passed and abolish human slavery in the US thereafter, would seem to continue Hollywood’s preference to gaze backwards at race relations with a comforting pat-on-the-back rather than attempt in any way to acknowledge present and future problems of systemic inequality. Instead, Lincoln surprisingly moves in the direction of the right kind of history.
The November 9 limited release date for Lincoln was a shrewd choice on behalf on Spielberg and Disney. Instead of placing the film earlier in November and bestowing upon it a more immediate, superficial and inevitably short-lived political relevance at the onset of the 2012 election, the seemingly (and misleadingly) “apolitical” post-election date gave Lincoln a chance at life after media hyperventilation. But in its release subsequent President Obama’s reelection and during a lame duck session in Congress similar to the one depicted, Lincoln’s relevance extends far beyond the simple legacies and worth of Presidents and candidates past and present.
The movie straddles a difficult crossroads in terms of patterns of Hollywood representations of American history, with Spielberg at the helm of the film’s tonal contradictions. John Williams’s cloying score and the unnecessary third act denouement that checks the boxes of Lincoln’s last days serve to function solely towards a myth-making (or, in the case of a mythical figure like Lincoln, myth-echoing) project. Had the entire film maintained this tone throughout, Lincoln would be a diverting but ultimately useless film about The Great White Emancipator, telling audiences only the things they already knew since being introduced to the American mythos on Presidents’ Day in elementary school, thereby keeping the events and persons of history preserved in an impenetrable snow globe.
But Lincoln is also the work of Daniel Day-Lewis and Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner (who also collaborated with Spielberg on the underrated Munich), and it’s their contributions that enable Lincoln to surmount the problems inherent in conventional cinematic biopics and “true stories” of historical import. Day-Lewis does not by any means deconstruct the myth of Lincoln, but he does humanize the 16th President in a way that we’ve arguably never seen before in the moving image, turning him into a man as susceptible to frustration, doubt, and shady deal-making as he is to inspired oratory and determinations toward justice. Outside the film’s closing fifteen minutes or so, the non-breathing caricature immortalized on our nation’s currency is (thankfully) nowhere to be found.
But it’s through Kushner’s work on themes of negotiation, equality, and justice that Lincoln transcends the many strictures that could have made it something less. As a recognized voice for gay agency within a national context (especially with the celebrated Angels), Kushner is adept at investigating subtle layers of conflict within categories of difference with far more depth and patience than the reductive for-it/against-it binary.
That Kushner gives Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) such a prominent voice is essential. Through Stevens’s character, Lincoln gives voice to the virtues of radicalism, highlighting the fact that, while negotiation and compromise may place just policies in the realm of the plausible, ideological impurity is a mode of pre-emptive semi-defeat that prevents those in power from realizing what achievements might truly be possible. Jones/Kushner’s Stevens has a point that resonates poignantly in our present moment: when it comes to inalienable rights and equality, the will of the people and the opinion of a democratic majority have no justifiable role, whether or not that will or majority be characterized by embrace or opposition.
Lincoln reminds us that we still haven’t realized Euclid’s law quoted in the film: “Those which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other” (or something like that). Yes, November 6 made significant strides towards marriage equality in Washington, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota, but the fact that the question regarding whether or not we should afford the same basic human rights to all adult citizens is still on a ballot, and minority rights are subject to majority rule, evidences that we’re still a long way from achieving a substantial understanding of equality and justice.
But beyond Lincoln’s allegorical export to contemporary Civil Rights issues, the film has been released just as the mythical narratives of a “post-racial America” and “blue state/red state divides” encounter their greatest challenge. While Obama’s Presidency has both decidedly (inaugurated with Lincoln’s Bible) and undecidedly (stagnation and obstructive partisan division in Washington, largely credited to a party that confuses their political opposition as a mortal enemy and is not against courting the votes of racists) echoed Lincoln’s tenure, Spielberg and co. could never have predicted that a secession petition would make its way into national news just as Lincoln’s release expanded.
The far-right dream of state autonomy suggested by 2012 secession petitions, like the Civil War, seeks to re-imagine whiteness as a tenable subject position of the oppressed. The major difference between now and 1861, however, is the question of who can speak in total on behalf of a place as populated and diverse as an American state. What the 2012 election results proved, to Bill O’Reilly’s remorse, is that the promise of the melting pot has largely been achieved, resulting in a society containing a populace defined by pluralism and difference, not one in which a single subject position (be it white or male or rich or Evangelical) reigns dominant over the rest.
Thus, while Lincoln reminds us of the complex and compromising process of progress, it also illustrates the great differences in how we’ve come to understand and acknowledge the makeup of the nation as a result of a history of struggle and liberation, of which Lincoln’s presidency played a vital role. The red state/blue state electoral map is arguably a remnant of Civil War-era thinking, and has proven insufficient to depicting the current makeup of the electorate, which instead resembles something like this:
Lincoln reminds us that the story of America is largely a story of a dominant majority (either in number or in power) combating the perceived threat in giving voice to difference.
Unlike the Hollywood tradition represented by Driving Miss Daisy, The Help, and anything in between, Lincoln doesn’t congratulate us for how far we’ve come. Instead, the film illuminates how far we still have to go. Do we need more stories of African-Americans seeking social change told through the point-of-view of white characters? Hardly. But in its best moments, that’s far from what Lincoln is ultimately about.