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Steven Spielberg

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David Roche

Spielberg & Identity Politics

Thematic and Visual Treatment of Race Relations in Spielberg’s The Color Purple and Lincoln

Hélène Charlery

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  • 1 Sean Bobbitt for 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013); Andrew Dunn for The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2 (...)

1The release of a significant number of films with and about black people since 2011 has led to several publications on the changing “aesthetic politics of filming black skin” (Hornaday 2013; Martin 2014; Mudede 2015). As Ann Hornaday put it in a Washington Post article: “The fact that audiences are seeing such a varied, nuanced spectrum of black faces isn’t just a matter of poetics, but politics.” Using the cinematographers of these films1 as examples of the changing trend, these publications tend to conclude more optimistically on the evolution of filming black skin, and on skin tone rendition altogether, than previous writings on the issue.

2Both Richard Dyer (1997) and Lorna Roth (2009) have argued that because, early on in film history, “[the] photographic media, and a fortiori, movie lighting assum[ed], privileg[ed] and construct[ed] whiteness” (Dyer, White 89), the apparatus of visual reproduction was based on skin-tone biases (Roth 114). Shooting black skin was thus posited as a “problem,” as reported in 1933 by Basil Wright when shooting the documentaries Windmill in Barbados and Cargo from Jamaica in the West Indies:

The crux of the problem was encountered when negro types... had to be shot. With bright direct sunlight coming from overhead, it was almost impossible to get a good quality negative and yet retain the negro features. Rubbing the face and arms of the subject with butter or oil only brought up a few highlights, even when aided by reflectors. Finally, the problem was solved by staging scenes in the shade and using reflectors only.

3Whether the development of technology in the 1930s bore an explicit or unconscious agenda requires further research, although to Hornaday it participates in “the denigration and erasure of the black body.” Dyer writes that “the white centricity of the aesthetic technology of the photographic media” has never made it possible to completely acknowledge that “the problem [was] inherent to the technology, not just to its use” (White 98, 101). Thus, the “problem” was solved by using cosmetics or by changing the setting, as 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbit has explained:

You knew that if you had a very dark-skinned person standing next to a very light-skinned person, you either had to lighten the skin of the dark person [with makeup and/or cosmetics], or to lighten up the skin of the dark person. And as a result of that, you had those films where you had Eddie Murphy with the most bizarre skin tones that you could possibly imagine, because he had so much makeup on him.

4Other black actors of the film industry reported similar deleterious experiences. Cicely Tyson’s “black skin disappear[ed] on the screen” when filming George Cukor’s 1976 The Blue Bird in Russia because a “white woman had been used during the lighting set-ups” (Dyer, White 101). In 2013, after his film 12 Years a Slave premiered in the Toronto Festival, British black film director Steve McQueen

remember[ed] growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.

5The political dimension of black skin tone rendition can be read in Dyer’s analysis of light in In the Heat of the Night (1967). In White, a book that focuses on “films which not only have stars of different colors but also apparently intent to treat them equally,” he notes that

Poitier tends to be posed in profile or near silhouette, emphasising his emblematic presence; Steiger is more often shot face on, in, rather than against the light. Poitier is thus given considerable moral and intellectual authority, but little opportunity to display the workings of individuality on the face.

  • 2 Even today, in the age of digital cinema, “[one] issue frequently encountered in cinematography is (...)

6Dyer pays particular attention to one scene in the film in which the two characters have a drink at Gillespie’s and reveal some personal elements about each other’s life. He first demonstrates how the scene’s light source “casts both their faces in half light” (99). But as the conversation between Poitier and Steiger proceeds, the camera progressively returns to a frontal position when shooting the white actor, making him “more fully visible,” displaying “a range of modulations of expression that indicate the character’s complex turmoil of feelings and reminiscences,” and leaving “Poitier [to remain] the emblematic, unindividualised, albeit admirable, black man” (99). Due to the scene’s lighting, the former is “more individualized,” “more recognizably present or ‘real,’” while the latter is given an “‘emblematic,’ transcendentally heroic stature” (Lurie 33). Dyer uses this analysis to demonstrate how “movie lighting hierarchises,” and therefore “indicates who is important and who is not.” Dyer’s analysis of, and McQueen’s response to, Sidney Poitier in the 1967 film contradict its cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s original “liberal impulse” and innovative lighting techniques to treat the film’s black and white performers equally (Dyer 99).2

7Discussing Spielberg’s cinematographic style, Johanne Larue writes that light is a significant component in his filmography: “In almost all of his films, light is at the basis of human transformation” and is “a source of creative vitality” (30). For Nigel Morris, “in Spielberg’s work, light symbolizes a quest object and quasi-spiritual transcendence” (254). If the filmmaker’s use of light seems unequivocal, his treatment of history in films displays diverging strategies. In 2006, Lester D. Friedman, quoting Charles J. Marland, contended that, “by setting two of his social problem films in the past [The Color Purple and Amistad], Spielberg “makes them a little more palatable to audiences because they can engage with the issues without feeling so personally implicated as they might with a contemporary setting”” (246). Richard Misek points to another aspect of the filmmaker’s relationship with historical events; according to him, “Spielberg approaches the past by means of filmed interpretations of it” (115). Two of the filmmaker’s main strategies are thereby foregrounded: filmic intertextuality and distance or lack of personal implication.

8Although Spielberg purposefully creates distance between his general audiences and his treatment of race in his “two films about black America,” Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush claim that those films perfectly express both his “optimistic voice” and “liberal views of social issues” (66). In spite of Spielberg’s attempt at providing a “liberal” reading of the American racial issues in The Color Purple and Lincoln, they met with massive criticism because of their thematic treatment of black related issues. Not only were these concerns framed in debates on historical and literary fidelity to the films’ sources, but they also challenged the narrative agency left to the black characters in their own liberation.

9Focusing on The Color Purple and the more recent Lincoln, this chapter examines the expression of Spielberg’s “liberal views” in the choices he made to light the two films’ black and white characters. If “movie lighting hierarchises,” as Dyer puts it, how do Spielberg’s lighting strategies in the two films express his liberal views on interracial relations, racial stereotypes and racial equality? Do these strategies contribute to the lack of agency identified by Spielberg’s critics? Scholarly interest in his male-to-male interracial relationships (in Amistad) or male-to-female intraracial ones (in The Color Purple) has precluded analyses of the ways black female characters participate in his film’s discourses on interracial relations, as well as on the dichotomy between his desire to satisfy the cinematic experience of his general audiences and his yearning to address sensitive racial issues. While Dyer focuses on the use of light in the hierarchy between two black and white male characters in In the Heat of the Night, I have chosen to analyze two sequences of these films because of the gender, race and class-oriented analyses they call for. The first scene involves a black female character and a white female one in the 1930s segregated South; the second a U.S. president and a black female abolitionist presented in the film as the First Lady’s maid, in the early 1860s. I argue that, because these class, gender and race issues are cast in the past, Spielberg uses light to make visual statements that express his liberal ideals on race relations in order to engage his audiences without implicating them.

