Remember Lincoln? Not the 16th President, but the film named after him? Directed by a fella named Steven Spielberg? Surprised everyone by earning almost $200 million at the domestic box office? Not really a bio-pic, but more of a film about the passing of the 13th Amendment? Snubbed at the Oscars in favor of Ben Affleck’s story of how Hollywood rescued some diplomats from Ayatollah Khomeini? That Lincoln? Right, now let me tell you something you don’t know about it. Lincoln accomplished something that Hollywood could, in theory, do all the time, but, in practice, hardly ever does. No, I don’t mean making a film about the “making sausages” that intra-Congressional maneuvering is often called. That was impressive, but other critics have celebrated that feat. This was a case where Hollywood took a real-life person who’s usually considered a villain and reframed him into a hero. People should know about this, on the off chance that some filmmaker decides to do something like this again.
First, the context: Thaddeus Stevens was known as a Radical Republican back when that was an awesome thing to be. The Congressional Radical Republicans were on the legislative front lines of the abolishment of slavery. For them, Abraham Lincoln was a bit wishy-washy. Too much compromise, not enough freedom-freedom-freedom. The Radical Republicans weren’t formally organized; they never held their own meetings (unlike, say, today’s Tea Party). But Thaddeus Stevens was as much of a leader as they had. After the war, he continued to press for rights for emancipated blacks, and not everyone was so enchanted by this. He led the impeachment effort of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, which just barely failed. Thanks to the people like the hard-charging Stevens, over 600 African-Americans held elective office between 1866 and 1872.
Fast forward forty years and one big backlash later. Now, zero blacks hold office. American history textbooks’ approach to the Civil War are now dominated by something called the “Dunning School,” named after Columbia University history professor William Dunning: basically, Reconstruction was a mistake, blacks are incapable of self-government, and allowing blacks to vote and hold office was (in Dunning’s words) “a serious error.” This narrative needed a bad guy, and Thaddeus Stevens fit the bill; Dunning called him “truculent, vindictive, and cynical.” For the sake of this narrative, it didn’t hurt that Stevens was often outspoken, had a club foot (since at least the theater of Ancient Greece, physical deformity has equated to moral laxity), and was rumored to sleep with a light-skinned black woman.
By the time D.W. Griffith came to make The Birth of a Nation exactly 100 years ago, he had Dunning and all sorts of other historians behind him, including the then-President, former history teacher Woodrow Wilson, who famously called Griffith’s film “history written by lightning.” Griffith changed Stevens’ name – his titles say “a Congressman, who we will call Austin Stoneman…” – but preserved Stevens’ nutty wig, club foot, and black girlfriend. Stoneman is the reprehensible villain of the most successful film ever, the film that made Hollywood and the rest of cinema history possible.
Right, right, you’re saying, you can get all that from Wikipedia, big deal. Right, well, shut up and you might learn something. Steven Spielberg is hardly America’s only wealthy filmmaker, but his contributions to university film programs around the country are unparalleled. (George Lucas may give away more scrilla, but that pretty much all goes to USC.) Thanks to Spielberg, thousands and thousands of impressionable college students have taken film history courses over the last twenty years. And thanks to Spielberg, many, many of these students have watched at least some of The Birth of a Nation. Sure, most of them have been told what racist tripe the film is. But still, when you’re sitting there watching Ralph Lewis (as Austin Stoneman) gesticulate wildly, kidnap a white woman, and scheme and plot against the film’s heroes, it takes some kind of cognitive dissonance not to think of this club-footed loudmouth as at least a historical douchebag. Unless you’ve got the most awesome film professor ever, you don’t think of this Stoneman as a guy who also spearheaded an effort to free millions of people living in bondage.
Spielberg, working with the great writer Tony Kushner, could have made Lincoln in many ways. He might have adhered to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals – but any reader can tell you he certainly didn’t do that. He might have spent more time profiling African-American contributions to abolitionism (there was a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking on this one). He might have spent more time on battle scenes – something tells me Spielberg could have done that if he’d felt like it (*cough*Saving Private Ryan*cough*). He might have made Amistad 2: The Reckoning. Steven might have followed the entire war instead of just the last few months. He might have dealt more with Abraham Lincoln’s internal struggles.
But look at what the film did do for the real Thaddeus Stevens. It recognized his central role in the drama of the 13th Amendment’s passage (Goodwin barely mentions him). Spielberg showed Stevens as a measured leader in a time of chaos, knowing when to speak and when not to. The film preserves his black girlfriend as a fun third-act reveal, to make us smile at the guy’s hipness. And most importantly, Spielberg cast Tommy Lee Jones and let him walk around and chew scenery.
I think Spielberg and Kushner and Jones knew exactly what they were doing, and my strongest evidence for that is Stevens (Jones)’ final scene in Lincoln. Stevens kisses his black girlfriend good night, and then rests his head on his pillow and looks up at the camera – just a little bit too long. I watched Jones break the fourth wall with his Mona Lisa smile, and I saw him looking out across the ages – to the memory, to the resting soul of Thaddeus Stevens himself. I saw Jones crinkly eyes say: thank you for all you did for our country. Griffith is no longer the last word on you. Your reputation is restored, sir. Thank you. Thank you.