Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lincoln was great and all, but ...

... when do we get a Frederick Douglass biopic?

Famed for their generally bland, awards-baiting formula, biopics are often in a precarious position. The lives of interesting historical figures can, of course, make for interesting screenplaysbut they don't always. And even if they do, the weight and pressure of compacting a person's entire life, message, or impact into a couple of hours can be a daunting and unwieldy task.

What a relief, then, that director Steven Spielberg's and screenwriter Tony Kushner's Lincoln covers only a relatively small span of time in the president's life. The best way to explore the legacy of such a towering icon while still telling an entertaining, artful story may indeed be to limit the scope to a particular chapter in its subject's history, as Lincoln does with the passage of the 13th Amendment. What makes Lincoln work—apart from Daniel Day Lewis's nuanced performance—is its focus on the political maneuvering and backroom deals required to push through the contentious amendment, smartly avoiding flashbacks or framing devices. 

It's refreshing to see a historical biopic—a genre typified by modern sensibilities tsk-tsking those of the past—content to stick largely to the policy discussions held within the White House and Congress at the time. There is, of course, some triumphant moral speechifying, but that's to be expected, given the film's subject. Where Lincoln truly falters is its seeming desire to have it both ways: It's perfectly fine for a movie about an historical event like the abolition of slavery to limit its concerns to the president and the political process. But by relegating a few black characters to token supporting roles, the film inches dangerously close to a much less nuanced narrative manipulation. 

When former slave Elizabeth Keckley (a figure certainly worthy of her own biopic), played by Gloria Reuben, challenges the president directly with an emotional monologue near the film's end, it feels more than a little unlikely, in the Amistad mold of revisionism. Same goes for scenes featuring a black soldier reciting, unprompted, the Gettsyburg Address to Lincoln, or between Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), portrayed here as Stevens's common-law wife, as well as his housekeeper. 

All of which raises the larger issue of whose stories we choose to tell. There's no shortage of lavish movies about white politicians, even when the subject at hand is the rights of black people. Even if he didn't meet or speak with the president during the few months Lincoln covers, the absence of someone like Frederick Douglass, an important player in the process within the story told here, is conspicuous. And if ever there was a ready-made biopic subject, it's Douglass's fascinating life. So where's his movie?