Light and the Visual (De)construction of Black Stereotypes in The Color Purple

10When filming The Color Purple, Spielberg insisted on coping with or eliminating the pitfalls of black skin tone rendition, as summed up by Allen Daviau, the film’s cinematographer: “Steven Spielberg said ‘I want to see faces..., I don’t just want to see eyes and teeth’” (LoBrutto 199–200). So as to cope with the “photographic problems that occur when shooting a film with basically an all-black cast,” Daviau resorted to techniques, including “having the set interiors and set decorations darker than normal” (Dyer, White 101):

If we’ve got enough light on the faces, we’ve got to be able to have sets dark enough.... So it was keeping the walls, wallpaper, and all the décor down enough so I could pour light in through the windows and not have the sets overpowered by the light which was lighting the people.... By having darker walls and darker décor, we were able to make the faces stand out.

11These comments illustrate the filmmaker’s and cinematographer’s awareness of the technological “problems” involved in filming black skin. As Roy Anker put it, “in The Color Purple (1985), Amistad, and even Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg uses beatific lighting to “dilute” “the hard realities of emotional anguish” (274). Similarly, John Baxter admits that Spielberg’s typical use of divine light in The Color Purple is at time excessive (308). However, analyzing Spielberg’s adaptation strategies in the film, Joan Digby associates the film’s “colour-consciousness” with Celie’s perception in the novel:

Spielberg’s characteristic lighting style (that is, slightly diffused and heavily back-lit) conveys a dream-like quality to life filtered through moods.... An aura of pink light suffuses the scenes associated with female strength and love. [B]lue light prevails [in] every room or circumstance in which a character feels “blue.”

12This is reinforced by the direct cut that ends the sequence, which concludes on Sofia being hit by the town’s sheriff [82:27–82:35]. The high-angle shot of Sofia, lying on the ground surrounded by a crowd of white characters, cuts to a close-up of Mister’s rotten mailbox, with a thorny blue sky in the background and a depressing musical score.

13On a thematic level, Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1984 novel unleashed a vibrant debate on both the film’s incapacity to reproduce Walker’s womanist discourse and its representations of the black male brute through the character of Mister (Friedman 252–267). Manthia Diawara, among others, sees “a parallel dilemma” between the chase scene in The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) and some scenes of The Color Purple, “especially where Mister (Danny Glover) chases Nettie (Akosua Busia) on her way to school” (217).

14Discussing black viewers’ reactions to The Color Purple, black historian Donald Bogle detailed their “schizophrenic reaction”:

You’re torn in two. On the one hand you see the character of Mister and you’re disturbed by the stereotype. Yet, on the other hand,... you have never seen Black women like this put on the screen before. I’m not talking about what happens to them in the film, I’m talking about the visual statement itself. When you see Whoopi Goldberg in close-up, a loving close-up, you look at this woman, you know that in American films in the past, in the 1930s, 1940s, she would have played a maid. She would have been a comic maid. Suddenly, the camera is focusing on her...

15According to Bogle, the visual statement in The Color Purple occurs as the camera focuses in frontal close-ups on a dark-skinned black female character’s face as few mainstream filmmakers had done before. Notwithstanding the criticisms that can be made against the film’s elusion of some central elements of Walker’s novel, the narration does, in effect, take time to construct Celie’s changing emotions on screen.

16As previously mentioned, scholarly attention to The Color Purple was directed at the film’s intraracial visual and narrative discourse. My interest, here, lies in the film’s treatment of “dark-skinned and light-skinned actors in the same shot.” This is why I have chosen to focus on Sofia, the character with the largest number of encounters and confrontations with white characters. Apart from the scenes in the town’s grocery stores, most encounters between Sofia and white characters occur in outdoor settings [80:25–82:35; 83:38–92:14]. This does not allow the cinematographer to “set interiors and set decorations darker than normal,” but requires different filming strategies, in addition to adding colors in post-production (Turner 1998; Harrel 1986).

17The first encounter occurs in the scene in which the city’s mayor, Miss Millie, asks Sofia “to work for [her]. Be [her] maid,” because “[her] children are so clean” [80:00], a proposition Sofia violently rejects (“Hell, no”). In terms of shooting techniques, Sofia and the scene’s white characters are mostly shot conversing in over-the-shoulder shots. In these compositions, the characters’ faces appear in full so as to light the faces of black and white characters differently. In-focus foreground and out-of-focus background also enable the skin tones to be portrayed on screen. Eventually, when characters with different skin tones appear in the same shots, camera angles and the position of the characters’ faces allow the audience to grasp the diverging expressions on the characters’ faces and bodies. Thus, in the slapping scene, lighting and filming strategies provide opportunities to “display a range of modulations of expression” and “the workings of individuality” (Dyer, White 99) on the faces of both characters: Miss Millie’s mystified look and Sofia’s hostile rejection of her status as a maid.

18Although Spielberg fails to address the novel’s womanist discourse, which might be difficult to grasp for the general audiences the film was made for, his treatment of this encounter between Miss Millie and Sofia shows how he handles Walker’s discourse on the black mammy. The author’s characterization of Sofia runs counter to the construction of the racial stereotype, which Lynn Kennedy describes as follows:

Like a white mother, the quintessential black mammy was skilled at nurturing her white charges both physically and mentally. She taught them proper manners and behaviors suitable to their position within the elite. Most importantly, the ideal mammy, like the ideal white mother, was emotionally devoted to her charges.

19According to Deborah Barker, “[i]n The Color Purple Alice Walker... directly challenges the myth of the loving black mammy by allowing the Black female character to articulate her own attitudes toward taking care of a White family” (115). Linda Selzer reaches a similar conclusion:

Sophia is entirely unsuited for the role of mammy, but whites... continually expect her to behave according to their cultural representations of the black mother. It is, in fact, these expectations that get Sophia into trouble in the first place, for when Miss Millie happens upon Sophia’s family and sees her children so “clean”..., she assumes that Sophia would make a perfect maid and that Sophia would like to come and work in her household.

20The trouble Selzer refers to is the fact that Sofia’s knocking the mayor down after he slapped her eventually leads her first to be jailed, then to be cornered into the role and place of the maid that she resented being trapped in: “Dear God,” Celie says in voice-over, “after many years, they let Sofia out of jail just to put her in the next. She ended up being Miss Millie’s maid after all” [83:38–83:53].

