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“Our movie is really about a working leader who must make tough decisions and get things done in the face of overwhelming opposition.” — Stephen Spielberg

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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40 comments… add one
  • Pam Nov 20, 2012 @ 12:20

    As I understand it, Frederick Douglass played a major role in Lincoln’s ultimate decision to send in newly freed African-American soldiers to bolster the union army . In my humble opinion, the fact that no one was cast to play the part of Douglass in the Spielberg film is a faux pas of great magnitude. In fact, the author on whose book the film is partly based makes repeated references to Douglass throughout her book and and frames him as a Lincoln advisor on the subject of slavery and emancipation.

    That he’s not included feels like a racial slight. The average American knows so little about American history and how things have come to be what they are. I feel Spielberg, if nothing else, had a patriotic duty to tell the full story. American children need & deserve to know the whole story. It just looks bad, no matter the reason, that he chose to not include one of the most eloquent and charismatic abolitionists of the time. I can’t quite fathom the telling of the civil war story without including Frederick Douglass. Without him –the story has little to no credibility.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2012 @ 12:54

      Did Lincoln meet Douglass during the time frame of this movie?

      • Andy Hall Nov 20, 2012 @ 13:35

        Not a meeting of substance. The main action of this film covers a period of several weeks in early 1865. During that period, their only meeting was when Douglass was hurriedly ushered in and out of Lincoln’s inaugural ball in early March 1865 to give his best wishes to the president. Their only face-to-face discussions came in August 1863, when Douglass was lobbying for equitable pay for black troops, and in August 1864 when Lincoln, fearing he would lose the upcoming election and that his successor would immediately make peace with the South, called Douglass to the White House to ask his help in getting as many enslaved persons out of Confederate-held areas as he could. I’m not sure how much time Douglass was even present in Washington; his home during this period was in Rochester in upstate New York.

        In fact, the author on whose book the film is partly based makes repeated references to Douglass throughout her book and and frames him as a Lincoln advisor on the subject of slavery and emancipation.

        True, but the book was optioned for a contractual “based on the book by” credit years before Spielberg and the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, zeroed in on the specific period and events they wanted to base the screenplay on. Those events, as I understand, amount to only about five pages out of Team of Rivals.

        • Herculano Fecteau Nov 25, 2012 @ 4:50

          Then that brief moment “when Douglass was hurriedly ushered in and out of Lincoln’s inaugural ball in early March 1865” should have been included in the film, if for no other fact than to highlight the way in which even the most prominent leader of the African-American community at that time was sidelined from the political discussion during a war which involved perhaps the most important moral crusade in American history — though the tendency today among establishment historians is still to downplay the role of slavery in the conflict, in favor of emphasizing the struggle to “maintain the union”. And there could even have been a flashback to the earlier, more substantial meetings between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

          Again, my point is to challenge what many, including myself, still see as the prevalent influence of white supremacy in dominating the formulation of American history and culture, even in projects of this technical magnitude launched by those who consider themselves to be white liberals.

    • Herculano Fecteau Nov 25, 2012 @ 3:20

      ” I can’t quite fathom the telling of the civil war story without including Frederick Douglass. Without him –the story has little to no credibility.” The one explanation which makes the decision to exclude Frederick Douglass from the film fathomable, Pam, is a sad but fairly simple one: the lingering influence of white supremacy.

      I discovered this article following a Google search I did after reading a wry comment from Al Sharpton in my facebook news feed. He mentioned that he’d just watched the Lincoln film, but suggested he might have dozed, since he’d missed the President’s encounter with Frederick Douglass. At first reading I took him at his word, mystified as to how such an astute and clever observer of American politics could have experienced such a serious lapse of attention. Silly me. Rev. Al is one of the sharpest and most astute analysts on the subject of race in this country to have ever come down the pike. I’d been talking with my elderly mom, during a visit over the Thanksgiving holiday, about making a trip to the local cinema to view the film. We never fit it into our schedule, and now I’m not so sure I even want to see the movie at all.

      The fact that no African-American artist or intellectual was brought on board to play any significant role in the production of a film covering a subject of such historical magnitude, which is the project of a prominent white director and a white screenwriter well-known for their “liberal progressive” inclinations, is just another indication of how little progress America has made some 150 years after the end of the Civil War and the legal abolition of slavery. That same period has encompassed roughly 100 years of Jim Crow, and brings us to our present-day reality of still-widespread de facto segregation as we enter the second term of an allegedly “post-racial” presidency, ushered in despite perhaps the most divisive and racist political rhetoric and campaign tactics launched by the far right since the Civil Rights era. All of this was crystallized into the electoral strategy of the (just barely) second largest party in the nation, representing almost half of this year’s electorate, the defeat of which party was only ensured by its almost unanimous rejection by the Black voting population and the overwhleming majority of Latino voters.

