Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in an Academy Award winning portrayal of the sixteenth president, struggles with the question of its own scope. How exactly does a movie set out to profile one of the deepest figures in history? Where do we begin?
Spielberg chose to open the movie with a scene depicting the carnage of Jenkins Ferry, where an all African-American infantry unit is seen killing any and all Confederate soldiers, many of whom were, according to history, trying to surrender. The author of Harvest of Death: The Battle of Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas, Joe Walker, has said that the depiction in the movie is historically accurate. The decision to exercise such absolute destruction of the Confederate troops was made by Col. Crawford, the commanding officer of the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry, in response to an earlier battle at Poison Springs, where Confederate forces had killed all the African-American soldiers of a Union battalion. The Confederate troops at Poison Springs had attacked under the auspices of a “Black Flag” policy, whereby white prisoners would be taken, but not black. At the end of the battle of Jenkins Ferry, Lt. John Lockart was captured and taken to Col. Crawford. Crawford later wrote that he told the Confederate officer that he would not be put to death, but would instead be released:
“You are not a prisoner of war. We do not take prisoners…Your president has placed his army under the ‘Black Flag,’ so far as our colored troops and their officers are concerned, and Gen. Price’s troops carried out that order to the letter over there at Poison Springs, the other day.
“We are the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry. My name is Crawford, and I am colonel of this regiment. You see and know what this regiment has done here today. I am going to send you back through the lines, not as a prisoner of war, but as a messenger of peace. Tell them I accept their new flag and that from this day forward,…I shall simply tell the men to remember Poison Springs.”
The depiction of the battle is brutal. Rain has turned the battlefield into a muddy mess, and we see bodies pushed into that mud, stabbed, gored, and killed. The mud coats the faces of all the soldiers to the point that it is difficult to know who is white and who is black, instead it seems that the forces could only recognize the enemy through a difference in uniform. The scene places the viewer immediately on notice of the brutal nature of the war, reminding us that the soldiers fighting were really not that different.
The scene at Jenkins Ferry is the only view of actual battle that we get in the film. Spielberg seems to want us to quickly remember the brutality of the war, but to move on from the actual violence, using it only as a means of framing the seriousness of what Lincoln faced. Using Jenkins Ferry for that purpose also serves to highlight the egalitarian nature of Lincoln’s portrayal. Spielberg narrows the scope of the film not just to a biopic of Lincoln leading up to the second inauguration, but further limits it to the passing of the 13th Amendment through the house, using the battle to couch us in the total equality that occurs on a battlefield, as well as in Lincoln’s heart and mind when thinking about the issue of slavery.
The film is not a violent one, and that is in line with its purpose and message. The film was not meant as another attempt at portraying the horrors of the Civil War, but was instead a political story of Lincoln’s personality, relationships with his family, and monumental efforts to get an amendment through the House. Spielberg set himself a difficult task in trying to build suspense where we ultimately know that a bill must indeed pass. But by altering his purpose from one of shock and horror to one of exploring the depths of an important historical figure, the putting off of violence, using it as quickly as possible to frame the seriousness of the issue at hand, is perfectly understandable and effective. The choice of a racially significant battle only heightens that effect.
How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/