Steven Spielberg’s Dark and Gloomy “Lincoln”

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln

I went to see Spielberg’s latest film “Lincoln” today. That was three hours of my life I’ll never get back. I admit that I’m not a fan of Steven Spielberg or of historical dramas, so maybe my judgment isn’t worth that much; but I’m going to write about it anyway. I am a fan of Daniel Day Lewis, and I suppose he was the best thing about the movie. The second best thing was that Tom Hanks wasn’t in it.

Spielberg’s film covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life and is centered on the fight for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Certainly, the subject had the potential for a gripping drama, but instead Spielberg managed to turn a thrilling story into a movie that I found boring, pretentious, and depressing.

What bothered me most as I watched the film was how dark and grim it was–scene after scene after scene of men wearing dark clothing and talking incessantly. But as the endless scenes wore on,  I couldn’t keep my own present-day irritations from affecting my reactions.  I was incredibly annoyed to watching important national decisions being made solely by white men–most of whom were old and not very pleasant to look at–without any input from women or African Americans.

The make-up seemed designed to emphasize wrinkles, bags under the eyes, and unattractive facial hair in microscopic detail. Tommy Lee Jones was never handsome, but in his role as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens he was made to look almost monstrous, with deep wrinkles, sagging jowls and giant pouch-like bags under his eyes.

But back to my growing irritation. After the misogyny and racism we have seen in this country over the past four years, I found the domination of “Lincoln” by white males to be incredibly annoying. And my irritation only grew as time went on. Surely there must have been black people who fought to pass the amendment–where were they?

The talk of “equality” of the races and the evils of treating “men” as property really rubbed me the wrong way, considering that women and children were to continue being treated as property for at least another hundred years after the passage of the Thirteen Amendment and that black men even in 2012 are still very far from being treated equally. Even our black President isn’t immune from the patronizing and bigoted attitudes of many Americans.

Admittedly, it’s unfair of me to judge the movie based on my present-day anger. Still, I think part of that feeling did arise from the fact that the movie–I think wrongly–ignored the thoughts and feelings of women and black people.

Only two women are shown having any kind of role in events: Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. Mary Todd Lincoln is shown interpreting her husband’s dreams, trying to prevent her eldest son from enlisting in the Union Army, and supporting her husband’s policies. Her closest companion was Keckley, a black women who had purchased freedom for herself and her son, and become a seamstress. She was eventually introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln and went with her to the White House. Keckley wrote an autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. But none of this was spelled out in the movie.

As for black characters, there is a sort of butler who says he was born a free man, a couple of black Union soldiers and anonymous black audience members who file in to the House gallery to watch the final vote on emancipation. I later learned that the “butler” was William Slade, who along with Elizabeth Keckley, was active in the abolition movement. Toward the end of the film, Thaddeus Stevens is shown getting into bed with a black woman whom I later learned was Stevens’ housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith. The two were lovers for 23 years, so why didn’t Spielberg emphasize her influence on Stevens’ attitudes about racial equality? Why was she included in the film almost as an afterthought?

At least one reviewer, historian Kate Masur, expressed a similar reaction to mine–except that hers was based on actual historical knowledge. Masur writes:

[I]t’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.

This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.

I’m no historian–or movie reviewer–so I was relieved to learn that I’m not the only person who was deeply disappointed in “Lincoln,” despite fine performances by many of the white cast members. According to Masur,

In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes. The film conveys none of this, opting instead for generic, archetypal characters.

Masur was offended by the

brief cameo of Lydia Smith…housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens… Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together — reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role.

And why was Frederick Douglass left out of the film entirely? Masur notes that he was invited to the White House after Lincoln was inaugurated for the second time. According to Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White,

what the audience doesn’t fully understand, in the final scene – almost the final scene – where suddenly African-Americans arrive in the balcony as the final vote is to be taken, that one of those is Charles Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass. Charles had fought in the famous Massachusetts 54th; he will write to his father after that climactic vote: ‘Oh, Father, how wonderful it is. People were cheering, they were crying tears of joy.’ So that had the potential for more black agency, but it doesn’t come to full fruition in the film.”

To add insult to injury, Lincoln is far too long at 2-1/2 hours (plus ads and previews). It could easily have been edited to 2 hours or less, especially since Spielberg chose to ignore the historical roles of African Americans and women in the events the film depicts.

27 Comments on “Steven Spielberg’s Dark and Gloomy “Lincoln””

  1. bostonboomer says:

    If you’ve seen “Lincoln,” please chime in with your own reactions. I’m no movie reviewer and I freely admit to allowing my present-day prejudices to influence me as I watched the film.

  2. janicen says:

    Thanks for this. I had every intention of going to see it on Saturday, but I decided to wait. You saved me the time, trouble, and money.

  3. ecocatwoman says:

    I rarely go to the movies anymore. I thought about going this weekend, but didn’t. Apparently the script was based on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

    Rotten Tomatoes, which lists critics and moviegoers reviews, have ratings of 90% & 89% for each.

    Wikipedia has an extensive entry on Thaddeus Stevens. I think that’s where I read that Frederick Douglas’ son was in the gallery. There are details about Lydia Smith, as well. Apparently she was considered then as Stevens’ common law wife.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Yes, Doris Kearns Goodwin is a plagiarist, which is another reason I wasn’t going to see Lincoln. I went because my mom wanted to see it.

  4. Silent Kate says:

    I haven’t seen the movie but I was glad to see I’m not the only person who doesn’t care for Tom Hanks. Lol

    • bostonboomer says:

      I absolutely abhor Tom Hanks!

