I wish I could say this was a post about the President – it’s not, it’s about the movie. Which is, I suppose, also about the President–but more about the movie. Daniel Day Lewis was incredible. But that’s to be expected. What I didn’t expect was to shed a tear in the first 3 minutes. This was a good, inspiring movie, here’s why. The movie opens with a young, White, Union soldier, thrilled to see the President, reciting what he can remember of the Gettysburg Address. I can’t even really tell you what it was about the moment, but something about the sentiment Spielberg captured brought tears to my eyes and the movie was barely minutes in. That soldier was so excited he couldn’t remember the entire speech, and he was quickly whisked away for other duties. That initial scene was also powerful because two African-American soldiers, who subsequently came into focus, displayed two distinct souls that could have been in the same man. One eager to please, thankful and gracious. The other firm, resolute and sure of his place even in the presence of the President. I don’t have the foggiest idea whether the actual Abraham Lincoln would have reacted as he did to those two soldiers or whether Black soldiers would even be in a position to have that conversation, but my disbelief was properly suspended by this point and I was happy to come along for the ride. As the more self-assured of the two soldiers walked away, he finished the portion of the Gettysburg Address that the young White soldier had left, trailing off as both faded from the scene.
Spielberg created a period piece and a timeless story. He brought to life a story that needed telling in a way that people would hear it. And he created for another generation a story about politics that is easy to forget – it didn’t just recently get filled with the things we love and hate about it. The central conflict in this particular story is the passage of the 13th Amendment. Or that’s the premise through which several other interesting stories and struggles are told. Lots of very good writers have likely reviewed the movie, so I won’t bother. But a few things struck me that are worth noting (the photo below isn’t one of those things, but it seemed appropriate, get the details on the image here).
First, compromise is difficult and frequently necessary in life and in politics. What’s interesting, though, is not the obvious compromises that politicians must make in the name of delivering on their roles to govern the people. Though our current crop of national legislators seems to fail more than they succeed, the failures of these political compromises are actually the less interesting story. What Lincoln lays out in a very clever way is the internal compromise that politicians must struggle with between what they believe to be right and the decisions they make. From the sidelines I can say it doesn’t make sense to stand behind a belief you do not hold in the name of political expediency. I’ve got a backpack full of stones and, from the outside looking in, don’t really have to worry what my house is made out of. I can throw to my heart’s content. But I try to remember I’m not in those shoes when I read about decisions by elected officials that seem to defy what they claim to stand for. Spielberg brought this home on the lips of Tommy Lee Jones’ character in the second most important scene in the movie.
*SPOILER ALERT: I know technically you can’t have a “spoiler” for a movie where we know the outcome, but in this case the “how we got there” matters more than the “there”, so avert your gaze if you intend to see the movie.*
As part of his speech in support of the 13th Amendment (yes, the one that abolished slavery and indentured servitude), Jones’ character announces that, after 30 years of defending the absolute equality of Blacks and Whites, he no longer feels that way. Stevens was faced with a dilemma. If he asserts during his speech that he only thinks that Blacks and Whites are legal under the law, but not according to nature, the measure is sure to pass. If he speaks his mind, the measure fails. He chose to lie in the name of the greater good and then eloquently explains this decision to a fellow abolitionist in one of the most important moments of the movie. Very.good.stuff.
*END OF SPOILER ALERT*
So let’s frame this to make it interesting. I believe, unequivocally and without reservation, that every person should be allowed to marry the person they love. Not some watered down, off-brand, compromised, asterisk-having version called something else, I mean actually marry the person they love. Most of us have convictions about something, whatever that something may be, that are equally strong. Now imagine that you had the chance to permanently protect some value you hold but to do so meant to disavow you held it without being able to tell anyone, ever. Could you tell a loved one you don’t think their relationship is morally equal if it meant they’d have the right to that relationship? What about telling everyone in the country on national television? This was one of the internal conflicts that made this movie really, really interesting.
Moving on to the most powerful thing to me, it wasn’t really a moment at all, it was an idea. I was fortunate a few months ago to have dinner with the wife of an elected official. I didn’t know she was married to an elected official for the first half of our conversation, though I don’t suspect it would have changed much. As we ate and talked, she stood firmly on her belief that if you want to make a real difference in the lives of people being an elected official was the best way to do it. I wasn’t so sure. I see how dysfunctional so much of our political system seems to be and how much you seem to have to give to make things better and it hardly seems true. But she was in a position to know. And she shared a bit about the sacrifice her husband–and her family–had made so that he could help impact the lives of lots and lots of people. I left that dinner on the fence as to my own view of politics, but impressed with my new friend. And as I watched Abraham Lincoln push for passage of the 13 Amendment and work the political angles and search for opportunity to make this major change I was reminded of that conversation. Then, when the 13th Amendment finally passed, the House of Representatives broke into song and the Black citizens in the gallery had witnessed a major change in history, I was reminded for a moment how powerful real leadership could be. I wondered what leadership in our region might mean for homelessness or safety or education. And what powerful leadership might mean at the state level for finally setting California on a path where the laws and leaders match the promise of the citizens who innovate…and the earnest work of the people who clean the spaces in which that innovation happens. As movies often do, this one moved me at the moment the 13th Amendment passed, and I left with a great feeling about what you could accomplish with enough energy and aptitude if you really wanted to.
Before I wrap up this note about the impact of a movie about events that happened over 150 years ago, it’s worth remembering a few things. It’s worth knowing what Juneteenth is. Because freedom didn’t happen all at once. And it’s worth understanding a bit about the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation. Because history isn’t as neat as it seemed in 7th grade. This was a rich movie and Daniel Day Lewis was phenomenal. It doesn’t really fit into any theme on this site, but I felt so compelled after watching that I wanted to write about it anyway.
Oh, before I go, I couldn’t go an entire post without mentioning Thaddeus Stevens, played quite well by Tommy Lee Jones. It was a great performance that yielded several moments I was pleased to watch. Although the movie had it’s missteps with historical accuracy, the final scene after passage of the 13th Amendment as Stevens retreats to his common law wife–played by S Epatha Merkerson–is not one of them. A lovely moment. The movie is long, but well worth seeing. Thanks for reading.