21The outdoor scene of Sofia’s arrest, which is expanded in the film adaptation, epitomizes the filmmaker’s attempt to address the real vulnerability of the black female body in a white environment, and to confront it with the power of the white female body and voice in the following scene. By the time she has forcibly become Miss Millie’s maid, Sofia’s body language becomes equivalent to Celie’s submissive attitude under Pa’s and Mister’s treatment, thereby symbolically bringing together the physical impact of white racism, and sexual and domestic violence. Spielberg also challenges previous cinematic representations of the mammy, depicted as physically and mentally strong, for instance in David O’Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939).

22Digby rightfully sees a parallel between the scene where Sofia gets hit by the sheriff and the one where she comes home for Christmas [86:44–92:14], as the second scene reproduces Sofia’s entrapment, albeit this time with Miss Millie, the white female character (166). By expanding the novel’s homecoming scene, Spielberg uses the parallel between the two outdoor scenes to explore the cinematic construction of two black stereotypes that might resonate in the film’s target audiences: the black male brute and the mammy. Both are related to Miss Millie, whose childish behavior and “childlike dependence” on Sofia (Selzer 134) contrast with the white female character’s obvious consciousness of race relations in the South in the novel (Walker 97). Miss Millie suddenly realizes that Sofia had not seen her children “in a while” and says “that’s a shame” [86:04]. Miss Millie then decides to drive Sofia to her family for Christmas. If Miss Millie’s driving is turned into comic relief in the previous scene, it takes on a dramatic tone in the scene in which she drives Sofia home for Christmas, for it is partly because of Miss Millie’s erratic driving that Sofia eventually spends only a few minutes with her children after eight years of absence.

23In a long shot of the car being unruly driven, the setting is bathed in a bright grayish winter light that contrasts with the snow-covered soil. As in previous such scenes, shot size decreases when Sofia and Miss Millie appear in the same shot. The two characters’ dark costumes, and, more importantly, the fact that Miss Millie’s face is hidden by Sofia’s head in the middle of the shot, allow characters with very different skin tones to occupy the same composition; audiences are thus able to see the complex emotions on Sofia’s face as she sees her children on the porch. When Miss Millie appears alone (“Sofia, I’ll be back to pick you up at five.”), her skin tone takes on a pink hue because of the red hat she is wearing and the daylight shining on the right side of her face. The lighting thus constructs Miss Millie’s whiteness in pink tones that convey the character’s childlike behavior. The narration alternates between shots of her pink smiling face [88:22; 88:29] and shots of Sofia’s reunion with her children, most particularly with Emma who was only a baby girl when her mother was sent to jail. The shots of Miss Millie’s smiling face and their lighting turn her into a compassionate witness of the scene and an architect of this reunion, thereby diminishing the part she played in their lengthy separation.

24Unable to get the car out of reverse, Miss Millie drives the car back and forth, bumping into a tractor and a tree, under the watchful eyes of Harpo and Swain, two black male characters. Swain is soon joined by other black men who try to stop the erratic car. Caught in the back and forth motion of the vehicle, Miss Millie, scared by the presence of the black men surrounding her, gets out and seeks refuge against a tree. The camera angle and the long medium shot show her “trapped” in the right-hand corner, reacting hysterically at the sight of the black men, including Harpo, slowly walking towards her. The barrier formed by the characters and their skillful organization in the composition heighten Miss Millie’s entrapment, with the tree acting as an additional barrier (Fig. 1) [91:03].

Fig. 1 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie trapped by the harmless black men.

Fig. 1 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie trapped by the harmless black men.
  • 3 Richard Dyer (1996) has demonstrated how the light in The Birth of a Nation also endorsed the aesth (...)

25With the forest in the background, the scene recreates a situation similar to the chase scene of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, in which a terrified white female character runs away from a menacing black man, Gus. In the 1915 film, the trees cast shadows over the frightened Flora moving in the light, in opposition to the darker shots of Gus. Each shot centers on the character (Gus or Flora), so that the light exaggerates both the fear and menace. Alternating between shots of the differently lit characters intensifies the opposition between the two.3 Gus is seen raising his hand with his palm up in a medium close-up. Dramatizing the threat on innocent and defenseless white womanhood, the gesture is meant to try to reach the white female character, creating a contrast between the image (menace) and the dialogue (“Wait, missie, I won’t hurt yeh.”). Gus and his menacing hand are lit so that only his teeth and eyes stand out, heightening the character’s threatening nature; the forest behind the character further intensifies his blackness.

26Spielberg reprises Griffith’s chase scene, but deconstructs its validation of racial stereotypes. A shot of Harpo in front of the camera reproduces the gesture without its menace; this time the black character is desperately trying to calm down a hysterical Miss Millie [91:04]. It is interesting that Harpo, whom some critics have rightfully regretted to be reminiscent of the stereotype of the coon (Boyd 10), can here be seen, from the perspective of a white female character, as the embodiment of the black male brute (“Those boys tried to attack me”). The conflation of the coon and the black brute in one character insists on their fabrication in white imaginations. The camera angle in the shot of Harpo is such that the composition mostly displays the sky and the black man looking at the hysterical white female character. The right sidelight—the scene’s visible source light—allows Harpo’s face to stand out from the background, unlike the shot of Gus. The black menace on white womanhood is further disqualified through the presence of the puzzled man behind Harpo. If the “parallel dilemma” identified by Diawara suggests that the film reinforces racial stereotypes (217), the analysis of this scene suggests that it actually questions their cinematic construction.

27Spielberg, here, reproduces the situation of the previous scene where Sofia was surrounded by an angry white mob before she was hit by the sheriff. While the attack on Sofia is real, as suggested by the close-ups of the angry white faces yelling at Sofia (“Who you think you are you fat negro?”), in the homecoming scene, the narration dissociates the close-ups of the black men and of Miss Millie. If the scene’s longer shots bring together the white female figure and the black men on either side of the screen, the white female character is not allowed a single shot that would emphasize her fear. The outdoor light shines on the black men standing on the left side of the screen, while the tree behind Miss Millie blocks light and places the character in a shadowy area that maintains the pink tone of her skin, further emphasizing her hysteria. The characters’ positions and the scene’s lighting deconstruct the menacing image of the black men. Most importantly, it relates the white character’s hysteria and fear of the black men to her apparently unconscious bigotry:

[Miss Millie to the black male characters] You get away from me. Don’t touch me.... I’ve always been good to you people.... I’ve always gone out of my way for the coloreds.... [Miss Millie to Sofia] Those boys... Those boys tried to attack me.... How could you leave me alone for so long?

