Friday, February 8, 2013

"I’m sorry if anyone in Connecticut felt insulted by these 15 seconds of the movie..."

After Joe Courtney called Lincoln's filmmakers out for presenting Connecticut's legislators in a historically inaccurate manner, screenwriter Tony Kushner has responded in an open letter in the Wall Street Journal.  He returns fire, appropriately noting that Connecticut's electoral support of Lincoln was not nearly as high as Courtney claimed, using the scholarship of CCSU's Matt Warshauer for support.  A valid point, certainly.

And yet the issue at hand, the voting record of Connecticut's congressmen, is addressed as follows:

We changed two of the delegation's votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn't perform them.  In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House.  These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn't determined  until the end of the vote.  The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.  In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.  I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.

One of the things that stands out to me in this apology-that's-not-an-apology is the issue of "the story we wanted to tell."  This has been one of the issues with Lincoln from the beginning; inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's work, this movie had a specific interpretation (what historians would call the story they wanted to tell), and it would have been different had it been inspired by another scholar's work on Lincoln.  In choosing this interpretation, the people involved in the film did something similar to what we do when we write lectures.  We know the argument we want to make to our students, and we pick accounts and evidence that help us make that argument.  We are not supposed to make up evidence to support the argument we want to make - if we could do that, lecture writing would be much easier.

Kushner says, rightly so, that this is a work of historical fiction.  The story they wanted to tell was a national one, focused around one man and one amendment, and the changes made could be made, apparently, because this wasn't a story about Connecticut and its "tangled regional history."  Kushner says that the changes made to Connecticut's voting record are not so bad because he also changed the names of the congressmen, all in service of telling the story.  I find it very hard to believe that a Tony-winning writer and Oscar-winning director didn't have the creative capacity between them to tell the story they wanted to tell without actively falsifying the historical record in this particular way.  While I am the first to get on my high horse about how New Englanders don't know their own region's racist past (and present), for Kushner to say we're all overreacting about these 15 seconds is deeply problematic and rather patronizing.  -Erin

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