      • surfric says:

        But why? i happened to see part of Forrest Gump today, and though it’s kind of a sappy movie, he did a dam good job in it. Also excellent in Castaway, not to mention the classic TV series “Bosom Buddies”. He’s politically fairly correct, so what is it? I’m curious.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Tastes differ. For example, I thought Castaway was incredibly boring and emotionally manipulative. I wouldn’t see Forrest Gump unless someone paid me a lot of money. I don’t care for sappy movies and I don’t like movies about mentally disabled people (because they are notoriously sappy and manipulative.) Bosom Buddies? Are you joking?

        Politically correct? Who cares?

  5. RalphB says:

    Thanks for the review. My son and I went to see ‘Skyfall’, a great Bond movie for those who like them, instead, Now I’m very glad we did.

  6. NW Luna says:


    scene after scene after scene of men wearing dark clothing and talking incessantly

    So much has changed, eh? Not.

  7. NW Luna says:

    Haven’t seen it yet. I recall from some history reading that Lincoln wasn’t such a shining example of the abhorrence of slavery. A Major General named Fremont first banned slavery in the state of Missouri during the Civil War. Whatever one thinks of Fremont, this situation doesn’t say much for Lincoln, who in response, stripped the Major General of command:

    Frémont imposed martial law in the state, confiscating secessionists’ private property and emancipating slaves. On October 25, 1861, Frémont’s forces won the First Battle of Springfield.

    Pres. Abraham Lincoln, fearing that Frémont’s emancipation order would tip Missouri (and other slave states in Union control) to the southern cause, asked Frémont to revise the order. Frémont refused to do so, and sent his wife to plead the case. Lincoln responded by publicly revoking the proclamation and relieving Frémont of command on November 2, 1861, simultaneous to a War Department report detailing Frémont’s iniquities as a major general.

  8. Beata says:

    I can’t comment on the content of the Lincoln film because I haven’t seen it yet. But from watching the trailer, I will say that Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln accent doesn’t sound accurate. It sounds odd and distracting. There are historical descriptions of Lincoln’s voice which describe it as high, nasal, and “folksy”. Day-Lewis’s voice in the film doesn’t come across that way to me. I know what Kentucky and Southern Indiana accents sound like. I’ve heard them all my life. Part of my family originally came from the county where Lincoln grew up in Indiana. One of my ancestors was married to Lincoln’s sister. Day-Lewis should have listened to voices of people from that area while studying for the role. It might have helped his portrayal.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Lewis changed his voice to a higher pitch to play Lincoln, but he didn’t get the accent right. Frankly, I think actors shouldn’t even try to imitate regional accents. They never get them right. I have yet to see a movie where anyone got a Boston accent right unless they were born and brought up there. Same with Indiana.

  9. Linda says:

    The absence of Frederick Douglass kept bugging me throughout the movie and was actually very distracting. Spielberg is well intentioned but has deficits of perspective that resulted in the problems you pointed out. Maybe some Black historians as consultants on the film would have helped. Yes, the movie is called “Lincoln” but the story is bigger than that.Telling somebody’s story without actually asking them about it is a very unfortunate presumption.

  10. Ron4Hills says:

    I saw the movie. I liked it very much. I would have liked to have seen the black characters more fully developed and in the case of Frederick Douglas I would like to have seen him period. I got to play Frederick Douglas in the school play in the fifth grade and he has been a personal favorite of mine ever since. I have a few Jewish friends who could only find things to complain about in “Schindler’s List.” And I have black friends who felt insulted by aspects of “The Color Purple.” But honestly, in this movie (“Lincoln”) as well as those, I think Spielberg got a lot more right than he got wrong.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I didn’t hate the movie, but I did find it tedious; and I think it would have been much improved with more emphasis on the wide range of people who contributed to the end of slavery.

      • Ron4Hills says:

        No argument. That would have made it better. The historical information cited above about about Elizabeth Keckley, William Slade and Lydia Smith would have also been awesome and wouldn’t have required any awkward forcing into the story. They were already in the story.

        • dakinikat says:

          Keckley was absolutely instrumental in the entire process. She would take Mary Todd Lincoln into black communities all the time where Mrs. Lincoln got a complete sense of how horrible life was for African Americans even if they were free. MT Lincoln then set a huge fire under her husband. I can’t see how you can create a story of any of this without giving a central role to Keckley and to MT Lincoln’s daily reports.

  11. surfric says:

    Tastes differ. For example, I thought Castaway was incredibly boring and emotionally manipulative. I wouldn’t see Forrest Gump unless someone paid me a lot of money. I don’t care for sappy movies and I don’t like movies about mentally disabled people (because they are notoriously sappy and manipulative.) Bosom Buddies? Are you joking?

    I guess tastes differ. I thought his performance in castaway was a tour de force. He carried that movie alone, with no dialog, for over an hour, and I wasn’t bored. How was it manipulative?

    I would have bet that I’d agree with you about Forrest Gump, and I certainly didn’t pay to see it. But it was actually done with a lot of dignity. You do understand that it’s a fairy tale/allegory, right? Again, not manipulative, unless you call every piece of work with a point of view manipulative. On the other hand, I hated “One flew over…”, the movie, loved the book, so I know where you’re coming from. I hated that they turned the book, which to be sure had a lot of black humor, into a silly comedy, with all kinds of mugging and demeaning stereotypes, exactly the opposite of what the book achieved.

    Of course I’m joking about Bosom Buddies.

    Still, not caring for some of his movies doesn’t explain why you abhor the man. I’m still curious about that.