Historical accuracy is a weighted term, but when it comes to period films, it often devolves into an unbearable lightness of being. Minor details receive disproportionate attention, and thus the critical, overarching context is frequently overlooked. To be certain, Steven Spielberg’s much-celebrated Lincoln has its own share of small errors. For example, Mary Todd did not attend the House gallery during the contest for the 13th Amendment. Robert Lincoln was not at the Wilmer McLean home at Appomattox during Grant and Lee’s meeting. Thomas (Tad), often seen reading in the movie, was barely literate while his father was alive. The scene of Lincoln riding among the fresh corpses of Petersburg greatly exaggerates the numbers of bodies present at the time (and understates the damage to the landscape). The Gettysburg Address, depicted as famous and mass-memorized in 1865, did not become so until many years after Lincoln’s death.
Yet for every little miss, there are tenfold impressive makes. Most compelling is Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the 16th President, who was indeed an amiable but emotionally detached lawyer who depended more on timing than on principle to reach his ends. Lewis even achieved Lincoln’s symbolically plodding walk, planting each foot awkwardly but firmly flat, just as the original man traversed.
But these particulars overlook a much larger concern. Understandable is Spielberg’s narrow focus. The fight over national emancipation was indeed a sordid, dramatic, and radical departure from the long American tradition of human enslavement, and it fits within a two-hour timeframe. Yet the entire narrative misleads us down an old mythic folkway. As addictive as the simple story may be, even when wrapped in the moral comfort of a Spielberg story, all history does not turn on the whims workings of politicians. No law exists without an organic blend of acceptance and enforcement. Sadly, for the four million unchained by a multitude of events forged within and by a massive civil war, pen strokes and votes did not set them truly free. The society and economy in which they remained, one bent on cheap labor and severely limited opportunities, remained in place and by force for many decades thereafter. In short, the 13th Amendment was a turning point that failed to turn.
Today is Inauguration Day, a time-honored event that has always been far more show than substance. As much as our political figures want us to believe, and for the millions of us who embrace their self-proclaimed hegemony upon fate, our history still revolves more on our personal relationships than with any associations with presidents or generals, princes or kings. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the painfully slow rise of African American freedom on this continent. Despite what Spielberg’s “Lincoln” wishes us to believe, the most meaningful leaps forward for racial equality came not in 1865 but in 1965.