SAN FRANCISCO—Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the leading contender for top honors at this year’s Academy Awards.
It’s an engrossing film and I encourage everyone to see it.
The movie offers a compelling way of viewing history, politics and social change that’s relevant to Filipinos.
Take the scenes in which members of the U.S. House of Representatives were debating the proposed constitutional amendment that would finally make slavery illegal in the United States. Leading the fight was Thaddeus Stevens, a maverick Republican congressman, who was both an ally and a critic of Lincoln.
He was branded a radical. Why? Because he believed all men and women of all races should be considered equal. In 19th century America, that was a radical idea! In fact, to some defenders of slavery who think whites were meant by God to rule over blacks and other races, it’s even blasphemous.
That reality forced Lincoln and his allies to be more creative in their political tactics. In their bid to win the votes needed to eradicate slavery, they urged Stevens, who is totally disgusted with the advocates of slavery, to tone it down a bit.
How? By backing off his argument that blacks were, in fact, equal to whites. Instead, they wanted him to embrace a vaguer, lamer position: that everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law.
Reluctantly, Stevens, played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones, gave in. But even as he compromised on his position, he managed to hit back with a vengeance at the extremist opponents of the anti-slavery movement who were eager to pounce on Stevens, Lincoln or anyone who would even suggest that blacks were equal to whites.
“How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman?” Stevens snapped. “Proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood. You are more reptile than man… so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.”
That was a great scene and I found myself chuckling as I watched it. For it underscored a fact many Americans tend to forget — that there was a time when freedom and equality were limited to a privileged few in a society that prides itself on being the beacon of freedom and equality for all.
But then the movie also drives home an equally important point: that throughout U.S. history there have been people like Stevens, who truly really believed in all the talk about freedom and equality, who simply could not stand those who saw themselves as being superior to others and were willing to fight powerful forces of intolerance.
And these mavericks, who endured isolation, ridicule, condemnation, often made a difference.
Lincoln has been portrayed as a brilliant, but also complex politician, and I was glad to see him not glorified in the movie. In fact, politics itself is not glorified in “Lincoln,” the movie.
Lincoln prevailed in his bid to end slavery partly by bribing some of his opponents, including politicians who couldn’t care less if slavery remained part of the fabric of American society. As Stevens said, “The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
To win, Lincoln and Stevens had to get dirty. They had to play games with dirty politicians, to engage in what Filipinos would call trapo politics.
The conflict was underscored in a scene in which Lincoln, confronted by Stevens’s push for a more hard-line approach, explained his own strategy for achieving victory.
“A compass… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and dessert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way,” he says. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”
The journey depicted in “Lincoln” turned out to be longer than the people who succeeded in getting rid of slavery in the U.S. expected.
Lincoln eventually paid for that victory with his life. And while his triumph meant blacks could no longer be owned as slaves, it took another hundred years for African Americans to win their right to vote and be treated with dignity at least according to the law.
But watching ‘Lincoln’ reminds you of how far the United States has traveled.
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