Like many people, I found the movie Lincoln absorbing. And, overall, there were two glaring omissions that pained me.
First off, yes, I was transported by the great performances by the lead actors, and a bunch of the supporting cast as well (I especially liked Tommy Lee Jones as the white abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens).
I would have been even more absorbed if the two great African-American actresses in the supporting cast (S. Epatha Merkerson and Gloria Reuben) could’ve gotten more than a handful of lines between them. Saving up the revelation of the existence of Lydia Hamilton Smith was a bit insulting to me. Her character is less than a footnote to the whole story.
This movie can be placed squarely in the category of “movies about how white people ended slavery while Black folks looked on.” The gratuitous opening dialogue between Lincoln and two African-American soldiers aside, there is little in the film showing even a Black face, much less the leadership of anyone other than white people in the political and social changes that propelled the 13th Amendment forward.
The other omission is how the 13th Amendment brought us one of the greatest problems of our era: our country’s role as the biggest jailer the world has ever seen. Although on the surface the 13th Amendment appeared to eliminate slavery from the U.S. Constitution, many modern-day activists have noted that it wrote slavery into the Constitution:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (emphasis added)
Once it became clear that convicting individuals of a crime would offer an opportunity to treat people like slaves, all sorts of laws came into existence that could be applied to people based on the discretion of police and prosectors. From the Black Codes to Jim Crow to our modern War on Drugs (a war that criminalizes Black and Latino drug users out of the proportion to the rates that Black and Latino people are addicted to drugs), we’ve seen a full court press of this strategy for over 100 years.
This push to “convict people of crimes” so that we can maintain a conviction-based caste system has horrible effects on Black and Brown communities in this country. The 13th Amendment didn’t just “end” slavery — it also laid the groundwork for where we are now.
The 13th Amendment is a critical part of American experience, and I’m glad that people with great cultural influence made a movie about it. But from my vantage point, these omissions are glaring. Since Tony Kushner has already made clear he’s indifferent to criticism about his inaccurate depiction of the roll vote for the 13th Amendment, I think it’s unlikely he will ever move to address these omissions from the story, or craft a more complex, less “white” story about how that moment in history has brought us to the moment we are in today.
If you happen to know a better film about the 13th Amendment, let me know so I can go see it.