28In the rest of the scene, Miss Millie, as her facial expressions reveal, changes from the white compassionate witness of a family reunion to a menacing character, revealing her social power as a Southern white woman. When Sofia comes to Miss Millie’s “rescue,” the black woman’s position in the composition serves, in effect, as a shield between the alleged aggressors and victim crouching and taking comfort against Sofia’s breast, showing Miss Millie’s assumption of Sofia as the stereotypical mammy and further emphasizing her depending on Sofia. The larger shots allow the symbolic mammy that Miss Millie assumes Sofia to be to act as a protective shield, as she accompanies the white woman back to her car. However, the ensuing close-up of Sofia’s face debunks the stereotype, as she unsuccessfully tries to negotiate more time with her children. This part of the scene thus depicts a black motherhood whose emotional devotion is geared more towards her children and relatives than toward her white charges. Sofia’s gray locks gleam in the backlight, the light making her plea more poignant, and thus making the character “more recognizably present or ‘real’” (Lurie 33).

29Miss Millie’s red hat is positioned next to Sofia’s face in order to fully disclose the expression on Sofia’s face at that moment. The character’s dark clothes, combined with the back and left fill light, allow her ashen and exhausted face to be fully disclosed on screen. The visual deconstruction of Sofia as a traditional mammy in the shot contrasts with Miss Millie’s now apparent consciousness of Southern racial relationships, as she is deaf to Sofia’s pleading:

Miss Millie: How could you leave me alone for so long? What am I gonna do about the car?
Sofia: Jack will drive you home, Miss Millie.
Miss Millie: I can’t ride in a car with some strange colored man.
Sofia: I’ll ask my sister Odessa to squeeze in. That way I have more time with my children.
Miss Millie: I don’t know her either.

30Miss Millie’s face is in close-up when she speaks the last line [92:03].

31The shot/reverse shots and lighting recall the moment when Miss Millie—in a similar close-up—smiled at Sofia after asking her to be her maid and before Sofia retorted: “Hell no!” [81:18]. The camerawork highlights the change in Sofia’s status: she has gone from being a defiant woman to a downtrodden character. Both scenes reproduce the same spatial organization of the close-ups of the two characters in the composition: in the first scene, Sofia’s hat and hair mask half of the screen; in the other half, Miss Millie’s hat blocks the ray of light that casts her face in a semi-shadow (Fig. 2). The character’s smiling face—when she asks Sofia to be her maid or responds to Sofia with a “What did you say?”—once again shows her own internalization of the mammy stereotype and the submissive position of black people, leading her to hear but not understand Sofia’s answer. A similar spatial organization is employed in the close-up of Miss Millie’s face in the Christmas reunion scene. Sofia’s face takes up half of an over-the shoulder shot. While her face and skin could not be seen in the close-up of Miss Millie in the first scene, in the second, the close-up of Miss Millie’s face is even closer. Sofia’s lowered head, reflecting her new status, allows the camera to display her new submissive position and her skin, darkened by lighting. The smaller hat Miss Millie wears, the high angle and the light coming from the right cast a different range of colors on the white character’s half-lit face: the top of her face is white, bringing out her pink cheeks (Fig 3). The change of color emphasizes the white woman’s look of disapproval (“I don’t know her either”), confirming her changing role in the film from a white woman who witnesses the black family reunion to one who breaks it yet again.

Fig. 2 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie’s face in semi-shadow because of her hat.

Fig. 2 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie’s face in semi-shadow because of her hat.

Fig. 3 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie’s disapproving face now fully lit.

Fig. 3 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie’s disapproving face now fully lit.

32Combined with costumes, make-up, the staging of the actors’ bodies, larger and closer shots, and camera angles, the use of light participates in the film’s attempt to demystify cinematic racial stereotypes. For Debbie Olson, Spielberg’s treatment of Sofia as a “passive, long-suffering mammy” illustrates his “embrace of historical notions about black adults” (156). Yet the confrontation between the slapping scene and the family reunion scene shows how Spielberg processes the painful physical and metaphorical entrapment of Sofia into a mammy figure, because of, rather than for, the white female character. Similarly, if the film does, indeed, reactivate the imagery of the black male brute in the film’s intraracial gender relationships, it also initiates a discussion on the construction of the stereotype in interracial relations. In the reunion scene, the narration literally constructs the black male brute and the black mammy through the white female character’s imagination and expectations (“Your children are so clean... Would you like to be my maid?”/ “Those boys tried to attack me”). In other words, using filmic intertextuality and aesthetics, Spielberg puts the emphasis on the white characters’ role in the creation, fabrication and enforcement of these stereotypes on the black characters.

33If the film counts, perhaps, too much on Sofia’s suffering to produce empathy, the changing status of the white female character challenges potential sympathy for Miss Millie, notably among white audiences. Miss Millie’s changing status—from a childish woman, apparently unconscious of race relations in the South, to one that shortens Sofia’s family reunion because she “can’t ride in a car with some strange colored man”—seems to entail an awkward position whereby some white members of the audience could be led, first, to sympathize with Miss Millie’s childishness and to find relief in the safe distance from which Sofia’s reunion with her children is viewed, only to be later confronted to the impossibility to sympathize with the same character who imagines being attacked by black men when the latter were only trying to help her, and who ultimately breaks up a family.

34It is interesting that, in 1985, Spielberg brought his mainstream audiences to this level of awareness on the causes and effects of racial stereotyping, although this occurs in the film’s few scenes involving white characters. It is all the more interesting as in his later films on black issues, Amistad and Lincoln, he moved away from such reflexivity because his liberal views were entangled with his use of the figure of the “White Savior,” “rescuing people of color from their plight,” and thus making

white audiences feel good about themselves by portraying them as benevolent messiahs (rather than hegemonic conquerors), and also depict[ing] people of color as helpless weaklings—all while wrapping such tripe in the cinematic argot of liberation.

35As Bill Nichols puts it, in Saving Private Ryan, Amistad and Schindler’s List, Spielberg creates a white Christian male savior of “those less fortunate or farsighted than themselves” (Vera and Gordon 65). The three films illustrate his stress on the “Everyman qualities” of his main characters (62, my italics), thereby focusing on an ordinary-heroic white masculinity and leaving aside female characters (Skorin-Kapov 66). If the characterization and lighting strategies in Amistad reinforce the filmmaker’s use of the white male savior motif and the black “emblematic” presence on screen (Dyer, White 99) in one episode of the history of American slavery (the Amistad revolt and trial), how does he handle the confrontation between the president of the United States and a well-known black female abolitionist in the reproduction of a major episode in the history of American slavery (the adoption of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives)?

