I have now watched the movie Lincoln and can tell you that every review I have read of it is stupid. Except Charles Rowley’s. I think that is a very good reading of the film.
There is this disturbing trend where people confuse the depiction of racism as it occurred throughout history with racism and the depiction of sexism with sexism. The other week, there was this huge scandal in Russia where a journalist was accused of anti-semitism because of saying that somebody was a Jew. Which he actually was. It got to the point where people perceive the very word “Jew” as offensive. Before you laugh at the silly, confused Russians, read this story about my students who resist saying the word “black” because it scares them.
The movie Lincoln shows an unpleasant, tragic, painful reality and refuses to cutesify it as much as many people would like. The most poignant scene in the movie was, for me, when the black people are watching from the balcony while a bunch of white men decides whether they will be legally considered human. This is the most anti-racist thing the movie could have done because it shows you how horrible, unnatural, and disgusting racism is. What is happening on the screen is so obviously wrong that you have to be dead and buried not to feel it.
Another important aspect of the movie is how well it portrays the tragedy of women’s oppression. While Lincoln is changing history and accomplishing something incredibly important, his miserable wife goes nuts because of boredom, because there is no meaning to her life, because there is nothing whatsoever for her to do. She is descending into the abyss of hysteria, and who wouldn’t? Just like the film’s anti-racist message consists in the way it makes racism so palpable that you can barely breathe, the movie denounces the tragedy of oppressed women by showing what their stunted lives were like. In the movie, Lincoln actually spends time with his sons, playing with the youngest, arguing with the oldest. Mrs. Lincoln, however, is hardly ever around her children. Her growth as a human being has been frustrated to the degree where she has nothing to offer to them.
I liked the movie because it shows that progress comes at a great price and is achieved very slowly and painfully. Yet it does come. It might not be fast enough for our liking, it might not arrive in as uncomplicated way as we would like, but it does arrive, and that is what matters.