‘Lincoln’: An ode to gradual change

This is my Sunday column for the Feb. 17, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired Saturday on KAXE‘s Between You and Me. The Academy Awards ceremony is tonight.

‘Lincoln”: An ode to gradual change
By Aaron J. Brown

Early in “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about President Abraham Lincoln, the historian explains how two works of fiction released before the U.S. Civil War told important truths about those times.

One would seem obvious: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” This story of life in slavery mobilized abolitionists the world over leading up to the Civil War.

The other significant novel of that time was “Moby Dick, which I reread recently. Kearns Goodwin explains that “Moby Dick” depicted a multicultural crew sailing the massive globe as a matter of routine. Slavery was an alien concept in this novel, isolating the American South as a global anomaly. The world is big; we’ve got to get along. Old power, like Captain Ahab, is sometimes wrong and sometimes crazy. This concept was not the point of Moby Dick, but the book was popular because this truth was becoming more widely understood.

Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” served as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film “Lincoln,” which competes tonight for several Academy Awards. Like “Team of Rivals,” the film shows us how gradual, perceptible change can build to great moments that are later described as monumental.

In “Lincoln,” we see Daniel Day-Lewis play Abraham Lincoln during a brief period – the time between Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, through the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, to Lincoln’s 1865 assassination. Day-Lewis is a leading contender for Best Actor this year and his performance is truly remarkable; utterly morphing into the oft-portrayed and sometimes-lampooned Lincoln with subtle humanity.

But it was this notion of “change” that affected me most. Before I saw the film, I watched a YouTube clip of an old man appearing on a 1950s game show to tell his story of seeing the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. People I know were alive in the ‘50s. This man was alive when the real-life scenes in “Lincoln” took place. These were not ancient times; this was our recent past.

The Congressmen who passed the 13th Amendment, and they were all men, were still mostly racist and certainly sexist. Only some voted “Yes” out of a sense of human decency. Most amendment backers – certainly all of the swing votes – voted “Yes” simply to end the divisive debate and score a strategic blow to the Confederacy. It would be decades before everyone could vote in this country, and a century until anything resembling equal rights prevailed across the land.

The world of “Lincoln,” from the marching bands to the color of the streets and grass, is not so different from our own. Here we see the White House. The Capitol Dome as we know it today was nearly finished. One thing stood out: the scene where Congress demanded that two aides run to the White House to get President Lincoln’s opinion on a matter under debate. The aides had to physically run as fast as they could to reach the president in the time necessary. They ran across the whole of the relatively quiet city streets, across the lawns of important buildings, directly into the unguarded White House, up the steps and burst through the doors of the Oval Office with no human interference whatsoever. President Lincoln looked up, listened, wrote a note, and they ran it back to Congress the same way.

I went to Washington, D.C., as a child in 1988. The bustling city hummed with importance. Thinking back, there were no cell phones, though black and white computers could be found tucked into prominent corners of fancy offices. The idea that you could watch videos or interact with people on those computers was on no one’s mind, though. The idea that you could do so with portable devices that everyone carried would have been pure science fiction. And yet today, we expect nothing less in Washington, D.C., or even in the waiting room of a small clinic in Hibbing, Minnesota. We have a black president. The world is still big. We still have to figure out how to get along.

Lincoln did not predict the future; but he felt the change and reacted with compassion and as much speed as was possible. Few have such ability. Their work is important. This was my lesson from my favorite movie this year.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations. The next show broadcasts live at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 9 at Bagley High School.

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