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A few exceptionally popular books and movies have played a large part in sustaining, sometimes decades after they first appeared, what American historians know as the myth of the Lost Cause, vaunting the slaveholding South. With its gallant white Southrons and its happy-go-lucky slaves, living an idyll heavy with the scent of blooming magnolia, it is an all-American variant of the larger genre of reactionary sentimentalism that is as old as the Romantics.

Gone with the Wind , the book and the movie, is the most familiar work in the Lost Cause canon, but the most influential, artistically as well as historically, has been D.

'Lincoln in the Bardo': Between heaven and hell, a half-lit existence

Lincoln, a significant figure in the middle of the film, appears bizarrely as a Southern sympathizer, whose murder paved the way for all of the horrors visited upon the defeated Confederacy. And although it may be difficult to believe today, the film set the cultural tone for what was becoming the conventional wisdom—inside the academy as well as among Americans at large—about the Civil War era. The war came to be perceived as a tragic, avoidable conflict that led to a cruel and corrupt imposition of rapacious Negro equality on subjugated Southern whites.

Dunning of Columbia University was to historical scholarship on the war and its aftermath, The Birth of Nation was to American popular culture. After decades of contrary evidence, advanced first by pioneering black scholars led by W. Not every important Civil War film drama has fit this description, of course. Until now, that is.

How Lincoln Changed the World in Two Minutes

Spielberg and Kushner have done so, completely and brilliantly. More than a superb movie, Lincoln is itself a monument in American cultural history.

O Captain! My Captain! |

Near the start of the film, there is an absurd scene of two white Yankee soldiers and one black one, early in , in an army camp, reciting back to Lincoln the entirety of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln certainly visited the front, but no common soldiers—or most likely any other Americans, Lincoln included—would have memorized the address in , as it only became revered decades after the war.

As Holzer notes, Gardner would never have permitted anyone, let alone a child, to fool around with his precious, fragile negatives; and more to the point, the pictures in question familiar to any historian of slavery were not taken by Gardner. Lincoln focuses on the passage in the House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. There is a Hollywood pause as the House begins its final day of debate, and some free black citizens take seats in the gallery, supposedly the first time this ever occurred—which it was not.

More matter-of-factly, the film shows Mary Todd Lincoln sitting in the gallery, alongside her ex-slave seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, and toting up the final tally on the amendment vote, all of which is preposterous. As written by Kushner, the Keckley character barely reveals the historical Keckley, who was very active in Washington black relief efforts as the founder of the local Contraband Relief Association, which aided recently freed ex-slaves, including wounded soldiers. For some strange reason, Spielberg has featured a portrait of William Henry Harrison—a Whig, as Lincoln had been, but a faux military-hero president who lasted in office only one month and whom Lincoln, although a supporter, did not exactly venerate.

It is not in his voice, which is appropriately high-pitched, or in his accent, or in his facial expressions, but rather in his movements, his gait, and in some scenes his color. And although Lincoln aged quickly during his presidency, and admitted to how the stress had fatigued him to the marrow, he lost none of his formidable physical strength until the day he died: one doctor who attended at his autopsy was amazed to look down upon what he called the well-rounded muscles of a powerful athlete.

Not even Abraham Lincoln could have been both a pol and a saint. STILL, Lincoln includes scenes and narrative touches that might look like contrivances but are stunningly precise. Beside these historical grace notes, there are ample thematic justifications for some of the tampering with history in what is, after all, a historical drama and not history itself.

It also brings blacks who are not servants into a movie that is necessarily fixated on the White House and the Capitol, and into a crucially important story of the exercise of government power that involved white male politicians almost exclusively. And it pokes at right-thinking stereotypes by having one black soldier attack Lincoln for not doing more for blacks, while another, practically rolling his eyes, expresses gratitude and even comradeship with the president.

Taking nothing away from Frederick Douglass, the accusation is as unfair as it is literal-minded. Other lazy writers and critics have hailed Lincoln as a brief for compromise in American politics delivered at a time of stalemate in Washington.

Reading Karl Marx with Abraham Lincoln

This is a nonsensical reading of the film, of the history that it portrays, and of Abraham Lincoln. The passing of the Thirteenth Amendment involved no compromise whatsoever. Lincoln and the congressional leaders simply obtained, with every trick in the book, the votes they needed, and thereby achieved everything they set out to achieve. Lincoln fought as hard as he could to get his way, even if it required deviousness in strategy as well as tactics.

