Looks Like the “Academy” Read My Lincoln Movie Review
NOTE: I wrote this and sent it out 2 days before the Academy Awards. The movie did not win Best Picture or Best Director although Daniel Day-Lewis did win Best Actor. I’m satisfied.
OK, I'll admit it right up front.
I stopped watching or caring about the Academy Awards/Oscars years ago. Maybe I was just jaded. I'd spent my whole adult career in the ad game and there was something about watching this 2 - 3 hour-long trailer for the movie biz that made me feel er...uh...stoopid - almost as dumb as dropping my hard-earned shekels to go to the auto show.
Don't get me wrong. I grew up like most poor, "colored" kids in America. I was as big a sucker for this stuff as anybody else. Bigger. When you're poor, young and black in America, watching, reading and hearing white folks’ half truths, myths and fantasies about themselves is 99% of your "education".
I think I really believed George Washington never told a lie until I heard Malcolm X or H. Rap Brown tell a different version. That was the beginning of my adulthood. But ‘til then, pop culture was all I knew...or wanted to know.
But now I've lived 65 blackyears in America. EurAmerica’s myths and fantasies are not so much fun these days. Watching the AAs is not a priority. Besides, I'm sure my friends, family and every "news" outlet in the country will make sure I know who won...whether I ask or not.
So, at least I give Steven Spielberg's Lincoln credit for one thing. It revived my interest in the event. I’m really in suspense now to know how many Oscars the “Academy” will award this motion picture mess. What does it say about the state of the artistic union that this mini-biopic received one nomination, let alone 12? (Although I must admit Sally Field made a very good Mary Lincoln.)
But if Lincoln (the man) had been as boring as Lincoln (the movie), no one would ever have made a movie about him. I know this is heresy among my white liberal friends but I can’t let this stand. The picture would have been more exciting if they’d filmed a History 101 text book...and more historically accurate. (More on this later.)
For my money, Spieberg should go back to film school and learn how to make entertainment based on real people and events. (I won’t even get into the audacity of naming this long, drawn-out photoplay about 3 months in his life, Lincoln). Can you say P-R-E-T-E-N-T-I-O-U-S?
Then he and his co-conspirator, Tony Kushner should go back to high school to take a few current courses in American history. Evidently the lessons they learned as teens were still under the influence of the Texas State Board of “Education”, whose right-wing standards made sure most of us over 55 never learned anything about our nation’s past that might upset parents in Selma, Paducah or Tupelo.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no quarrel with Spileberg's intentions. He obviously wanted to produce a fitting tribute to ol' Abe on the150th anniversary of his most famous act. His intentions, like many well-meaning liberals, were honorable. But good intentions alone don't make good actions, good results or good movies, let alone great ones. The proverbial road to you-know-where is paved with them - which brings me to my problem with Lincoln, (the movie) that I never had with Lincoln (the man) in spite of his now well-known racism and love of minstrel shows and nigger jokes, (I was waiting for at least one joke or scene referencing any of this in the movie. It never came. I guess it got in the way of the halo Spielberg wanted to keep above Lincoln’s head.)
(Speaking of presumably well-meaning white Hollywooders making bad, boring, historically-challenged movies, did anyone see George Lucas almost comical treatment of the Tuskegee Airmen, ” Red Tails?)
I’ll say this here. I respect Lincoln (the man) infinitely more than “Lincoln” the movie because, unlike that Great American Hypocrite, Thomas Jefferson, he went beyond his feelings and supposed intentions and did something that none of our much-touted FFs ever did. In fact, he took the first step toward undoing the damage they had done. He freed 4 million slaves. And whether it was for economic, spiritual, moral, social, etc. reasons, he did it. And he was killed because of it.
I’m old enough and black enough to know that no man or woman, “black”, “white”, “brown”, “red”, “yellow” or other is the saint hypemiesters like Spielberg portrayed Lincoln to be. But Lincoln (the man) came as close as any politician in America ever has -including his would-be Mt. Rushmore companion, Barack H. Obama. These words about the still ongoing Civil War from his 2nd Inaugural Address are the most honest ever uttered by any American President:
“Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."
By contrast, our current president didn’t mention a word about race or racism in his recent 2nd Inaugural - even though racial inequality is as bad or worse now in many ways than before the Civil Rights Movement. (A CNN study last year showed white America’s average household wealth = 22 times that of black America’s.)
Now, Back to our feature. A little background.
The day before Thanksgiving, I was dragged, kicking and screaming to see Spielberg's Lincoln in Las Vegas. I was out there for the holiday visiting my sister Benita. The whole family wanted to go....so I went under duress. The argument we had afterwards will go down in the Thompson archives as one of our best. And that was before we even got around to the movie. Then it was on.
This whole column is my last word on the subject. If my siblings disagree, they can write their own.
I had already heard the hype and maybe read a few reviews and I was not impressed. And it's not like I'm some kind of "artsy-fartsy film snob". I'm easy. Give me Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Treasure of Sierra Madre or even, Glenngarry Glen Ross, The Player, The Shawshank Redemption and I'm happy. The flick doesn't have to be pure fiction either. I thought Spielberg's Amistad was very well done. The perfect blend of Hollywood history and fact.
But when I read a list of characters and the actors cast to play them, I was....uh....amazed, astonished, gobsmacked.
