Friday, November 13, 2009

CWL---With Chauffeur, Skip Gates Looks for Lincoln

Looking For Lincoln, Written and Presented by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., with a commentary by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kunhardt McGee Productions/Inkwell Films/WNET, 120 minutes, dvd format, color and b/w, 2009, $24.99.

Henry Louis Gates, author of Lincoln on Race and Slavery and In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past,

"Today he is more myth than man," states Gates within the first minute of the film. When Gates visits the land of Lincoln, he is chauffeured by a black Lincoln (Ford Mercury). Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, Gates is taken to his Cambridge Massachusetts neighbor's home where Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals pitches her book.

The first hour of the film borrows heavily from Andrew Ferguson's 2007 Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America. Citing Lincoln law partner, William H. Herndon's collection of oral history he interrogates 1840s-era reenactors in New Salem, Illinois on the Ann Routledge and the prostitute stories. Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness author Joshua Wold Shenk is queried regarding Lincoln's emotional desposition. Of course Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg's screenwriter for the film based on Goodwin's book, is queried about his own favorite film. It's Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda because the film is so quiet and shows Lincoln strolling along a river; "whatever river that was" recalls the informed screenwriter.

David Blight, esteemed historian, is cut short while making a point by Gates who states that Lincoln had to remind audiences that he was a racist too. Blight comes back with stating that Blacks needed Lincoln to be a symbol and that the fact the Lincoln in the 1850s took the side of the white working man. In an interview m magazine editor and African-American Lerone Bennett states that everything he once knew about Lincoln was a lie. "You can't defend Abraham Lincoln without defending slavery," claims Bennett; the statement goes unchallenged by Gates.

Those thinking critically about a flawed and compelling man are students in a high school class which Gates visits. The high school instructor tells Gates that Lincoln has to be taken off the pedestal then returned to it. At a dinner party with Gates, Blight, and James Horton, Harold Holzer states that Lerone Bennett's mistakes are that he judges a 19th century man by late 20th century standards. Horton asks "If you had to elect today any previous U.S. president again to the office and you had to make the decision on his record regarding race" would you re-elect anyone other than Lincoln?

Gates returns to Team of Rivals author Goodwin for a quick summary of the selection of the presidential cabinet. Overall, Gate's search for Lincoln is successful. He finds a masterful orator, a shrewd but moral politician. Bill Clinton talks about his hero, Abraham Lincoln; Clinton sees Lincoln who brought the talent and grew into the office. Clinton's goal was to do that it. Certainly, we are waiting for that to happen in 2009.

Gates visits a memorabilia collector living in Hollywood, Lincoln reenactors, white descendants of Confederate Veterans, and Gettysburg's Cyclorama and Gettysburg College's Lincoln scholar Allan Guelzo, black descendants of Confederate camp servants "who simply want to remember their relative's courage". For George W. Bush, Abraham Lincoln is to be admired for his morality clarity.

Overall, the film handles evenly the multiplicity of interpretations concerning the life, work and motivations of Abraham Lincoln. The round table session of Blight, Horton, Holzer and Gates as well as the one-on-one interview of Gates and Blight are the strengths of the film. The remarks in the high school class room with the remarks of the instructor are noteworthy. CWL recommends Looking for Lincoln to history instructors and discussion group leaders. Near the end of the film Gates who is concerned with Lincoln's shortcomings on race is told by Goodwin that Lincoln ". . . was so far ahead of anyone at that time and he needed to win the war." She closes her interview with the statement that Gates' problem is that he was taught a mythology of Lincoln. Gates admits the "it is a great temptation to judge Lincoln" outside of his era. Gates rests his final judgment on the Lincoln's sentiments of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.

Middle Image: Harvard University Gazette

Bottom Image: Huffington Post

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