      Other popular cultural indicators supporting this thesis are perhaps even more blatant to truly discriminating social observers, who unfortunately appear to be the rare exception among Americans of European descent. Without trying to launch a dissertation here — which is really what is warranted — one only needs to take a look at the Emmies, or the Grammies, or the even more banal cultural expressions such as the typical “10 Most Beautiful People in America” features in mass media supermarket journals like People and Us, where the only people of color who make the cut have been impossibly handsome Black men like Tyson Beckford, impossibly handsome and talented Black men like Denzel Washington, and impossibly beautiful and slender bi-racial women or Latinas like Halle Berry and Eva Longoria, invariably sprinkled sparsely among a collection of both beautiful and mediocre candidates of the Caucasian persuasion.

      I rest my case, knowing full well that Amerikkka, it would appear, is far from ready to do the same, at least in my lifetime.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 3:41

        What did you think of the opening scene in which African American soldiers play a central role?

        • Herculano Fecteau Nov 25, 2012 @ 4:54

          Like I said: not sure that I even want to see the film anymore, and contribute to a box office bonanza slight to African-American history. I may just wait to watch it on Comcast.

          • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 4:58

            Unless you see the film it is difficult to judge what it includes and leaves out. My suggestion is not to let others interpret for you.

            • Herculano Fecteau Nov 25, 2012 @ 5:36

              In these days of Google searching it’s fairly easy to find out what a film includes and leaves out, as it was for me in this case. Prefacing the first major film about the Civil War era produced during the last several decades with a scene featuring Black soldiers, without following up with any significant reference to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or any of the other African-Americans who played major roles in the historical landscape, to my mind smacks of tokenism. I will probably view the film when it comes to cable, or on DVD, in the same way I might watch “The Birth of a Nation” as a cultural artifact (not to suggest that I’m ready to consign it to the same realm of “artistic” racist propaganda as of yet, or that I feel I’m likely to). I don’t think it’s going to teach me much of anything about the historical record that I don’t already know, and I can wait a little bit to savor whatever cinematic value it might have without having to pay any admission premiums to Hollywood or for the high-priced, fake-buttered popcorn.

              • Andy Hall Nov 25, 2012 @ 6:07

                “In these days of Google searching it’s fairly easy to find out what a film includes and leaves out, as it was for me in this case.”

                Then you’re probably aware that Lincoln dies at the end. Spoiler Alert! 😉

                In all seriousness, go see the movie. I doubt you’ve read more about it beforehand than I have, and there’s a great deal in it that I was not expecting. Maybe it it will be better and more compelling than you anticipate, maybe worse. (Though I doubt the latter.) But you won’t know until you see it. Carping loudly and at length about a movie you haven’t seen, or a book you haven’t read, is a game for a polemicist. Don’t be that guy.

                • Rob Baker Nov 25, 2012 @ 11:30

                  I think his problem with the film is one of interpretation over accuracy. In that sense, he will be disappointed as the film leaves out the “pivotal,” central black figures of the Civil War era. Personally I thought the average everyday figures (Mary Todd’s helper, the black soldiers throughout the film, Lydia Hamilton Smith, etc.) spoke volumes more than a tidbit scene paying homage to Frederick Douglas. After all, the 13th Amendment was more about them than Frederick Douglas.

                  • Herculano Fecteau Nov 25, 2012 @ 14:48

                    Rob Baker’s argument is a copout, in that it appears virtually every major player in the white power structure during the Civil War Era, on both sides of the divide, is assigned a role in this film, and not one prominent Black person: William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, William Seward, Francis Preston Blair, his daughter Elizabeth Blair Lee (surely her letters documenting period events didn’t rise to the noble level of Douglass’s powerful oratory?), William Bilbo, Alexander Stephens, Benjamin Wade, Ulysses S. Grant, Edwin Stanton, Wells Hutchins, and Fernando Wood. And to suggest that the 13th Amendment was more about Mary Todd’s helper Elizabeth Keckley (ex-slave, servant and dressmaker), the black soldiers, and Lydia Hamilton Smith (Thaddeus Stevens’ housekeeper) than it was about Frederick Douglass is both patronizing and wrong, though I am one of those who would agree that it is the masses that make history.

                    Mr. Douglass himself was a part of those masses: he was born and raised a slave. The only reason the 13th Amendment didn’t apply so directly to him was because he escaped from the “peculiar institution” –after waging a heroic personal struggle within its parameters, including the beating of a racist overseer to whom he’d been assigned to be “broken” — to become a free man, a self-educated, self-made intellectual, and one of the greatest orators of the abolitionist movement, a national and international figure, in spite of his lack of access to the privileges afforded the white movers and shakers, including Lincoln (though, granted, he rose as well from humble origins).