Historical Invisibility and Visual Equality? Elizabeth Keckley and the President in Lincoln

36One major criticism leveled against Amistad is that it did “not concentrate on the estimated forty million who did not escape slavery” (Morris 265). As José B. Capino puts it, “what if Spielberg made a film about those who are not saved from slavery?” (187). In other words, the film considers slavery through a single heroic and successful episode, singling out the institution and its functional system or the collective organization struggling against this system. Amistad “mask[ed] abolitionists’ true role” (Morris 166) and “reduce[d] historical forces, social movements and morally significant collectivities to single individuals” (Blum 135). It also led to “complaints about whites enunciating black history in this film” (Morris 257). The film, indeed, depicts two white savior characters (John Quincy Adams and Roger Baldwin) that historian Laurence Blum refers to as “white allies” (134), which he dissociates from what he calls the moral co-equal:

Comrades... in the struggle for justice are in an important sense co-equals, even if they are from distinct racial groups that stand in an asymmetrical relationship to the injustice in question. It is not, or not simply, that an individual from one racial group comes to the aid of another and supports its cause. It is also two people struggling in the same cause. In doing so, they take on a shared moral identity.

37Morris supports Blum’s distinction between the two concepts: “Whereas the ally model highlights racial difference between partners, moral co-equality stresses identity. [Moral] co-equality seeks neither to deny nor eliminate difference” (267). Blum reads moral coequality in Amistad in a single relationship:

Ironically, given its deficiency in portraying the Abolitionist movement, the film Amistad comes close to giving us a representation on an individual level of this co-equal relationship. The filmmakers create a fictional character, a wealthy and respected black Abolitionist, Theodore Joadson, who is in that regard a moral co-equal with Lewis Tappan, the white Abolitionist.

38Blum regrets, however, that the illustration of moral coequality be limited to the two abolitionists and that Joadson’s presence is only temporary, since the two white and black characters differ on the moral value each one gives to the forty-four slaves in the overall abolitionist cause: one is geared towards saving them (Joadson), the other towards sacrificing them (Tappan). Morris, on the other hand, sees such coequality in the relationships between Amistad’s central black character, Cinque, and John Quincy Adams, between Cinque and Joadson, and eventually between Cinque and Baldwin (267). It is Spielberg’s symbolic and “metaphorical” construction of light in the film that leads Morris to this conclusion (257). Indeed, he notes that light shafts permeate symbolic locales—such as the abolitionists’ office, the prison where Cinque is held and the Supreme Court House—and evokes not only hope, but also the shared legitimacy and righteousness of the characters’ cause and feelings (255).

39In Amistad, Spielberg repeats the techniques previously highlighted in The Color Purple, though with another cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. However, if a similar light is used to suggest moral coequality, Anthony Hopkins’s skin does not reflect the light like Cinque’s. Throughout the film, particularly during the scene in the Supreme Court House where former President Adams pleads for the slaves’ cause, Cinque’s face is over-lit by the hard light coming from the windows, creating spots of light on his face. Moreover, the light shafts, in association with Cinque’s lighter costume, make his darker skin stand out in comparison to his light-skinned black translator’s, and from the equally lighter abolitionist Joadson, sitting next to him in the Supreme Court house. This reflects a trend in the film, whereby, through lighting, Cinque is individualized as “emblematic” and “heroic.” Dyer noted something similar in In the Heat of the Night:

People who are not white can and are lit to be individualised, arranged hierarchically and kept separate from their environment. But this is only to indicate the triumph of white culture and its readiness to allow some people in, some non-white people to be in this sense white.

40The visual place that Cinque is given in the composition and the lighting utilized for him, notably while Adams is delivering his final speech in the House, individualizes the black slave, not only from the other forty-three slaves of the Amistad episode or from the translator and the black abolitionist, but also and more importantly from the “forty million who did not escape slavery” (Morris 265). This is meant to defend the founding values of the U.S. Constitution, which might assuredly appeal to the “white audiences” David Sirota (2013) has in mind. I will use Blum’s concepts of racial ally and moral coequality, as well as Morris’s analysis of light shafts in Amistad, to analyze one particular scene in Lincoln: a conversation between the president and Elizabeth Keckley, who is mainly portrayed as the First Lady’s maid.

41Like his previous films on black-related issues, Lincoln has met with harsh criticisms, mostly from historians. Barbara Krauthamer (2012) explained that the film’s “depiction of emancipation largely exclude[d] African-American women and men as anything other than the patient and grateful recipients of the gift of freedom,” and therefore failed “to come to terms with slavery’s grotesque and relentless violence.” Kate Masur (2012) noted that, “in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.” The film thus reactivates Amistad’s white male savior figure. The treatment of slavery elicited criticisms on how the filmmaker “has proved markedly inconsistent in how he uses violence in his films” (Anker 274). Indeed, Krauthamer pointed out that, in a film, which narrates the four months during which the president maneuvered to get the House of Representatives to support the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, “enslaved people are simply the objects of a child’s curiosity and, we are told, his nightmares.”

42The film’s treatment of abolitionists can, similarly, be criticized. On the narrative level, historians have largely demonstrated that Lincoln undeniably fails to integrate both Elizabeth Keckley’s and Lydia Smith’s contributions to the abolitionist movement as political activists. Rather, the film positions them as subservient to two of its white male characters: Abraham Lincoln for Keckley and Thaddeus Stevens for Smith. Smith’s presence in the narrative only serves to justify Stevens’s support of the Amendment. The attention the camerawork pays to their reactions to the favorable vote does, indeed, confirm Krauthamer’s assessment of the film’s black characters as “patient and grateful recipients of the gift of freedom.” Questioned as to why the film does not bring forward Keckley’s and Smith’s potential political influence on Lincoln’s and Stevens’s discourse on slavery, Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner recognized in a 2013 interview for Transition that

Keckley was a complicated woman, and a very great and amazing person. You could make an extraordinary movie out of the life of Elizabeth Keckley... But again, she was Mary Lincoln’s friend and dressmaker, and in Behind the Scenes at the White House, she’s very modest... she doesn’t say, “and I took Abe aside and told him this and that...” The book is sort of remarkable in that regard. So I felt like I found a way to have her actually speak to Lincoln, and stay within what seemed true to me.

43Although Kushner’s insistence on the historical source text suggests how dear authenticity was to Spielberg, it also confirms that the film’s core focus is Lincoln’s legacy and memory. The lighting largely contributes to this. As Kaminski put it, light was especially devised so that the president is “seen as an icon”: “the light always was the brightest on Daniel [Day-Lewis] because I wanted the audience to focus on him. [E]ven in the scenes where there are many characters, Daniel always stands out” (Murphy 2012, Mermelstein 2013). Camera angles, with Lincoln mostly in profile, were also carefully chosen in order to “make the character look stronger and more presidential” (Murphy 2012). The sets and costumes were purposely darkened so that audiences concentrate “on the words that the actors were speaking” (Murphy 2012).

