Lincoln, Spielberg, Kushner and Strouse

While much of the post-Oscars buzz is about host Seth MacFarlane and charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in his shtick—about what is subverting stereotypes and what is upholding them—there was another moment during the awards show that also got me thinking.

When Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his monumental portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he noted three great men who were instrumental in the creation of the film: director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Lincoln himself. I was struck that aside from Lincoln, the two people instrumental in the artistic vision and narrative of the film are Jews.

And they are Jews moreso than in the strict halakhic sense, or in the heritage-only sense. (Day-Lewis apparently was born of a Jewish mother, but it doesn’t seem that this fact impacts his identity). Spielberg and Kushner are both artists whose Jewish identity impacts their lives and is reflected in their respective bodies of work.

So, then how does this fact impact their work on Lincoln? Or does it? I wasn’t surprised to see that I’m not the only one to think about this question since when I Googled “Lincoln movie Jewish” I found several articles approaching the movie from a Jewish angle.

This one from Haaretz raises some interesting points. Spielberg makes numerous films of “outsiders and rescue.” Kushner and a Lincoln scholar discussed Lincoln as a Moses figure. The story of struggle for emancipation from slavery and civil rights in the movie (focusing as it does on the passage of the 13th Amendment) reflects the Jewish concern for civil rights in modern American history. [This other in Tablet speaks of Lincoln as a “Judaic” figure, also with a tie in to Moses.]

I would add too that as we move now from Purim to Passover, we are reminded that Jewish tradition is enamored of narrative. The heart of both of these holidays are stories, tellings of history that are not meant to recap facts and figures but rather to tell us, the current retellers of the stories, the values which are meant to be important to us, to guide us in our own day and age. Lincoln serves a similar function: it is a retelling of a particular moment in American history which is meant to underscore the values which should be guiding us today: debate and compromise, fairness and equality, decency and humanity, and the ability of the human heart and mind to change, and thus change society. The fact of Lincoln is in and of itself Jewish.

Which touches on another aspect of the movie—the intersection of fact and fiction. Articles have been written about the license taken by the filmmakers in telling this story, what is “true” and what is “invented.” But perhaps the historicity is not what is important, but the telling itself. The actual historicity of the book of Esther and the Exodus are beside the point, and so too with Lincoln. It isn’t a documentary, it is a work of fiction based on fact. Did my knowledge of history increase by seeing Lincoln? Maybe. Was I inspired? Most definitely.

Some ado about the film was made regarding the climactic roll call vote in the House of Representatives on the Amendment. (Spoiler alert: it passes). Having come so far from those days of slavery, it would be shameful to a contemporary audience to be associated with voting “no.” Some contemporary state leaders–in Connecticut, for example–have raised issues with the fact that their state representatives are portrayed as voting “no” when they voted “yes.” This was done for dramatic effect, say the filmmakers, and the actual names have been changed.

But there is one name that wasn’t changed. Another article about Jews and Lincoln complains that Jewish characters weren’t portrayed in the film, even though some had prominent roles to play in the time period. But there was one Jewish character. During the roll call vote, Representative Myer Strouse, a German Jew from Pennsylvania, was heard voting “no.” In this instance, neither the name nor the vote were changed from the historical record.

I’m curious, then, what this means. How does this impact the Jewish sensibility of the movie? And what challenge are these Jewish artists raising for us from our own history in this country?

Steven, Tony—please leave a comment below.

Myer Strouse
Myer Strouse

1 response to Lincoln, Spielberg, Kushner and Strouse

  1. MJ Blustein says:

    FYI, freed slaves early on referred to Lincoln as the American Moses and their progeny continued to say so through the decades at the Juneteenth celebration of the proclamation freeing the slaves. I became aware of this practice in a class I had in Black History at U of C.

    Like

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