A “Lincoln” for our times?

4 Jan

This morning I heard this interview on WNYC radio, about two new films, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Brian Lehrer was really on today, and he had on two guests, Tricia Rose of Brown University and Dana Stevens from slate.com, discussing not only the qualities of these films but their politics as well. I don’t always agree with him, but this was one of the best discussions I have ever heard on his program.

The discussion of Django Unchained reflected a lot of the discomfort I have felt about seeing it. Both guests asked pointed questions about whether Tarantino has thought through his film, and whether whites and Blacks would respond the same way to the violence, and whether in fact a Black director and writer would have handled the story differently. What struck me as the great unspoken was that Professor Rose had said she initially intended not to see the film, but eventually gave in out of curiosity and a desire to be able to discuss the film. This is not an insignificant point. Tarantino has, in a sense, won. He is a loudmouth who has built up such an influence, regardless of the morality of his films, that he has positioned himself and his work as must-sees, such that he always wins. Everyone, love him or hate him, has to pony up money into his wallet, because viewing his films, because of his loudness, has become de rigueur. Which strikes me as the proof of his commercial dominance, separate from any critical contribution he has to make. The quality doesn’t matter, what matters is that the consumers have to buy viewing rights to the spectacle, just to fit in to the conversation of the day. He grabs attention whether his film is worth seeing or not, whether you like him or not, whether he is moral or pornographic. The commercial industry has made him matter, whether or not he matters artistically, the market makes us listen. This is symptomatic of commercial control of the cinematic artform. Please go away.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s critique of Lincoln could not have been more similar to my own. He was especially critical of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, or ambivalent in much the same ways I am. At the level of dialogue, period accuracy, and character, it’s brilliant. But Lehrer finds the portrait of Lincoln to be hagiographic, and is disturbed by the lack of strong African American characters and Abolitionists. Was it historically true that all the movement towards ending slavery constitutionally was entirely a debate among white people?

When I saw the film, I was bothered by the lack of strong Abolitionists, and particularly by the absence of Frederick Douglass. It is true that the role of Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommie Lee Jones, is pivotal and complex. But here’s the issue I have, and I haven’t seen this addressed anywhere yet. I did see an interview with Tony Kushner on Bill Moyers’ program. Now, I confess I have never seen nor read Angels in America, so I am not familiar with Kushner’s best work as America’s pre-eminent political playwright. But in his interview with Moyers, Kushner justifies his portrayal of Lincoln as the Great Compromiser, one who held to his principles while being able to compromise effectively to achieve what he wanted. Then Kushner draws parallels to President Obama as a brilliant compromiser, admitting that Obama doesn’t always get what we know he wants (e.g. the public option in the health care plan) but that through the art of compromise he is able to bring together the entire country, not just his progressive followers, in moving the country forward. Be sure to read the viewer comments on Bill Moyers’ website – I am not alone in my criticism!

We have the benefit of hindsight to know now that Lincoln’s approach worked, both in saving the Union and in amending the Constitution. Kushner’s implication in the screenplay and in his discussion of Obama is that compromise is an effective, mature approach by a President to achieve social change. Lincoln is a good liberal movie: it shows Lincoln’s effectiveness, his wisdom and judgment and progressive ideals, but it is not prophetic. The film is made to upset no one, or at least none of its white viewers. The ideal of egalitarianism, of truly equal justice under law – which in theory is not that radical an idea – is not part of Lincoln’s agenda. The Radical Republicans are still depicted as, well, radical, and Kushner chooses to promote the portrayal of them as radical, rather than a more prophetic, radical vision himself. And Frederick Douglass and Black Abolitionists are not depicted at all. I had the feeling after watching the film, and especially after watching Kushner’s interview, that as an artist he is saying the mature, even wise political choice is to learn to compromise, to move forward incrementally by bringing everyone along, not to be impetuous and immature.

It may be right and more effective for an elected politician to take this approach, especially in the executive role. And it may be right for a body of people, as the Quakers have shown, to use compromise effectively as a way of building consensus and promoting respect throughout the community for diversity of views, as they work towards social justice. But I’m not sure it’s right for our artists, like our activists, to abandon their responsibility to be prophetic, by which I mean to be the intellectual engines that not only promote change but act as innovators of idea and guardians of our higher conscience. In other words, Kushner is not constrained by the same political realities that Obama is. And leaders must also lead; not all leadership consists of synthesizing opposing views. We need prophetic voices especially in the arts, but also in the civic sphere; where would Abraham Lincoln have been if Frederick Douglass had advocated patience and compromise? And can we picture Arthur Miller, say, offering the sagacious position that compromise is mastery of social change? I look back at The Crucible, All My Sons, even Death of a Salesman, which is the least “political” of the three, and they are absolutely uncompromising, that’s part of their power.

The relationship between artists and leaders, and between artists and activists, are important and critical yet need not always be smooth for us to move together towards a more progressive vision.

It’s easy for me, who have never written anything worthwhile and could never write dialogue like Tony Kushner in a hundred years, to sit back and criticize him for making the thematic choice to offer wise compromise as a political ideal. Yet it seems to me that the role of the artist is not the role of the President. The artist’s role is to take risks, occasionally to be prophetic if the times call for it (or if the artist is trying to create that kind of work), but to be uncompromising, morally as well as artistically.

Our mainstream, well-compensated artists tell us we live in times when to be able to compromise is to be seen as wise and mature. That is a theme, and it is part of a legitimate theme. But it’s not the only way that social change happens, it’s not an insight that moves us forward. It’s an insight that reassures us and cements our national mythology. But isn’t one role of literature, of the arts, in this society to prompt us, to challenge us to move, well, forward?

Advertisements

One Response to “A “Lincoln” for our times?”

  1. ramanda February 27, 2013 at 4:50 am #

    Spot On! This is one of the reasons that I am conflicted between being a diplomat/bureaucrat and being an artist. As a diplomat, I am taught not to make waves–not to be extremist and to move with the flow of the policy, directing only the most minor nuances of change as the opportunities arise. But, as an artist, as well as an activist, I want to set the world on fire, and I agree that it is an artist’s duty to not be timid regarding significant issues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: