Steven Spielberg’s masterful film, Lincoln, comes at a timely moment for America. Daniel Day Lewis’ powerful and nuanced portrayal of the president’s combination of courage, compassion, realism, humor and faith is a challenge to Washington today.
The narrative focuses on the struggle to pass the 13th amendment that ended slavery. Spielberg skillfully avoids stereotyping. He respects and challenges his audience by avoiding simplistic or stereotypical narrative and tells history in all its complexity and ambiguity.
From the opening scene of an “honest dialogue” between the president and two black soldiers, the film affirms the agency of African Americans in fighting for their liberty and their rightful place as full citizens. We also are reminded that racist thinking was deeply ingrained throughout the country. Many Democrats in northern states voted against the amendment.
A fascinating aspect of the story was the arm twisting and patronage needed to assure passage of the amendment. Lincoln was not above getting his hands dirty for a great cause.
I found it impossible not to think about the deep divisions in America’s political life today. In the aftermath of Obama’s electoral victory, much has been made of the overwhelming dominance of Republicans in former Confederate states. But as many white males in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania voted for Romney as did in the South.
Contrary to common media assumptions, the South includes large numbers of liberals as well as conservatives. Not all conservative Republicans are racist and not all liberal Democrats are as enlightened as they like to think.
While some state governments may pursue regressive policies, the day-to-day reality at the community level is often quite different. Many observers have noted that race relations have progressed further in southern states than in the rest of the country. A recent story in the New York Times about three small towns in the Mississippi Delta provides a good illustration.
The three communities in question lie at the heart of a region known for racist brutality and civil rights struggles. Yet, “…beneath the easy assumptions about racial animosity in the South, a different ethos prevails. The races interact daily in these small towns. Despite the oppressive Jim Crow system of the past, people know one another intimately. Trust, it turns out, trumps race. That doesn’t mean racial tension doesn’t exist. But there’s a capacity to look beyond it, born of lifelong intimate contact, that’s rarely found in larger cities.”
Lincoln understood the basic need in every human being to be acknowledged, accepted and respected. When these needs are met, other things may become possible – whether in Mississippi or in Washington, DC. As the writer notes, “personal relationships can supersede race in a highly partisan time, when black and white too often become proxies for left and right.”