Movies can negatively shape popular perceptions of history. Birth of a Nation (1915) helped lead to the revival of the Klan. Gone with the Wind (1939) still shapes many peoples’ comprehensions of slavery. The Patriot (2000) provided a false understanding of the soldiers and tactics of both sides during the Revolutionary War. Often, history instructors must spend class time debunking and criticizing Hollywood depictions of America’s past and they skeptically approach any historical film ready to hammer away at inaccuracies or distortions. As a result, many people have come to believe that professional historians simply hate all historical movies.But he was impressed by Lincoln. He points out that director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kuchner didn't try to make a panoramic presentation of the entire emancipation process:
They did not even film all aspects of their source book, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Instead, the primary focus is on only one minor part of the emancipation story, President Lincoln’s role in engineering the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives in early 1865 with bipartisan support. His effort required skillfully uniting the various wings of his own party and securing at least 20 Democratic votes. Here Spielberg gets at the heart of Goodwin’s thesis by accurately portraying Lincoln as a masterfully shrewd politician employing any means necessary (the specifics of which are largely fictionalized, but entertaining and accurate in spirit) to pull together a disparate political coalition. This tightly focused narrative arc provides the film with high drama, light comedy, and an exhilarating climax. Those who have studied Civil War congressional debates will be especially pleased with the film's accurate and entertaining depiction of these discourses. To the film's credit, it becomes clear that northern racism was often as virulent as southern. We may quibble about some of the details, but in the end, the film’s accuracy is praiseworthy, even if narrowly focused on a topic that requires mainly depicting the machinations of a few white men. [my emphasis]That strikes me as a good observation.
As I discussed in the first posts in this year's Confederate "Heritage" Month series, I had an issue with the opening scene which leaves the impression that Lincoln was fine with war crimes, specifically a "no quarter"/take-no-prisoners approach. When in reality he set a new and internationally important precedent in opposing such a policy. I'm afraid that will also go into the list of "inaccuracies or distortions" that Hollywood has contributed to popular understanding of history.
Today when the Bush Library opening featured a video of Condi-Condi Rice justifying torture, it's a reminder of what a potentially destructive distortion of history that can be when evil people use it to justify their own criminal actions.
Tags: confederate heritage month 2013, lincoln, war crimes