Oscar Watch: Lincoln's Opening Should Have Been Its End
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, the leading Oscar contender with 12 nominations, earned high marks from many conservatives (see here, here, and here). That the film was the work of a pious Hollywood liberal and a Marx-loving gay activist (Tony Kushner) didn't seem to raise any red flags. One reviewer, Christian Toto at Breitbart.com, declared that "both men left political posturing aside."
Anyone who thinks screenwriter Tony Kushner would, or could, shed his skin and write a political drama not infused with leftist posturing is being more than a little naive. Viewers may succumb to the illusion they're watching history being filmed as it happens, but what they're actually watching is history selectively chosen and programmatically reassembled.
That is obvious from the opening scene, a ridiculously contrived meeting between Lincoln and two black soldiers at a rail station. (Two white soldiers would join the scene but only as unflattering counterpoints to the blacks, as liberal protocol compels. The whites, star-struck in Lincoln's presence, would stutter and stammer and then depart, no doubt to shoot themselves accidentally as they boarded the train.)
The first words of the film are spoken to Lincoln by one of the black soldiers:
Some of us was in the 2nd Kansas Colored. We fought the Rebs at Jenkins Ferry last April just after they killed every Negro they captured at Poison Springs. So at Jenkins Ferry we decided we weren't taking no Reb prisoners, and we didn't leave a one of them alive.
Only a liberal (or maybe a white supremacist) would begin a story about Abraham Lincoln and the ending of slavery with a black racial atrocity. Obviously, Spielberg and Kushner don't believe it was an atrocity. They see it as something a soldier would be so proud of that he would immediately boast of it when happening upon the great Abraham Lincoln nine months later. And Lincoln in turn would find it commendable, as confirmed by the response the filmmakers have him utter: "The 2nd Kansas Colored infantry, they fought bravely at Jenkins Ferry."
They did. But some of them -- certainly not all, as Kushner infers -- brutally slaughtered wounded and captured men and mutilated the dead. The exact details are lost to history, but the record doesn't appear to confirm Kushner's allegations that the killing was premeditated or that the soldiers "didn't leave a one of them alive."
Unlike Spielberg and Kushner, no one in the military would deny that reprisals are atrocities, war crimes. Soldiers may feel a sense of pride in having taken their revenge, but unlike liberals, they know what they've done is wrong. That's why they've done it, because it was a wrong that was done to them.
Was the retributive killing of whites by blacks so appealing to leftists Spielberg and Kushner that they were blinded to the moral implications? Undoubtedly, but they were also dramatizing a trope near and dear to liberal hearts: white guilt absolves black guilt. What the Confederates did to the black soldiers at Poison Springs was a moral crime. What the blacks did to the Confederates was rightful social justice, of which a soldier could be proud. A black soldier, that is. No one can imagine a white soldier bragging to the commander in chief that he had slaughtered wounded and captured prisoners and then mutilated their corpses.
As this first soldier finishes his boast, the other begins to harangue Lincoln about the unequal treatment of black soldiers, beginning with their lesser pay. This is Kushner memorializing another liberal trope: the eternal grievance. While it was true that black pay was lower during the Battle of Jenkins Ferry, Congress corrected the injustice almost immediately thereafter, equalizing black pay and making the increase retroactive.
Because that injustice was remedied nearly a year earlier, no black soldier would have ranted about it to Lincoln that night. In fact, no black soldier would have spoken to the president in the manner and tone Kushner employs here. First he deprives blacks of a moral compass, then he takes away their social probity. Interestingly, we actually have a first-hand account of a meeting between Lincoln and black troops occurring almost at this time:
"The black troops received him most enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear, and displaying an amount of ivory terrible to behold," remarked Gen. U.S. Grant's aide, Horace Porter. "They cheered wildly, crowding around Lincoln, kissing his hand, brushing his coat or his horse so that they could tell others that they had touched the president. And Lincoln was touched. His eyes brimming with tears, his voice broke as he talked with the men; the encounter reminded everyone what was at stake."
Kushner couldn't write something that honest and moving if his life depended on it. That's reality shorn of liberal posturing. It would have made a powerful opening to this movie, rather than the sham, programmatic one we got. Ironically, the humanity revealed by these men is remarkably similar to that displayed by those white soldiers Kushner so casually disparaged. He had unintentionally made them human, something his leftism denies his black caricatures.
The scene ends as the two black soldiers walk away, Lincoln looking down upon them imperially from his lighted pedestal. One of the soldiers, the brash, MLK prototype, reverently recites Lincoln's own words from Gettysburg. One last stretch of Kushner's imagination before closing.
The racist undertones of this opening scene didn't cause Spielberg or Kushner any grief. In fact, one reviewer, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, called it "one of the shrewdest things Kushner has ever written." He may be right, but that's no compliment. The filmmakers, beyond liberal criticism in any case, had followed the liberal playbook: selective history, collectivized guilt, vengeful social justice, grievance mongering, minority pandering and patronization. All that's left now is to pick up their Oscars.