Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TV Review: "Looking for Lincoln" (PBS)

Toward the end of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s excellent exploration "Looking for Lincoln," the African-American scholar admits that his examination of Abraham Lincoln had challenged his cherished image of The Great Emancipator. "It's been deeply disappointing to me to learn that Lincoln came to emancipation slowly," Gates laments, "and that he questioned even the basic assumption of the equality of the races."

Then he sits with noted Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, evidently a personal friend (likely given that both historians live in Boston), and has a remarkable exchange with her reflecting on how troubling it was to discover Lincoln's prejudicial attitudes toward race, even as he praises Lincoln's political skill in his actions involving emancipation and racial issues, because of his status within the African-American community as the white man who made civil rights possible.

"Do you know what's so interesting, Skip, in listening to you talk? The problem is not your understanding of what was possible for Lincoln; the problem is the infatuation, the myth, that Lincoln was presented in the first place to you," Goodwin says, getting emotional. "It's not Lincoln's fault that he got mythologized...And I think to just bring him down now to the human being, with his strengths and his weaknesses -- if you could feel that as well as you're saying it, I think you would feel more empathy for him."

"No, but you're right," Gates responds, "it's clear that I don't feel it. I can think it, I can understand it--"

"Exactly," Goodwin affirms over him, "that's what I'm feeling," and suddenly stopping to let him continue, can't finish her thought -- that's what I'm feeling you're feeling.

In the middle of a documentary attempting to detect the historical facts about Lincoln, a discussion about feelings between two historians who are obviously emotionally involved in their study of the sixteenth president. More than that, though, this extraordinary exchange represents the crux of the Lincoln myth -- Americans are as emotionally attached to the iconic Abraham Lincoln as they are intellectual attached, if not more so.

Though I am not an African-American, I know Gates' disappointment with Lincoln firsthand, having gone through my own de-mythologizing of Lincoln several years ago. For a couple of years, I didn't like the man who I discovered was not an idealist but always a practical politician. Worse, he was a rather ruthless partisan hack in his early days, and those skills never faded away, even though his attitude did. (Eventually, I gained a great appreciation for how Lincoln ultimately used his political skills.)

"Looking for Lincoln," a PBS production, is less a documentary than a two-hour visual essay by Gates, a Harvard professor of African-American Studies. Gates intercuts his cross-country travels looking for Lincoln the icon with a mostly chronological presentation of the historical Lincoln. The film moves a good clip, though it never feels rushed, covering lots of ground; Gates interviews a dozen scholars, two former presidents, and others. He visits with Lincoln presenters (people who dress up like Lincoln), and descendants of Confederate veterans who strongly dislike Lincoln. He walks the Gettysburg battlefield, visits the Soldier's Home where Lincoln probably wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. He sits in on a high school discussion about Lincoln in Chicago.

Along the way, Gates struggles to present the personal complexity of Abraham Lincoln, as opposed to the marble icon of the Lincoln Memorial. Most often he focuses on the complexity of Lincoln's racial views, which is understandable given his other research on race in the United States.

The film is a great success, owing to Gates unstinting honesty and his skills as both a historian and a storyteller. Most people will learn a lot about Lincoln and will be forced to think directly about how Lincoln the man relates to Lincoln the myth. If the film has any flaw, it is that Gates' conclusion is a bit underwhelming, but the strength of the film makes up for that.

"Looking for Lincoln" premiered on PBS on Wednesday, February 11, 2009.

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