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?