"Fred Douglass? Don't know the man."
“Fred Douglass? Don’t know the man.”

I have not seen Lincoln.   I got to cop to that from the jump.   I don’t know when I will see it, but I know why I haven’t and that reluctance is based upon my fear that it’s going to be just another well-acted, well-shot, well-directed whitewash.    I’m all for entertainment,  and  I understand  Lincoln isn’t a documentary, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to rewrite history in the name of artistic license.    Even without buying a ticket I have no doubt Lincoln plays it fast and loose with the facts.

I’ve got nothing but love for Steven Spielberg.   Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t one of my favorite actors but I don’t see anyone standing between him and a third Best Actor Oscar. and maybe he deserves it,  However,  even though I haven’t seen Lincoln doesn’t mean I don’t know Lincoln and I know you can’t tell a credible story about President Lincoln and how his position on slavery evolved without including Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln was not some beacon of enlightenment and equality.  He was a man of his time, but not necessarily a man wholly of his own invention.   His hatred of slavery was not balanced by a love of Negroes.   Lincoln was very much a product of his time and his decision to rid the nation of slavery was a stance  he evolved to and  Douglass pushed Lincoln to be bold and brave enough to stand up  against the evils of “the peculiar institution.”

Douglass goes missing in “Lincoln”

The contradiction of Lincoln’s words to his deeds are the proof of how conflicted he was.    I wonder if Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner are aware of some of Lincoln’s more intemperate remarks?

  • I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
  • My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.
  • I cannot make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization.

I think we know better.   The reality of who Lincoln was might get in the way of the romanticized whitewashing of Honest Abe.   Lincoln, which was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, had an earlier script by John Logan that focused on the president’s relationship with Douglass, but Spielberg abandoned that story for  Kushner’s that pushes Lincoln and his allies and enemies to the forefront and Douglass out of the picture entirely.

The omission of Douglass and the part he played in leading Lincoln out of the darkness and into enlightenment has not gone unnoticed by historians whom have generally praised the film.    Michael Shank,  adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution writing in The Huffington Post wondered how such a key character could be sidelined,   “It is ironic, in fact, that Lincoln opens with a close-up of black soldiers in conversation with the president. It was Frederick Douglass who not only recruited black soldiers for the Union army, but he also ardently advocated to ensure these very black soldiers had equal pay, were treated equally, especially if captured, and received the same promotions as white soldiers.”

When Abe met Danny

“Frederick Douglass made this film scene feasible. He found it absolutely inexcusable that black soldiers who served in the Army during the Civil War — totaling nearly 200,000 by the end — were being treated as second-class citizens, despite dedicating and ultimately sacrificing their lives for the country. Director Steven Spielberg or screenwriter Tony Kushner could have placed Douglass in that encampment encouraging black soldiers. The idea that the role of Frederick Douglass wasn’t afforded an historical fit in the film, as some have intimated, is utterly fallacious. ”

“What a missed opportunity to educate American audiences about the myriad black leaders that inspired, instigated and were involved in Lincoln’s leadership on the issue of civil rights.

After Lincoln’s death, Douglass said, “Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.”

Douglass’ observation about Lincoln was a statement of fact, not a criticism.    But that isn’t the Spielberg/Kushner/Day-Lewis version Hollywood is celebrating.   This is the American President as the Great White Father who through wit, cunning,  guile and pure force of will drags a reluctant, war-weary country out of the darkness of slavery into the light of freedom.

It’s a good story.   It gets even better when you skip the messy details by excluding Douglass and the part he played in Lincoln’s enlightenment.    It wouldn’t be the first time a White guy reaped the rewards of what a Black guy taught him and it won’t be the last.

America loves its Great White Father Figures who aids the poor darkies.  It makes ’em feel good.