44Given that the film’s aesthetics were carefully tuned to bring out the central historical white figure, one may wonder whether the film provides visual moments of moral coequality, especially with a black female character whose role in the historical narrative the screenplay chooses to silence. Contrary to Amistad and its recreation of the middle passage, Lincoln’s images of the violence of slavery and its impacts on black bodies are scarce, but, interestingly enough, they are related to the character of Keckley, with a particular signifying lighting.

45She first appears leaving Mary Todd’s room at the president’s side [10:00]. The lit candles that are visible on the left shed a yellowish tone on the two characters’ faces and initially mark a symbolic construction whereby the imagery of slavery in the film is to be seen through the light of fire. Indeed, in the following scene, Lincoln finds his son asleep on glass negatives of slaves. Lincoln raises the negatives to see them through the light from the fireplace [11:00]. Tad’s obsession with slavery returns in a subsequent scene that also involves Keckley and candles. Interested in Matthew Brady’s well-known photograph of a black slave’s scarred back, Tad wonders whether she was beaten when she was a slave. In the Transition interview, Kushner recalled that the episode was taken from Keckley’s account published in 1868:

A fire shovel, when she was five. It’s a story she tells in the book, that she was left to rock a baby, a white baby, and she rocks the cradle too hard, so I mean she must have really been rocking it hard, and the baby falls on the floor, and she’s afraid to touch it, because she’s been told not to touch it. And so she gets a fire shovel and picks the baby up with a fire shovel and dumps it back in the crib. When they come back in, it’s screaming and it’s covered in soot, and her mistress took the fire shovel and beat her with it.

  • 4 However, Tad studies another photograph before the film focuses on the confrontation between Lincol (...)

46This historical anecdote points to the ambiguity of slavery whereby a black female slave is entrusted with the care of a baby, while the racial construction of slavery would not allow her to establish contact with it. In the film, however, the story is shortened to a single sentence: “I was beaten with a fire shovel when I was younger than you” [49:26]. The sentence is the only reference to the violence of slavery on one of the black characters. As Krauthamer (2012) puts it, “[in] a film that runs for two and a half hours, this is the only discussion of enslaved women’s lives.” Once it has been uttered, Keckley returns to her role as Mary Todd’s maid, turning to Lincoln and inviting him to go to his distraught wife, who has locked herself in their dead son’s bedroom. The scene illustrates the way Kushner saw Keckley; a “complicated woman, and a very great and amazing person,” but mainly “Mary Lincoln’s friend and dressmaker.” Significantly, the left sidelight that lightens the room and the overall film’s grayish color scheme further whitens Keckley, distancing her past as a slave from the immediate shot of the darker skin of the slave on the glass negative.4 Undeniably, the violence of slavery is diluted in this scene, and Keckley’s role in the struggle for emancipation is nonexistent. Keckley’s sole questioning of race relations in the U.S. intervenes in an imagined conversation between her and the president [89:58]. It illustrates what Kushner referred to as his way “to have [Keckley] actually speak to Lincoln, and stay within what seemed true to [him].”

47Throughout their conversation, the pair stands in front of the White House’s porch. So far, Keckley has predominantly been seen as caring for the First Lady’s health and needs, although the previous scene had her eavesdropping on Mary Todd threatening Lincoln in a theater’s balcony loge. Back in the White House, Keckley lets Mary Todd walk into the house and turns to the president. The conversation is set in the dark. The only visible light source comes from the lit windows of the White House in the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the outdoor scene occurs at night, the actors’ costumes are also purposefully dark as well, to direct the audience’s attention to “the words that the actors are speaking” (Murphy 2012). Therefore, only the actors’ faces stand out. The scene is framed by two similar long shots which emphasize that no one is here to witness the conversation, and that make the scene a transient moment in the course of the narrative film on Lincoln.

48Spielberg uses five ranges of angles and shot sizes that are repeated throughout the scene: (1) the dimly-lit long shots of the two characters on the White House’s front porch; (2) a medium long shot with the president on the left side and Keckley on the right, with the window light in the back on the right behind Keckley; (3) medium close-ups of the president turning to the left; (4) medium close-ups of Keckley; and (5) one medium close-up with the two characters in the middle of the screen, separated by the back lit window in the back, and with a fire torch on Keckley’s right side. The way the shots are articulated to the dialogue is particularly interesting.

49At the beginning of the conversation (shot 2), Keckley turns her back to the window, so that the medium long shot only centers on Lincoln’s face while hers remains in the shadows, dimly revealing the characters’ different skin colors. So although she is the character speaking, the medium long shot and its lighting point to the relative unimportance of Keckley’s character compared with Lincoln’s. Light, as Dyer has argued, hierarchizes.

Keckley: I know the vote is only four days away; I know you’re concerned. Thank you for your concern over this, and I want you to know: They’ll approve it. God see to it.
Lincoln: I don’t envy Him His task. He may wish He’d chosen an instrument for His purpose more wieldy than the House of Representatives.
Keckley: Then you’ll see to it.

50Here, the camera angle is coherent with the content of the dialogue. It reinforces Krauthamer’s criticisms as to the black characters’ passive role in the adoption of the amendment and the abolition of slavery, since, here, Keckley reasserts her confidence in God and in Lincoln’s capacity to have the Representatives approve the vote. The progression in the lines of the dialogue has her participate in the film’s Christ-like construction of the Lincoln figure: if “God will [not] see to it,” “then [Lincoln will] see to it.” However, her character also bears a significant political dimension. The limited number of black characters in the film, and therefore the limited opportunity they are given to voice their views on the amendment, lead the film’s mainstream audiences to metonymically read the Keckley character as the voice of the African American communities’ response to Lincoln’s handling of the abolition (“Thank you for your concern over this”). Thus, Keckley’s role in the abolitionist movement is erased by the character herself, all the while reinforcing the white male savior figure. Keckley is not represented in the film as the abolitionist she was, but as a distant victim of the violence of slavery and, here in particular, as Lincoln’s supporter. There is nothing fortuitous about the use of the low angle that emphasizes the president dwarfing the black female character, nor about the dialogue that frames Lincoln as a white ally in abolition. Rather than building Keckley as a moral coequal in the same cause, it relegates her to the position of a (black) moral sanction of the white savior.

51The rest of the scene consists in a series of shot/reverse shots (shots 3 and 4), which recall the scene in In the Heat of the Night where the light source “casts both [characters’] faces in half light.” The first close-up of Lincoln’s face shows one side of it lit, the other in the shadow. The reverse shot of Keckley reproduces the same half-light effect on her face. The shift occurs as Keckley questions Lincoln on his position on post-civil war racial equality. Although the narrative focuses on Lincoln’s maneuvers to have the amendment passed in the House, in this scene, the two characters “discuss the potential outcome for [Keckley’s] freed race” (Staiger 2).