                    To suggest that Douglass played a lesser role in this period of history than at least half the people on the aforementioned long list of characters is disingenuous, insulting and historically inaccurate. Furthermore, I highly doubt that anyone in Hollywood would have considered trying to craft a highly successful story of the era, geared toward a mass audience, based solely on rank and file white Union soldiers, butlers, farmers, housekeepers, nurses, medics and other “everyday figures” who no doubt also played important roles in the conflict.

                    Finally, in response to Andy Hall, I appreciated the chuckle I got from your “spoiler alert”. I do have a BA in history, with a special interest in the Civil War, Reconstruction and African-American history, and taught it at the high school level for several years before moving on to teach my first love, music, to public school middle students and pre-schoolers. I do plan to see the film, though I’m not in any hurry to do so, since I feel very strongly about the slight to Frederick Douglass, and even more strongly about the historical and lingering legacy of white supremacy.

                    Neither do I shrink from playing the “game” of polemics, since I reject the conception of the social sciences as a gray and dismal discipline devoid of passion and partisanship. Some of the most exciting and influential figures in history have been skillful and influential polemicists: Douglass himself, Cicero, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the list goes on. In their presence, of course, I am but a pale shadow.

                    • Kevin Levin Nov 25, 2012 @ 15:00

                      I appreciate you taking the time to read and for your comments, but why not let this thread go until you see the movie. I don’t see the point of continuing this thread.

                    • Rob Baker Nov 25, 2012 @ 18:31

                      What an interesting comment… Copout? To what exactly? Was there a question posed or some sort of commitment or responsibility I am supposed to fulfill?

                      The issue with your point, every major player in the “white power structure” getting a role, is that in the very narrow window into the past that Lincoln gives, those roles are prominent. Like Andy said, Frederick Douglas’s role is not prominent historically in that time frame, and therefor not prominent in the window of the film. Your issue is one of interpretation, not of historical accuracy.

                      I am also confused, or rather interested, in how you can both agree with my statement and also disagree with it. You agree that the masses make history yet place Douglas in the masses in order argue is relevance. I don’t see why those “masses” should be surpassed by one of your choosing. I cannot doubt, however, Douglas’s importance to the end of slavery. Though granted, I did downplay Douglas in my previous comment primarily to see what you would say in the follow up. You retaliated which a Frederick Douglas praise, which is unnecessary in this conversation as it didn’t pertain to the 13th Amendment or the South’s surrender (the primary political focus of the film). You obviously have a very strong bias and I don’t see any reason to continue the thread until you at least see the film.

  • John Buchanan Aug 24, 2012 @ 11:05

    I am looking forward to it so I can figure out if my inability to get to my favorite watering hole last fall for two weeks while they filmed in Petersburg was worth it!

    It made for some interesting traffic patterns in the Cockade City!

    Also, the light stand they used to hold the massive lights used for filming looked like something from War of the Worlds was looming over Old Town!

  • TF Smith Aug 22, 2012 @ 21:14

    I like the use of B&W for the ad; nice touch.

    Who plays Douglass? Morgan Freeman?

    • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 23, 2012 @ 8:36

      No one. Douglass isn’t in this movie, oddly. I’m sure that Mr. Freeman would play him if Mr. Spielberg chose to include the character – they worked together before on “Amistad.”

      I wonder when the studio will release the trailer.

      • Lyle Smith Aug 23, 2012 @ 10:53

        Having Frederick Douglass in the movie might make Abraham Lincoln look bad.

        • Herculano Fecteau Nov 25, 2012 @ 4:57

          You got that right.

  • Rob Baker Aug 22, 2012 @ 10:06

    I’ve been anticipating this movie for quite some time.

  • Lyle Smith Aug 22, 2012 @ 9:39

    I wonder if Spielberg means this film to be allegorical or topical.

    • Michael Lynch Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:34

      From what I hear, the reason it’s not coming out until after the election is because he didn’t want people to think he was trying to speak solely to current politics.


      • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:44

        It’s inescapable.

        • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 22, 2012 @ 12:25

          Yet this summer’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” comes out before the election on October 23rd. D. W. Griffith’s 1930 movie “Abraham Lincoln” comes out on November 13th. Hopefully they release other Lincoln or Civil War movies not already available on home video.

      • Lyle Smith Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:59

        We’re going to see how good a historian Tony Kushner is, I think.

        • Will Hickox Aug 22, 2012 @ 14:49

          Griffith’s “Lincoln” is an absolute travesty. Why oh why was that one saved while so many other early films were lost?

          • Andy Hall Aug 22, 2012 @ 15:14

            It’s better than Griffith’s other CW-related movie.

