Lincoln Links: Historians Debate the New Film

Image courtesy of Touchstone Pictures / Photofest.

In my November 2012 Perspectives on History column, “Lincoln, Hollywood, and an Opportunity for Historians,” I suggested that Stephen Spielberg’s new film offers historians a golden opportunity to engage the general public on issues central to American history and public culture. I was hoping that historians would eschew two temptations that all-too-often cheer our colleagues while leaving nonacademic audiences rolling their eyes: pointing out the inevitable factual inaccuracies; and criticizing the writer and producer for either not making the film we wish they had made or simply being in the film business instead of the history business.

This does not mean that we should abandon our critical sensibilities or responsibilities. Many of our colleagues, for example, have pointed to the implications of a film that ignores a generation of scholarship emphasizing the activism of slaves as crucial to the process of emancipation. I raised similar concerns two years ago about Robert Redford’s film, The Conspirator, wondering whether any film about the Civil War and its context could viably avoid using the words “slavery” or “slave,” or could leave out the straightforward fact that its central character owned slaves herself. Some facts matter more than others.

At the same time, however, we need to keep in mind that we are not reviewing a monograph. Does the film take history seriously and stimulate good questions? Does it get enough right that viewers will emerge from the theater with a better sense of some aspects of the central issues than they had when they entered? Does it stimulate a thirst for more? A desire to read, or to ask a historian at a family gathering whether the film is on the right track?

Lincoln is among the top five grossing films in recent weeks, and by engaging rather than dismissing or ignoring, historians can do the sort of work that is essential to our discipline and to public culture. And the AHA web site ought to be the place where we come together to continue the conversation.  What follows are links that our colleagues have sent, or that we have located on our own.  We hope you will be inspired to write, to get on the radio, to converse with friends who have seen the film; Whatever it takes to bring the insights of historians to ever widening publics who repeatedly remind us of their continuing interest in history.

Student Reactions to Lincoln by Joseph Adelman

Historians and History-at-the-Movies by Ben Alpers

Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abe Lincoln: (Racial) Trailblazer by Jim Cullen

Lincoln’s Use of Politics for Noble Ends by Eric Foner

Great White Men, Again?: On Lincoln and Our Civil Religion by Paul Harvey

Reel Lincoln: The Case for the Spielberg Film by Harold Holzer

Slavery’s Grotesque and Relentless Violence by Barbara Krauthamer

A Filmmaker’s Imagination, and a Historian’s by Kate Masur

In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters by Kate Masur

Lincoln’s Unfinished Work by Patrick Rael

Spielberg: Reconciliation or Reconstruction? by Nina Silber

How Historically Accurate is Spielberg’s Lincoln? A podcast featuring Louis P. Masur, hosted by HNN

The Lakefront Historian is a student-run public history blog provides a collection of reviews, which you can read here.

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  1. Vanessa Varin

    Hi Lincoln,

    Thanks, we added those links to the list!

    Vanessa Varin
    Assistant Editor, Web and Social Media
    American Historical Association
    400 A Street, S.E.
    Washington, DC 20003-3889
    Phone: 1 (202) 544-2422 ext: 117
    Email: Vvarin@historians.org

    Reply