Here’s the exchange between Corey Robin and me at Facebook yesterday, which I think gets to the heart of the debates about “Lincoln.” I’ll see the movie again tonight.
Corey Robin: I’m too tired to rehash this whole debate. But you bring up something I’ve heard a lot — the importance of that first scene of fighting, and you make a comparison that I have not heard a lot: to the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. I think the comparison is very apt — and crystallizes, for me, the overall weakness of the point and thus the film. I thought that opening scene in Private Ryan was unbelievably compelling cinema; I was totally mesmerized. (Also that late battle scene, in the French village.) It was brilliant. And so completely divorced, in quality and substance, from the rest of the film: it was gritty, unhistorionic, quiet in its observations in a way that Spielberg is seldom quiet. It was everything that the rest of the movie was not; no moralism, no preachiness. Now I don’t think the opening scene in Lincoln is as powerful. But insofar as it does what you and others say it does, it also suffers from the same problem as the opening scene of Private Ryan: it’s a note that’s hit and then is only rarely heard again (the conversation that ensues with Lincoln almost instantaneously devolves into kitsch, dissolving whatever power that scene might have had, so much so that I didn’t even remember that battle scene until others pointed it out afterward; all I remembered was the conversation and that recitation of the Gettysburg Address). Maybe Spielberg is just good at opening scenes and should leave it at that.
James Livingston: Corey Robin, point well taken, but what if we say that these opening sequences SET the scene for everything that follows, including the vernacular moral philosophies of “SPR” and the political debates of “Lincoln” by making us ask, What is this carnage about–what can it mean? You forgot the sequence, and you say the conversation that follows is kitschy. I’m surprised by your responses, because the battle scene saturates and, yes, colors every word that comes after. Recall that in the conversation that follows with Lincoln, the black soldiers explain that they gave no quarter because their brothers had been massacred–no, executed–at Fort Pillow. This conversation answers the question of carnage with admirable concision: we kill without mercy or we die not as soldiers but as escaped slaves. The debate on the 13th Amendment takes up the same question, and answers by declaring that escaped slaves, ex-slaves, and slaves as such are no longer mere war contraband subject to military rulings and exigency; they are instead human beings endowed with natural rights. Soldiers, not slaves, and people, not property. More later on the visual-verbal disjuncture you detect, which I think Spielberg sutures with grace.
Corey Robin: This might seem like a fussy response, so forgive me, but…The question for me about the film was never whether or not it accurately and effectively teaches us that the Civil War is about black freedom; I always thought that it did. The question was whether it makes blacks a central part of the story of winning their freedom. Now the response of the critics to that claim is to invoke the first scene: there you have black soldiers fighting, exercising their agency. You amplified that response with the comparison to Saving Private Ryan. And my response to that response — like I said, forgive me! — was to say that if the point of the first scene is to emphasize black agency, it makes the film suffer in the same way that the first scene of Saving Private Ryan makes the film suffer: that is, there’s a disjuncture between the power and content of the first scene and the film that follows. And I think that’s still the case. Even more so, now that I have read your response to my response. Because your response is essentially to change the subject and to say the first scene reminds us how central black freedom is to the Civil War. But a topic — emancipation — can be central to the film while still deemphasizing blacks as protagonists of their own emancipation. I think you’re left with two choices: either take the tack of other defenders of the film and say that the first scene showcases black agency (in which case I’d say the rest of the film doesn’t deliver on that; it only shows that white men then took up the question of black agency) OR say that the first scene showcases how black freedom is central to the Civil War, which I think the rest of the film does deliver on — but then we’re not in disagreement; we’ve merely changed the subject.
James Livingston: Briefly, no, the subject has not changed except in this sense: the agency of black folk in winning their freedom from bondage is no more a question in this movie than the central issues of the Civil War, slavery and race. The question Spielberg and Kushner raise is whether the white folk in power at the North were willing to validate the freedoms won on the ground, in battle, but then to protect AND ENLARGE them by political means. In other words: The transition from contingent military necessity to permanent constitutional prohibition made a world of difference, but it was nowhere near inevitable. Without the 13th Amendment, black agency after Appomatox would’ve been reduced to paramilitary activity–guerilla war–or exodus.
Corey Robin: That sounds like a truly great movie. I wish I had seen it.