Lincoln Movie Not as Honest as Abe, Says UCI Professor and Expert on South Jon Wiener

Disney opened Lincoln in 11 theaters on Nov. 9, expanded Steven Spielberg's historical saga to more North American theaters the next two weekends and now plans to go even wider thanks to more demand than there are movie seats.

A UC Irvine history professor who caught the flick believes past and future crowds are treated to an Oscar-worthy performance from Daniel Day Lewis. But Jon Wiener, who specializes in the American South of the 1860s, has a problem with the cinematic proclamation that one man ended slavery in America.

Now, you may know Jon Wiener better from another period in American history he specializes in, the 1960s. Or his book- and headline-making research into the FBI files on John Lennon. Or from his afternoon drive-time show on KPFK.

And there's his wonderful essays and articles in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine and especially The Nation, where he has been a contributing editor for years. Which brings us back to Lincoln. It's Wiener's article in The Nation blog where he reveals what Spielberg gets so wrong.

“The end of slavery did not come because Lincoln and the
House of Representatives voted for the Thirteenth Amendment,” says Wiener, relating a commonly held belief among historians.

He knows of what he speaks, er, writes. In a 2000 profile I wrote on him titled “Bigger Than the Beatles: UC Irvine professor Jon Wiener's fight for John Lennon's FBI file reveals something ugly about democracy in America,” Eric Foner, one of the nation's leading Civil War scholars, called Wiener's Social Origins of the New South: Alabama, 1865-1885
(1978) “a very important study of the
transition from slavery to freedom” still today. Among historians, Wiener rose to prominence from his research on the South long before he was associated with Yoko Ono's late husband, Foner notes.

The UCI professor returns the favor, name-checking the Columbia University professor in his Nation piece.

The best work I know about the end of slavery is Eric Foner's unforgettable book The Fiery Trial: Lincoln and American Slavery,
published in 2010, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize and
the Lincoln Prize. Foner and many other historians over the last couple
of decades have emphasized the central role played by the slaves
themselves, who are virtually invisible in this movie. During the three
weeks that the movie deals with, Sherman's army was marching through
South Carolina, where slaves were seizing plantations. They were
dividing up land among themselves. They were seizing their freedom.
Slavery was dying on the ground, not just in the House of
Representatives. You get no sense of that in the movie.

Wiener goes on to make cases against the movie's depictions of the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction. While he agrees Abraham Lincoln is a worthy cinematic subject, the great movie yet to be made would tell the stories of those who really ended slavery: the slaves.  

If you've yet to catch Lincoln, do yourself a favor and read Wiener's piece for the real story. Then go see the film, not to snicker at the big holes in the heart of Lincoln but to be overtaken by another fine Daniel Day Lewis performance. Maybe he'll come back for a cameo in that slave flick.

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Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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