Let me tell you something about the scene in Lincoln immediately after the 13th Amendment is passed. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a typical TLJ hardass who happens to be ultra-liberal and uncompromising, takes the official amendment document off of the House floor. He goes home and his black housekeeper, Lydia, takes his coat and hat. The scene cuts, and we see Stevens in bed . . . with Lydia. I can’t tell you anything else, because I was bawling my eyes out.
A little disclosure: I’m a white man. My girlfriend is black. She’s from the setting of The Wire. I’m from the setting of the Civil War. Obviously, we have really great senses of humor. There’s also a lot of anger that comes with such a blunt viewing of America’s long history of racism. Then there are the complicated emotions—the joyous tears wonder at how far society has come, and how our relationship wouldn’t be at all conceivable without the actions depicted in this film.1
Balancing that anger with a great sense of humor and a tremendous amount of self-control is central the character of Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis, with his wizened face, slump-shouldered gait, and mastery of the cadence of extended jokes and historical speeches, does an excellent job conveying the burden of presiding over a civil war. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln tops anything I’ve seen him in. You know Denzel Washington, who turned in a Pantheon performance in Flight, threw popcorn at the screen over his lost Oscar.
Let me also back up a bit: The passing of the 13th amendment (spoiler alert?) is the crux of the film. Steven Spielberg is uninterested in war, historical speeches, and vampires. Lincoln’s legacy as the Great Emancipator does not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. It ends with his absolutely masterful manipulation of the American political system, which resulted in the Constitutional end of slavery. The film is fascinating because of how seriously it takes itself without being too self-aggrandizing. We see no climatic battles and few ripped-from-high-school-history-books speeches. If it’s heavy-handed, it’s only due to the heavy subject matter. The writing and performances aren’t overstated, but they’re not under-stated, either. “Negro” and “nigger” are thrown about with period-appropriateness. Like Mad Men, the film exists to expose the racist history of the United States by making slaves, free blacks, and Civil War soldiers a near afterthought to the powerful men charged with deciding their fates.
It’s a trick that may slip many viewers: We rarely see the heart of the matter. There is almost no violence, aside from a scene of disembodied limbs being buried and the excellent opening, where we experience firsthand how horrifying old timey combat was. The lack of battle scenes highlights the disconnect between the people who make wartime decisions and the people who carry them out.
Similarly, there are very few black people in the film. Most of the black characters are the Help, peeling off white people’s coats and making beds. The future of slavery’s legality is discussed in front of these housekeepers and valets, and it’s jarring to see these people of power have such little self-awareness. The black characters ghost throughout the film, barely speaking, but are a constant reminder that an entire race’s humanity is at stake, and almost no one from that race has any say in the matter.
The lack of war scenes and speaking black people is effective, because Lincoln isn’t trying to be grandiose and mythologizing with its protagonist. It’s simply trying to show us how difficult democracy is, even if you are fighting for democracy’s basic principles. You see Lincoln and his staff trying to gin up votes by promising patronage jobs for Democrats2 who will vote in favor of the amendment or at least abstain. If Fox News saw Barack Obama doing something along those lines, the story would revolve around “nasty, Chicago-style politics.” They didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle in 1864, though, so viewers are treated to democracy attempting to accomplish its highest end by way of its smarmiest practices.
Here, though, is a rare case when the ends justify the means. Slavery is wrong. Nothing else matters. Southerners love to talk about “traditional ways of life” and romanticize the antebellum Old South. I know, I grew up with it. But if we’re talking about economics, we’re talking about the economics of owning people. If we’re talking about traditions, we’re talking about a tradition of denying people basic human rights simply because of outward appearance. This isn’t an abstract concept. Most of the conflict involves whether or not it’s a good time for Lincoln to pass the 13th amendment, leaving the viewer to scream at the screen: Who the hell cares if it’s a good time!? That anger and frustration is part of what makes the film and Lincoln’s character so powerful. Lincoln has complete contempt for his political enemies, but unlike the divisive firebrand Thad Stevens,3 Lincoln is able to understand his opponents and thus coax a compromise out of them. A compromise—in this case, a few votes for a Constitutional amendment—is better than nothing. Especially when the Confederacy hasn’t been readmitted to the Union.
Lincoln himself is forced to compromise most in personal matters. His eldest son, Robert, desperately wants to enlist in the Union Army, saying he would regret it for the rest of his life if he stood pat. Mary Lincoln demands that Abe keep Robert out of the army by any means necessary, for she fears losing another child. It is the most personal conflict of the movie, the one that seems to weigh on Abe the most. It’s also an extended metaphor for the difficulty of politics: Sometimes both sides have irrefutable points. Sometimes you can’t say “yes” or “no” to everyone. How does this relate to slavery, which is obviously wrong? Well, Reconstruction was a disaster for the South. It wasn’t until FDR’s New Deal that many southern areas got electricity and running water. Reprehensible as slavery and the Civil War may have been, the aftermath featured too many punitive measures and steaming feuds. Lincoln understood this possibility, but he was assassinated before he could do anything to prevent it.
This is crucial. Had John Wilkes Booth not acted, a Top-5 President would’ve had another three years to reconcile things. Perhaps we would’ve had a stronger, less racist, less economically-divided country. Perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. would’ve preceded Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president. Instead, we got a vengeful U.S. Grant and an even-more-radical-Republican Congress. The divisions were set. Abraham Lincoln understood these things, and perhaps Lincoln’s greatest feat is illustrating how Lincoln wanted reconciliation more than his peers. Though the film is not necessarily a tragedy, the viewer is left wondering—like in any good tragedy—how much could have been different with the slightest of alterations? Subtract the delusions of one person, and what might the intellect of another accomplish?
1. Throughout the film, frightened white people repeatedly asked what in God’s name Negroes would do once they were freed. I can’t tell you how many times the lady and I leaned over to each other and said, “TAKE THE PRESIDENCY, THAT’S WHAT!”
2. If I have to say that Democrats back then were the racist party and Lincoln was a Republican, then stop reading this article right now and go shove your face in some history books for a few months.
3. I should admit that he is the character I most identified with.