Lincoln (shot 3: medium close-up of Lincoln): Are you afraid of what lies ahead? For your people? If we succeed?
Keckley (shot 4: medium close-up of Keckley): White people don’t want us here.
Lincoln: Many don’t.
Keckley: What about you?
Lincoln (shot 3): I... I don’t know you, Mrs Keckley. Any of you. You’re... familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. (shot 4)]... (shot 3) I assume I’ll get used to you. (shot 5: medium close-up of the two characters) But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.
Keckley (shot 4): What my people are to be, I can’t say. Negroes have been fighting and dying for freedom since the first of us was a slave. I never heard any ask what freedom will bring. Freedom is first.

52The camera angles integrate Lincoln’s back in the composition when Keckley is speaking (shot 4). This leads Janet Staiger to condemn the paternalistic impact of the over-the-shoulder shots, arguing that “the staging accentuates [Lincoln’s] height over her,” and that “his downward bend of the head suggests a father addressing a young child” (2). Indeed, while Lincoln’s back appears in the over-the-shoulder shots of Keckley’s face (shot 4), she does not appear while he answers her question (shot 3). Her dark hat and Daniel Day-Lewis’s facing the left side of the shot only suggest her presence in the shot.

53The paternalistic over-the-shoulder shots of her face asking the president questions about racial equality reproduce similar camera angles in the film’s opening scene, when Lincoln faces white and black soldiers on a battle scene [0:55–4:58]. The opening scene marks Lincoln’s fame among the soldiers after he delivered the Gettysburg address. Interestingly enough, it starts and ends with a black voice and black agent, as suggested by the verbs used in the first lines of black Private Harold Green’s report of the heroic moves of the Kansas Colored Infantry (“We fought,” “we decided,” “we didn’t leave,” “we joined up”). Green’s report on black bravery and agency in the army is interrupted by another black voice, that of Corporal Ira Clark, who points at the lack of articulation between black bravery and the persistence of racial inequality within the army in terms of expenses (“three dollars less each month than white soldiers,” “Another three dollars subtracted from our pay for our uniforms”) and promotion (“Still no commissioned Negro officers”). In spite of Green’s frequent interruptions, Clark concludes on his aspiration for racial equality:

Now that white people have accustomed themselves to seeing Negro men with guns fighting on their behalf, and now that they can tolerate Negro soldiers getting equal pay, maybe in a few years perhaps they can abide the idea of Negro lieutenants and captains. In fifty years, maybe a Negro colonel. In a hundred years, the vote.

54The scene concludes on one of the two white soldiers failing to find the exact words of the Address. As duty calls and the president invites the four soldiers to return to their respective companies, Corporal Clark finishes the Address in front of Lincoln [4:30–4:58]. For a film on Lincoln and abolition, it is a progressive and bold opening to start with a black character’s narration of a civil war battle [0:55], to go on with a black discourse on racial equality [2:15], and to continue with the words of Lincoln’s address told by a black soldier [4:30] who was seen, a few minutes before, voicing out the challenging idea that racial equality in the army could lead to racial equality within American society at large. According to Christoph Classen and Kirsten Wächter, Spielberg’s approach to historical events in his fiction develops “strategies of authentication” and “creates the impression of telling a true, apparently authentic story” through a “hybrid amalgamation of history and memory” (77). By the end of the scene, the black soldier turns his back and disappears in the shadow, reciting the final words of the Gettysburg Address. The high-angle shot of the president, combined with the lighting, present the white protagonist as a mythical and symbolic historical figure, tapping into the viewers’ experience of the historical figure through the memory of its national monument in Washington D.C. (Fig. 4) (Wasser 2013).

Fig. 4 — Lincoln: the high-angle shot and lighting turn Lincoln into a mythical figure, recalling the Lincoln Memorial.

Fig. 4 — Lincoln: the high-angle shot and lighting turn Lincoln into a mythical figure, recalling the Lincoln Memorial.

55In the opening scene, Corporal Clark is the one who initiates a discourse on racial equality beyond emancipation. The scene concludes on his questioning the legacy of the historical figure. However, this scene marks the paradox of the film’s narrative and politics that eventually erase black voices in abolitionism, as suggested in the dialogue between Keckley and the president. The conversation downplays the film’s bold opening. In front of the White House, the president is first reinforced in his mission by Keckley herself, before he himself triggers the issue of racial equality (in a medium close-up): “Are you afraid of what lies ahead for your people... if we succeed?” [90:42].

Fig. 5 Lincoln: Lincoln says to Keckley: “I assume I’ll get used to you.”

Fig. 5 Lincoln: Lincoln says to Keckley: “I assume I’ll get used to you.”

56The camera cuts twice to Lincoln, leaving the audiences to appreciate the president’s consent to specific lines in the dialogue. The first cut to his face occurs when he is asked about black people’s presence on the American territory, if emancipated. In the president’s answer, the meaning of “you” shifts from referring to black people, taking Keckley as a metonymic embodiment of her race, to recognizing black people’s claim for natural rights to freedom and reinforcing equality before the law. But the film also introduces a universalist reading of race relations by playing on the progression in the pronouns displayed in the answer (“any of you,” “as all people are,” “as we all are,” “You/I,” “each other”). Spielberg, here, expresses his own moral “liberal” values on racial equality through the historical figure’s ambiguity with the issue. The camera cuts to a wider medium close-up of Keckley before the president reaches a first personal conclusion. This time, shot size decreases to a close-up of the president (Fig. 5): “I assume I’ll get used to you.” The president’s second more general conclusion (“What’ll become of you... I don’t know.”) is framed in a different camera angle and in a medium close-up that brings the two characters and the fire torch behind Keckley in the composition. As previously mentioned, the light of fire metaphorically refers to slavery. The inclusion of the two characters and the metaphorical reference to slavery in the composition gives the issue more historical depth and distance. Corporal Clark’s projection of equality beyond emancipation (“In a hundred years, the vote”) in the film’s opening scene is curtailed by Keckley herself through a strategy of immediacy (“Freedom is first”) (Fig. 5). Again, the camera cuts to a medium close-up of Lincoln’s assenting face. Because the film, notably through Thaddeus Stevens’s character, engages a discussion on “legal equality for all races [and] racial equality” (Tudor 2013), the cut to Lincoln’s face and the dichotomy in Keckley’s answer (“What my people are to be. I can’t say” and “I never heard any ask what freedom will bring”) validate the president’s positioning in the film to prioritize legal equality for all races.

57The paradox of the scene lies in the disarticulation between the content of the dialogue, the camera angles, the editing and the way the characters’ faces are lit in the scene. In a film whose cinematographer insisted on putting “the brightest [light] on Daniel because [Kaminski] wanted the audience to focus on him” (Murphy 2012), the yellowish hue on the two characters’ faces reveals an intent to neutralize skin color which, in spite of the camera angles, editing and dialogue, is interesting given the scene’s universalist use of pronouns.

