On "Lincoln" and Our Civil Religion



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Paul Harvey


If you were wondering about my take on the film Lincoln, here it is. The piece links, as well, to many of the most interesting discussions of the film going on elsewhere about a film which has already generated a great deal of discussion and debate among film critics and historians.

A little excerpt which I hope expresses both my appreciation and enjoyment of the film (including some wonderful acting), and my frustration about why we don't get a different sort of film about the Civil War and emancipation:


The film is an emotionally gripping docu-drama on a hugely significant event in American history. Even those with the critical antenna raised and beeping throughout will still find themselves emotionally engaged. Even when we are told to feel, and what to feel, we do, at the skillful filmmaker’s command. We can’t help it. Such is the power of movies as purveyors of myths.


But there is another level to consider here, as well—the civil religious myths that the film invokes, and the very limited growth in public understanding of those myths that the film ultimately suggests.
After the emotion evoked by the film subsides,  sober consideration begins here: why, in the supposedly “post-racial” age of Obama, is there no space in movies to imagine the historical story of African Americans creating the conditions of their own emancipation? . .  . 
What leaves me frustrated is the seeming impossibility of bringing into our civil-religious myths the demise of slavery as a possibility—and, really, only a possibility—as a result of the actions of the most powerless in American society, those who forced the hand of the most powerful. The actions of the powerful were necessary, but they were only possible because of the countless actions of the powerless. 

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