Lincoln Movie Not as Honest as Abe, Says UCI Professor and Expert on South Jon Wiener

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Abe Lincoln as Daniel Day Lewis
Disney opened Lincoln in 11 theaters on Nov. 9, expanded Steven Spielberg's historical saga to more North American theaters the next two weekends and now plans to go even wider thanks to more demand than there are movie seats.

A UC Irvine history professor who caught the flick believes past and future crowds are treated to an Oscar-worthy performance from Daniel Day Lewis. But Jon Wiener, who specializes in the American South of the 1860s, has a problem with the cinematic proclamation that one man ended slavery in America.

Now, you may know Jon Wiener better from another period in American history he specializes in, the 1960s. Or his book- and headline-making research into the FBI files on John Lennon. Or from his afternoon drive-time show on KPFK.

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Jon Wiener says Abe may have been honest but Lincoln is not.
And there's his wonderful essays and articles in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine and especially The Nation, where he has been a contributing editor for years. Which brings us back to Lincoln. It's Wiener's article in The Nation blog where he reveals what Spielberg gets so wrong.

"The end of slavery did not come because Lincoln and the House of Representatives voted for the Thirteenth Amendment," says Wiener, relating a commonly held belief among historians.

He knows of what he speaks, er, writes. In a 2000 profile I wrote on him titled "Bigger Than the Beatles: UC Irvine professor Jon Wiener's fight for John Lennon's FBI file reveals something ugly about democracy in America," Eric Foner, one of the nation's leading Civil War scholars, called Wiener's Social Origins of the New South: Alabama, 1865-1885 (1978) "a very important study of the transition from slavery to freedom" still today. Among historians, Wiener rose to prominence from his research on the South long before he was associated with Yoko Ono's late husband, Foner notes.

The UCI professor returns the favor, name-checking the Columbia University professor in his Nation piece.
 
The best work I know about the end of slavery is Eric Foner's unforgettable book The Fiery Trial: Lincoln and American Slavery, published in 2010, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize. Foner and many other historians over the last couple of decades have emphasized the central role played by the slaves themselves, who are virtually invisible in this movie. During the three weeks that the movie deals with, Sherman's army was marching through South Carolina, where slaves were seizing plantations. They were dividing up land among themselves. They were seizing their freedom. Slavery was dying on the ground, not just in the House of Representatives. You get no sense of that in the movie.

Wiener goes on to make cases against the movie's depictions of the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction. While he agrees Abraham Lincoln is a worthy cinematic subject, the great movie yet to be made would tell the stories of those who really ended slavery: the slaves.  

If you've yet to catch Lincoln, do yourself a favor and read Wiener's piece for the real story. Then go see the film, not to snicker at the big holes in the heart of Lincoln but to be overtaken by another fine Daniel Day Lewis performance. Maybe he'll come back for a cameo in that slave flick.

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4 comments
BobLoblawsLawBlog
BobLoblawsLawBlog

Isn't everyone sick of this stupid argument? The movie was about the passage of the 13th amendment, not the abolishonist movement. You might as well complain that a movie about the Manhattan Project doesn't focus on the heroes of D-Day.

MatthewTCoker
MatthewTCoker topcommenter

@BobLoblawsLawBlog First, wasn't Bob Loblaw an "Arrested Development" character? Second, did you even read Wiener's piece? He devotes much to 13th Amendment passage. I didn't want to give everything away in my post because I want readers to click through to his article. But thanks for reading 'n' reactin'.

BobLoblawsLawBlog
BobLoblawsLawBlog

Yes, I read it. He also makes a few assertions which are in dispute. I'll start with the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's proclamation was a wartime power and thus it would have ended when the war did. The movie also alludes to the shifting sands of Lincoln's legal basis for issuing the proclamation and how he uses a wartime power when they were technically not at war (because you cannot be at war if you are not fighting a sovereign nation, which the Confederacy was not recognized as such). While the makeup of the 39th congress would have been sufficient to pass an amendment if they were voting strictly among party lines, there was no political will to abolish slavery at that time if it meant that peace and reconciliation were to be delayed. There was also the worry from northerners about a flood of cheap labor moving north if this was to pass. My point above was primarily about the critism of the film for it lacking larger roles for African Americans and the story they played in the abolishist movement. True, there were very prominent AAs in the movement, but this film was tightly focused on the backroom deals that passed a law, not the wind behind the sail.

Oh, and yes, Bob Loblaw was a character from Arrested Developement. Not my favorite, but my favorite name on the show.

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