the past in pop culture

Tag: Lincoln

A Valentine for Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As of this writing, Frederick Douglass still does not appear in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg has gotten a lot of grief for this, as has his screenwriter Tony Kushner who started with a script that included Douglass but then left him out. The black characters who did make it into the film are mostly kindly, grateful, and token. Sure, there’s one angry black man at the start who’s intent on holding Mr. Lincoln accountable, but he isn’t Frederick Douglass and the other black soldier who is with him keeps laughing at Lincoln’s jokes. Spielberg’s Lincoln is in good company at this year’s Oscars though—Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have also been raked over the historical accuracy coals for what they left in, left out, or just plain made up. And in far off Chile, film director Pablo Larrain recently invoked Spielberg in defense of his Oscar nominated movie No in which a complicated social movement that led to a national referendum to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet is told primarily as the story of a single man and his ad campaign. Worse, many of the people who were actually involved are very much among the living and not all have had kind words for the film.

Frederick Douglass, we hope, is resting in peace. And since he will not be on screen this year and nor will any actor portraying him be on the red carpet at the Oscars next week, let’s remember him on this his birthday. Douglass chose Valentine’s Day to celebrate the day of his birth because his mother, who he saw only a handful of times during his childhood in slavery, called him her “little valentine.” He didn’t know his own birth date because, as he writes in his autobiography, no slave ever did. Even as a child he wondered why he was deprived of this privilege. It’s fitting that Douglass’s chosen birthday falls between that of Lincoln and Washington. There is a considerable distance between the two on the question of slavery and Douglass as much as anyone and more than most helped to move the country in the right direction. If this isn’t in the movie, well, Hollywood history has always left a lot on the cutting room floor and Spielberg is not a documentarian. Douglass is not in Lincoln. So here’s a thought: how about next year a movie titled Douglass for Best Picture?

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln-Lewis

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Given that Daniel Day-Lewis is known to inhabit his roles deeply—even texting Sally Fields as Abe—one wonders whether he feels like today is his birthday, too. It would be a well-deserved celebration. His Lincoln seems a daguerreotype come so to life that it is uncanny. Nor is this all. In Lincoln there are ghosts of other films and shades of other performances. With Daniel Day-Lewis as the lead these haunt the imagination. He has inhabited other roles and been especially at home in movies about the past.

Given the Civil War setting, his Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York most immediately comes to mind. Bill was no Lincoln fan and the scene in which he throws a knife at a Lincoln poster seems mostly funny in retrospect. More striking is the other Lincoln in Gangs: the costumed actor from the cast of Uncle Tom’s Cabin who is suspended above the stage and directs the actions of the characters. As he proclaims, “And Topsy, dear little Topsy, cradle Uncle Tom’s head,” the Lincoln performer nervously eyes the audience. And with good reason—the play doesn’t so much end as erupt when the very tough crowd starts pelting the stage with rotten fruit. This, truly, is a performance of Lincoln in extremis. It’s this other Lincoln, this vaudeville hack who points to the greatness of Day-Lewis’s performances. The rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Gangs is supposed to be bad theater and audiences of the time generally were that rowdy. But it’s the faux-Lincoln’s declamation that steals the scene because it’s so marvelously bad. Sometimes it takes a dose of bad acting to set the real thing in relief.

In Gangs, one such moment comes when Bill rejects the notion that the Irish immigrants can become a part of America. He doffs his stovepipe hat—tall as Lincoln’s, but a good bit filthier—to reveal the greasiest case of hat head imaginable and explains that his father gave his life for this country, “murdered by the British with all of his men on the twenty-fifth of July, anno domini, 1814.” In another echo, and another reversal, a father murdered by the British also steps out of the past from Day-Lewis’s early role as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father. Day-Lewis, as Conlon, must come to terms with his relationship to his father who is unjustly convicted for a role in an IRA bombing and dies while both are in a British prison. In Gangs, Leo DiCaprio seeks to understand his Irish father’s death at Bill’s hand. Got that? Day Lewis has played a Lincoln hater and Lincoln, an Irish victim and an Irish persecutor. Yet the role of the father, and of the son, resonates across each of these films. It’s Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln as a father who has lost one son, and who refuses to lose another, that makes the man real. That the father is then martyred makes it transcendent. Hats off to Lincoln-Lewis.

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