58The rest of the scene is also thought-provoking in this regard. If the narration cuts to a medium-close-up of Lincoln’s face as Keckley validates his immediate strategy, it returns to a wider medium close-up of Keckley as she concludes the scene. Lincoln’s remark, “I don’t know you, Mrs Keckley. Any of you,” gives a double meaning to his use of the pronoun “you,” referring both to Mrs. Keckley and the black race. Therefore, this double meaning can also be read in his subsequent remark (“what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you”). This explains the two parts of Keckley’s answer, one that metonymically provides an alleged collective black position on abolition, as previously discussed, and one that is more personal: “As for me, my son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr Lincoln. What else must I be?”

59With the first part of her answer, Keckley positions herself as a member of the black race, and with the second as the mother of a black soldier fighting in the Union and nothing else. According to Deborah Tudor, Keckley’s last personal remark directly condemns Mary Todd’s inability to be “a loving, giving spouse or mother” (3). This analysis reasserts Keckley’s role as Mary Todds’s caretaker. Yet if one confronts the wider shot of Keckley’s final remark on the conversation, not with the film’s central white female character—as Tudor does—but with a black male character—Corporal Clark, the scene suggests a different reading, especially bearing in mind the way camera angles frame the patronizing dimension of the historical figure. Paradoxically, Keckley’s closing sentence, considered in the overall film structure, silences Corporal Ira Clark’s discourse on postwar racial equality and voices the black presence in the military casualties of war for freedom, as Private Green did at the beginning of the film. Yet if Keckley addresses the historical figure, her last question challenges the very role and place of black women in the abolitionist movement. If the rest of the film provides an answer to this question since Keckley still fails to be positioned as an abolitionist fighter, her final comment in this scene could temporarily encourage the film’s mainstream audiences to ask similar questions. Unfortunately, these seconds of reflection are entangled in the filmmaker’s use of Lincoln’s memory to express his universalist moral values. And the reflection remains just a question viewers are invited to consider on their own. As previously mentioned, it is no accident that the scene starts with a long shot that brings the two characters in a witness-less situation, and ends on Lincoln standing alone in a long shot after Keckley’s departure and final question. Structurally, the fact that the scene is framed by similar long shots endows the conversation with an ephemeral and distanced quality. And yet the use of light in this scene, and in the others involving Keckley, reveal Spielberg’s efforts and attempts to conjure up symbolic visual statements where the film’s script and central focus fail to truly address the issue. Thus, light, here, is used to build a temporary symbolic visibility to these black female abolitionist characters to compensate for the historical invisibility in which they are framed by the film’s narrative. After all, the film is about Lincoln. So before “an extraordinary movie out of the life of Elizabeth Keckley” is made, as Tony Kushner put it in 2013 (Itzkovitz 93), she is only central-staged in a two-minute and a half scene in a two-hour and a half movie.

Conclusion

60Criticisms of Spielberg’s thematic treatment of race-related issues in these two films are understandable, considering the number of films on slavery, or rather considering the number of films centering on black history by Hollywood filmmakers like Spielberg. The Color Purple’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s womanist discourse is toned down because of the filmmaker’s impulse to conclude the film on a complete family reunion for the sake of his audiences’ pleasurable viewing experience of film images. In spite of this major pitfall, Spielberg daringly uses light to temporarily question his audiences’ construction of stereotypes through film. Similarly, Lincoln’s treatment of Elizabeth Keckley as a historical and abolitionist figure is abysmal. And yet the lighting gives her character a moment of visibility. In both films, if dialogues and camera angles tend to reinforce the hierarchy between characters of different races—condemned in The Color Purple, condoned in Lincoln—light allows Spielberg to (too) briefly refer to race and gender relations in his mainstream films. Yet in both The Color Purple and Lincoln, Spielberg’s discourse on black femininity is so anecdotal in the films’ overall project that it is trapped within a temporary aesthetics the filmmaker has not accustomed his mainstream audiences to. If these references are meant to challenge his mainstream audiences’ filmic memory (in The Color Purple) or question their historical memory (in Lincoln), if they illustrate the filmmaker’s “fantasy of multiculturalism,” his “multiculturalist pedagogy” and “interest in educating the present and future citizens of a multicultural America” (Capino 183, 187), they do not resist his ultimate desire to satisfy the pleasures of a comfortable cinematic experience. The “aesthetic politics of filming black skin” is evolving because of technological changes and because of a better understanding of the flaws of a technology originally tailored for white skin. Spielberg’s films on black issues show that, even before the technology had reached its contemporary performances, as illustrated in the films mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, filmmakers and cinematographers had tried to use it so as to create visual equality on screen. However, it is with their own conscious or unconscious biases—and very likely their targeted audiences’ in mind—that these filmmakers must come to terms with, so as to articulate their aesthetic and political discourses, not just temporarily but throughout the entire films.

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Notes

1 Sean Bobbitt for 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013); Andrew Dunn for The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013); Anastas N. Michos for Jumping the Broom (Salim Akil, 2011), Baggage Claim (David E. Talbert, 2013) and Black Nativity (Kasi Lemmons, 2013); Rachel Morrison for Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013); Daniel Patterson for Newlyweeds (Shaka King, 2013) and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee, 2015); Bradford Young for Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu, 2013) and Ain’t them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013).

2 Even today, in the age of digital cinema, “[one] issue frequently encountered in cinematography is the contrast difference between dark-skinned and light-skinned actors in the same shot” (Stump 336).

3 Richard Dyer (1996) has demonstrated how the light in The Birth of a Nation also endorsed the aesthetic privilege of whiteness.

4 However, Tad studies another photograph before the film focuses on the confrontation between Lincoln and his other son, and before Keckley’s swift reference to her life as a slave. Using the light of a candle, Tad lifts the glass negative of a black woman’s calling card that could be Keckley [48:07].

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie trapped by the harmless black men.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/5203/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 175k
Titre Fig. 2 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie’s face in semi-shadow because of her hat.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/5203/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k
Titre Fig. 3 — The Color Purple: Miss Millie’s disapproving face now fully lit.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/5203/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k
Titre Fig. 4 — Lincoln: the high-angle shot and lighting turn Lincoln into a mythical figure, recalling the Lincoln Memorial.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/5203/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Fig. 5 Lincoln: Lincoln says to Keckley: “I assume I’ll get used to you.”
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/5203/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulm/docannexe/image/5203/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 114k

Auteur

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès.

Hélène Charlery is an Associate Professor of Americam Studies at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès. Her research focuses on the history of African American feminism and the representation of black women in contemporary American film.

© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2018

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