            Although, Griffith being Griffith, his Lincoln movie also includes at least one white actor in blackface. So there is a consistency there.

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 22, 2012 @ 9:15

    I can’t wait to see it! I love the cast – Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stephens, David Strathairn as Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, and especially Sally Field as Mary. I fear, though, that they will oversimplify Lincoln as the abolisher of slavery. As many books and articles have argued, many clung to the need to control the freedmen, and the latter’s quest to define their lives. The inclusion of the Blairs, Fernando Wood and others gives me some hope that we’ll receive a nuanced view of this important event. Nonetheless, I’m sure the film will have large set-pieces with fine performances. Daniel Day-Lewis is already receiving Oscar buzz – but then he normally does. I also anticipate intensive debates in the Civil War community about the film.

    I watched “Abe Lincoln vs. Zombies” the other day – it’s what you’d expect for a low-budget film.

    • Will Hickox Aug 22, 2012 @ 10:22

      Period films almost always oversimplify people and events. The average paying filmgoer wants action, drama, something approaching a good story, and nudity. Historical accuracy isn’t on their radar screen. Production design and costumes in American period films seem to have gotten somewhat more accurate in the past few decades, but characters’ behaviors and attitudes are often anachronistic and events are compressed. The Brits have a far better track record in making historically accurate films.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2012 @ 10:39

        I think it’s always important to remember that Hollywood films with a historical subject are not works of history.

      • Andy Hall Aug 22, 2012 @ 10:56

        Period films almost always oversimplify people and events. The average paying filmgoer wants action, drama, something approaching a good story, and nudity. Historical accuracy isn’t on their radar screen.

        Nonetheless, well-done historical films can transcend their factual errors and oversimplifications to have a profound impact the public’s understanding and appreciation of a topic, or even recognition that it existed at all. Just think how Glory with all its limitations, changed the entire conversation about the war and the popular understanding of it.

        Spielberg is not known for films with emotional or psychological complexity, so I suspect there will be some heavy-handed moralizing in this one. Still, it’s going to be an important film, if for no other reason than it will likely shape (for better or worse) and entire generation of Americans’ image of the 16th president.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2012 @ 10:57

          Excellent points, Andy.

        • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:11

          My thoughts exactly. Accurate or not, they provoke discussion in public and in academe.

          I just hope Spielberg’s Lincoln doesn’t escape Booth’s pistol by hiding in the fridge.

          • Andy Hall Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:18

            I can’t wait for Profs. Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s review of it.

        • Wallace Hettle Aug 23, 2012 @ 5:53

          One reason to be optimistic that the movie is good–Tony Kushner is involved. His “Angels in America” is about the best play I’ve seen–a complex yet devastating view of the 1980’s, seen through the lens of the AIDS crisis.

        • Rob Baker Aug 23, 2012 @ 6:35

          Andy makes some excellent points. Historical films can be used as a positive in certain instances. Usually this happens when “cherry picking” parts of the film rather than the whole. Take for example the film “Last of the Mohicans.” In large part the film is one historical blunder after another. However, 6 minutes into the film there is an excellent example of how the individualism that gripped America at the time started to override “loyalty” to the British empire. It happens again and again in the film.

          As Andy says:
          <em)Still, it’s going to be an important film, if for no other reason than it will likely shape (for better or worse) and entire generation of Americans’ image of the 16th president.

          Great point. To add on to this I think these types of films are important because it allows us to see the current generations projections onto the past. Even the supplementation of drama, action and romance in place of historical accuracy provides a window of explanation and how people today view the world. In essence, we can see what about the past stands out to the present. That is useful information to know when teaching. How do we approach the current generation? Through what appeals to them.

      • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:10

        As I said, I reserve some hope that this movie will posit Lincoln between the abolitionists and opponents of emancipation – something rarely seen in film. Too often films portray the North as solidly behind Lincoln, and the few opponents rarely last long – i.e. Salmon P. Chase in the 1988 movie based on Gore Vidal’s book. I wonder how comfortable the public is with the notion of pro-slavery Unionists.

        I find some British films to be equally flawed – i.e. Bridge on the River Kwai took huge liberties with the actual experiences of western prisoners of the Japanese. Cromwell, Four Feathers, The Drum, Zulu – don’t get me started. Only one I really liked: 1968’s Charge of the Light Brigade.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:18

          I have to wonder, given the brief Spielberg quote in the post, whether the film will be critiqued primarily in relationship to our own political climate.

          • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 22, 2012 @ 11:21

            I think it undoubtedly will – but it could apply equally to Bush and Obama.

          • Rob Baker Aug 23, 2012 @ 6:36

            In that regard it is no different than the “Crucible.” A comparison of the current event (Red Scare) to mirror the past (Salem Witch Trials).

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