I was both hugely thrilled and disappointed with this much-awaited Spielberg film featuring the very talented Daniel Day-Lewis in the role of Abraham Lincoln. I was certainly thrilled to see Day-Lewis personify Abe Lincoln with such panache and conviction, I can’t imagine anyone doing it better or differently, but I was also disappointed somewhat in realizing that the focus of the story was nothing more than a civics lesson in the three branches of government in general, and the executive and the legislative, in particular. The legislative process in the United States which is characterized by a system of checks and balances can be a long-drawn out and messy one and can be an exercise in gridlock, compromise and division.
This is well demonstrated throughout the story which features lengthy stretches of deliberation and dialogue aimed to persuade the members of the opposing Democratic party to cross over to the other side in order to pass the historical 13th Amendment that officially abolished slavery in the United States. We see the full weight and scale of this mission in Lincoln’s dedication to achieving this no matter the consequence of a prolonged civil war. Democracy is difficult and messy and uncertain. This, we understand and can relate to even to this day in how the current Congress continues to struggle in reaching compromise.
But I didn’t just want a civics lesson, I wanted to understand why slavery was so terrible a concept and the toll that it was taking on American lives– both white and black. I wanted to see how this affected Abraham Lincoln himself, and how his personal views might have shaped his political views. This was sorely lacking. It was also a disservice to portray Black women in slavery to being happy mistresses of white men. From what little I do know about slavery, I don’t believe it was the case, and if anything, was anything but.
And so, while the story rightfully places slavery as the real reason for the Civil War, it doesn’t pause long enough to explain the impact of this horrendous practice on the sixteenth president of the United States.
Regardless, it is still a thoughtful movie that gives voice to perhaps one of the most important pieces of history in the course of human civilization: the abolition of slavery.