Kate Masur Tries Again

Historian Kate Masur has published another op-ed piece on Spielberg’s Lincoln in which she responds to unnamed critics of her earlier review of the movie at the New York Times. It’s difficult to see what, if anything, is new in this follow-up piece, but in reading it I think I have a better sense of what she and other academics find troubling.  First, I am struck by the fact that the movie has enjoyed close to universal praise.  Yes, there are quibbles with the length of the movie and especially the way the last rush to include a series of events leading up to Lincoln’s death at the end, but overall it looks like Americans enjoyed the movie.  Unfortunately, much of the academic debate over the movie simply ignores the groundswell of enthusiasm for this movie.

Masur uses the opportunity to once again drive home the point that Lincoln gives us little more than passive black characters that in the end are given their freedom by Lincoln and Congress.  This is not an insignificant oversight:

[I]t is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

It’s not that there are no voices of blacks fighting for their freedom, but that they are either not central enough to the story or they are the wrong voices altogether.  Consider her critique of the opening battle scene:

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

I agree that they function in this manner, but they also impart a clear sense of just what was at stake for African Americans in the war and their central role in forging that “new birth of freedom.”  Masur too easily ignores this and instead offers up her own imagined scenes that she believes could have been used in the film to bring it more in line with current historiography.

Masur closes with the following:

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Indeed, and perhaps that is what this comes down to.  What we see in this critique as well as others is the continued tension between biography and social history.  It’s not simply that Masur wants more voices, what she appears to want is a different kind of story/narrative altogether.

16 thoughts on “Kate Masur Tries Again

  1. Keith Harris

    I think the problem here, as with many of historians’ reviews, as that she insists on describing the film as “a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States.” It most certainly is not. Maybe that was the movie she wanted to make – but Spielberg made a different film. I think she should critique that one.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I completely agree, Keith. Her critique seems more at home in a classroom. I still have not read anything that offers a satisfactory answer to why this movie has received such wide acclaim. Perhaps I haven’t read widely enough, but it seems to be receiving positive reviews in both the white and black communities. What does the movie’s success tell us about what the general public is looking for in better understanding its history. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen offer a compelling interpretation in their book The Presence of the Past” target=”_blank”>The Presence in the Past. That is what we need here.

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  2. Barbara Gannon

    Historians should make their own movie if they want to tell their story. This movie has done more for Northern Civil War memory that anything since Glory. Its beyond me why we are not celebrating this “glorious” film.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I would suggest that the movie supports what is more and more becoming a national as opposed to regional Civil War Memory.

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  3. GBrasher

    Agree with your assessment (and Keith and Barbara). I commented on this when Don Shafer posted it, and we all seem to be in agreement that in the end she simply just wants a whole other story told. (I am all for that. In fact, I know of one particular book that might be perfect for showing the role of black agency in emancipation to the degree that she might approve. :-) ) The two scenes in which Spielberg did have blacks lobbying the President are two of the scenes that are getting hammered the hardest for feeling awkward and forced into the narrative. So imagine the reception the scenes she recommends in this article would have received.

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  4. Dudley Bokoski

    A fair question about any work of historical fiction is whether it captures the flavor of the times. If film makers restricted themselves to an exact rendering of the period portrayed, based only on existing documentary evidence, they would likely end up giving audiences a lesser picture of big ideas and issues. In this case I think you have to give them credit for giving audiences an accurate impression of the times.

    More could be added to the story, but at the end of the day you have to satisfy an audience and you have to fit the essential pieces together in such a way as to create a natural flow. If you stray too far from the central narrative you risk unnatural digressions which take away from the audience’s imaginations becoming captured by the film. The ideas Ms. Masur proposes aren’t bad ideas, but they are probably ideas which fit best in a different movie which could give them full play.

    I appreciate that, in a film about Lincoln, you gain an understanding that the Republican Party was more than the President. If you really want to talk about a group which is consistently written out of the script of Civil War movies it is the politicians North and South who breathed life, or at least fire, into the conflict.