I read, then re-read the list. Maybe I missed it. Who was playing Frederick Douglass? Was it Denzel? or Morgan or maybe even the hardest working man in showbiz once again, Samuel. Let me read it again, slowly. No. Nobody was playing the man who played a major role in real life to get ol’ Abe to first issue the Emancipation Proclamation, then the 13th Amendment. (This was another major failing of the Spielberg/Kushner project. I’d bet 90% of the audience don’t know the difference and had no clue what was happening for the first 30 minutes of the film. Even I was confused, and I’m probably better versed on this stuff than most.)
Then I found out something that made the omission even more suspicious. After a little googling, I found out Speilberg's original screeplay for Lincoln was written by well-known screenwriter/playwright, John Logan. It was based on the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and, guess who, Frederick Douglass. Look it up. In 2001, when Spielberg announced this would be his next project, he hired Logan to write the screenplay. How he got from there to a Douglass-less movie I'm dying to know.
Anyone who knows anything about the period depicted in the movie knows the influence of Douglass and other abolitionists on Lincoln, who was, as Lerone Bennett, Jr.'s famous controversial book title, Forced Into Glory. Douglass, the escaped slave, great orator and leading AfrAmerican abolitionist was almost as famous as Lincoln himself. To ignore him in a movie about this period is, to my mind, the same as taking Abel out of the biblical twosome. If Lincoln had been made in the early 1900s (like that notorious award-winning Hollywood historical travesty, Birth of A Nation) maybe I'd understand. But this is 2013, the second decade of the third millennium...right? I just finished a whole book by noted historian, James Oakes, titled, The Radical and the Republican about Lincoln and Douglass’ relationship.
In fact, to my AfrAmerican mind, Lincoln could well be the Birth of a Nation of our times, perpetuating another white American hypestory as history for generations to come. The fact that it was done by white liberals today with a half-black man in the White House, makes it all the more galling. For the Academy Awards judges to give Spielberg and Kushner any encouragement would be a travesty.
What were Spielberg and Kushner thinking? Did they believe that they couldn’t make a profit in a movie where a black man shares top billing with the title white character? Did they think Lincoln (the man) would have objected to Douglass stealing scenes from him in Lincoln (the movie)? How much did Amistad gross? Maybe that burned Spielberg enough to never let historical accuracy stand in the way of making a good return on investment. Did the black stars want too much moolah? What?
I heard Django, Unchained did pretty well.
(Speaking of Django. A well educated, not easily pleased, bourgeois coffee colored fellow adman friend I may run into a few times a decade, called me a month ago and left an ecstastic voice message. He’d just seen Django and he couldn’t contain his glee. “I just saw one of the best movies ever!”, he screamed (or words to that effect). “You gotta see this”. I’ve heard similar breathless endorsements from lots of black folks. The sight of an ex-slave getting 250 years of revenge on his former masters really moves that popcorn and lemon heads.
These intelligent AfrAmerican (mostly) men were even willing to put up with Tarantino’s wall-to-wall use of the n word (he and old Abe had that in common) to finally get back at whitey, if only on the silver screen. But I won’t go see it. Not because I wouldn’t enjoy it but because I’ve spent too much time reading about how white leaders used the excuse of black retribution to justify not freeing the slaves. It’s been a big crowd-pleaser in the movies since DW Griffith’s “masterpiece” of racist propaganda.
Tarantino is only playing into the fears and fantasies that have fueled Ku Kluxers and White Aryan Warriors since way before the Emancipation Proclamation.)
Which brings me back to Lincoln (the movie).
Maybe I'm biased. But a movie made by a fellow Chicagoan, Edward Zwick, about the same period as Lincoln almost 25 years ago shows you don't have to sacrifice storytelling, plot, action and entertainment value to make a historically important (and pretty accurate) drama.
I was flipping channels when I stumbled across one of those stations here in Chicago dedicated to old movies. I saw the shocked, young face of a bleeding Matthew Broderick in Glory. He was playing real life hero and abolitionist, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments in the Civil War.
And even though it followed the same pop movie dictate of making the white guy the hero (like Lincoln), it did give black folks parts with courage and dignity (just like in the real life people and events they portrayed). They even made room for a cameo by the guy Spielberg/Kushner just couldn’t find room to squeeze in, Frederick Douglass.
And, in case you think it's just moi - an angry bitter old black man, Maureen Dowd, the big-time pontificator at the New York Times finds faults with this 12 nomimation mediocrity. Even though her February 16 column confines itself to only one political pseudo-fact in the drama, it only adds to my ever growing list. I read a piece in an online blog called Crooked Timber by a writer named Corey Robin and a New York Times op-ed by the historian Kate Masur that holds Steve and Tony’s feet to the fire for their...er...ummm....creativity with history.
Fact checkers are going wild. When I saw the scene near the end, when Tommy Lee Jones' Thaddeus Stevens jumps in the sack with his "dusky" mistress/maid, I assumed it was based on incontrovertible fact. Didn't you? But all I could find in reference to it was that Stevens’ relationship with his house maid was only a rumor by his conservative enemies, (unlike the now historically accepted relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.) The effect in the movie (at least to moi) gives the impression that Stevens' life-long fight against slavery and for equality was at least partially influenced by his sexual preferences.
OK, OK, I know you're getting bored. But, in my own defense, this column is not nearly as boring asLincoln ( the movie.)
I'll wrap it up with this:
Last week, I ran into a friend who is a retired Chicago school teacher. She is of the un-colored and Jewish persuasion. I asked if she had seen Lincoln. I wanted her opinion because I was going to write this review.
She looked at me with an embarrassed but knowing smile.
"Yes", she said, "but I can't tell you a thing about it. I fell asleep".
I rest my case. (pun intended).