He did not always prevail, and he sometimes had to settle for partial victories. But the idea of Lincoln, or any great American president, going into political battle with compromise on his mind is outlandish, a disservice to the practice as well as the history of American democracy. During the fight over the Thirteenth Amendment, Republicans, none more conspicuously than the radical Stevens, tempered their views and insisted that the amendment would produce equality before the law but not perfect social and political equality between blacks and whites.

Unlike some high-minded radicals whose purism took precedence over politics, Stevens knew how to get things done. These arts, especially as wielded by Lincoln and his other indispensable political ally, Secretary of State William H. Without that monumental victory, the hard-nosed Republican Stevens could never have picked up the fight to achieve his highest principles, including full black citizenship and racial equality.

So Stevens, in Lincoln , emblemizes politics in contrast to the sanctimonious anti-political stance that passed itself off and still does as righteous progressivism. And this brings us back to Griffith. For almost exactly a hundred years, beginning with Griffith's masterful film, Hollywood has been complicit -- no, salient -- in promoting pro-Confederate falsehoods about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Contrary to one widespread tale, Griffith never repented for the views he expressed in The Birth of a Nation , even after the film received stinging criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights advocates.

More than a decade later, he did direct an early talkie biographical film titled simply Abraham Lincoln , which at least acknowledged Lincoln's anti-slavery politics. But The Birth of a Nation remained his most celebrated and popular film, and established a moonlight-and-magnolia view of the slave South and the war that, with an enormous boost from Gone with the Wind , has pervaded American culture.

Now Spielberg and Kushner and everyone involved in Lincoln have at last declared, "Enough! Sherwood and earned two Oscar nominations, including Massey for best actor. Lincoln , and Abe Lincoln in Illinois —form a separate genre of Lincolnian cinema.

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Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation appears only episodically in the first half of the film, but he is a pivotal character. Hated during the war by Confederates and Northern Copperheads alike, his image among white Southerners had softened over the ensuing decades. Glorified by his blood sacrifice, Lincoln stood, according to his Confederate and pro-Confederate enemies, as the inveterate foe of those they dubbed maliciously the Radical Republicans—a magnanimous peacemaker and healer, who supposedly would have done his utmost to reunite the North and the South without recrimination.

Oddly, the screenwriter Kushner seemed to endorse this view, at least in part, in a recent interview on National Public Radio. He has since repudiated any such suggestion, but the incident proved how easily even well-informed Americans can stray into Lost Cause tropes—and how even astute film-makers may lose touch with the implications of their own work.

Certainly, he hoped to achieve reunion as quickly and painlessly as possible. But he also sympathized with the situation of the millions of freed blacks, at least some of whom he wanted to see enfranchised—an idea that was anathema to the defeated Confederates. Having won the Civil War, Lincoln wanted peace and reconciliation—but peace on the terms of the victorious North, not of the defeated white South. An honest Lost Cause history of the period would have celebrated the ill-tempered, racist Johnson in his losing battle with the Republicans in Congress.

But Johnson has always been a singularly unheroic figure.

The substitution in turn permitted younger white Southerners such as Griffith whose father had been a Confederate Army colonel simultaneously to love Lincoln and loathe blacks. Although this Lincoln commands the Union army, he seems to do so with reluctance. There is nothing in the film about Lincoln and slavery, or Lincoln and secession; nothing about the Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation that provided for recruitment of black soldiers.

There is only Lost Cause falsehood, no matter how accurate the scenery and the costumes. Drawing on earlier down-home writings about Lincoln by the journalist and author Ida Tarbell, and utilizing considerable invention and an unblushing populist mock-poetic style, Sandburg created an almost mystical Lincoln who embodied the all-American virtues of diligence, unpretentiousness, generosity, and more.

No blacks appear in the movie, except for one white actor in blackface who provides a moment of crude minstrel humor. As ever a master of set design, Griffith included some visually arresting sequences, including in the War Department telegraph office that Spielberg may have borrowed eighty years later. But there is very little drama in these political scenes, which devolve into a series of Important Moments, as stiff as wax-figure tableaux. Lincoln the clumsy self-made man is finally redeemed by his insistence on not punishing the South and by his martyrdom.

Although the purport of Abraham Lincoln is entirely different from that of The Birth of a Nation , Griffith was still clinging to the conventional white Southern myth of Lincoln the Healer.

O Captain! My Captain!

Lincoln , a film of striking visual allure, is interested entirely in creating a mythic character and imparts little that is of historical or biographical value. After actor Robin Williams ' death in August , fans of his work used social media to pay tribute to him with photo and video reenactments of the Dead Poets Society "O Captain!

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