    At any rate, for those who remember “The Santa Fe Trail” with Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn leading a cavalry charge (with artillery support) at Harper’s Ferry against John Brown you would have to say we’ve come a long way.

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  5. Ryan

    I really don’t think I saw the same movie as her. Of all the opening scenes to pick, Spielberg chose a battle that involved USCT. That scene has been picked apart by many people, and I can’t add much, except to say that I didn’t even think it was that necessary to begin with.

    To say the movie doesn’t show enough black troops or black involvement at all isn’t fair. The truth is that this wasn’t “Glory,” it’s objective was to not highlight either USCT or others. I think the way that the movie handed the lead-up to the Hampton Roads Conference was brilliant. Who is that escorts the Confederate emissaries? Black forces. You can see on their faces that they’re not happy about it; they’d like to run Stephens through with their bayonets, harkening back to the standard of the 22nd USCT, but they know what they’re doing can end the war. If they can help make the rebels surrender, they’re one step closer to their lasting liberation.

    I think it’s time to step back and realize that “Lincoln” has opened so many doors to historical conversation and what it means for our national conciliation with what the war meant. What was Spielberg supposed to do? List every single USCT unit in the Union armies? Break the tension in the telegraph office by shouting out to everyone, “Hey everyone, black soldiers landed at Fort Fisher too?”

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      To be fair, Masur does acknowledge the battle scene as well as the escort scene which you reference. The problem seems to be that it is not enough nor is it the right type of coverage of how blacks played a role in their own emancipation. If you read her essay you see exactly the kind of agency Masur prefers.

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  6. Matthew Hulbert

    (via facebook)

    Why do I get the feeling that if Spielberg had forced more African American characters into a narrative that unfolded largely in Lincoln’s private chambers or the House of Reps (unavoidably domains inhabited by elite white men) many of these same critics would just be criticizing the film for trying to make history politically correct and thus for devaluing the true historical contributions of African Americans during the Civil War?

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  7. Bummer

    Bummer hungers for entertainment that has some “meat on the bone.” Folks that don’t normally go to the theater, made the effort to see “Lincoln”, because they believed in a Hollywood release of a worthwhile and wholesome nature. The title itself was redeeming. Whether it met current historical standards was irrelevant to the common man or woman’s mentality. Many who saw the film hoped for another “Private Ryan”. It wasn’t to Bummer, but it was better than a “sharp stick in the eye”. Thanks for Spielberg’s effort.

    Bummer

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Whether it met current historical standards was irrelevant to the common man or woman’s mentality.

      I don’t know if that is true. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the average moviegoer assumed that it was grounded in history. In my discussion about Glory this past weekend one woman was extremely disturbed to hear that a particular scene did not take place. For her it was extremely important that what she saw on screen mirrored the history.

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  8. Brad

    It seems to me that we have a case where some academics have their blinders on and, as others have said, wanting a movie that wasn’t the one made. It’s in a way similar to certain academics not embracing blogging, the common thread being that if things aren’t done in a certain way, it’s not accepted. As readers of these blogs I think we can see what may have been wrong — if that’s the right word — about the movie. However, that can’t and doesn’t detract from people having taken the time to learn something about mid 19th Century America or that it may spur some to get interested in Lincoln, the Civil War or history.

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  9. Miuchael J. Wilson

    I applaud Ms. Masur for her thoughtful and substantive criticism of the film. She has helped to inspire a discussion about history, race, social movements and the accuracy of the film, discussions which are well worth having. Not only does she bring a wealth of knowledge to the discussion (I know that I learned more history from her commentary) she does so in a way which gives Mr. Spielberg and others in Hollywood fresh opportunities for the future. “Lincoln” is a good film, but not a perfect one. Perhaps future films about this important era in American history will incorporate some of the ideas and history raised in this debate. If so, Ms. Masur will have done more than lead a discussion. She will have helped to shape our view of history. I think that’s worth at least 3 stars.

    Reply

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