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'Lincoln,' Texas, and the Oscars: Why getting history right matters

Most filmgoers will see the 'Lincoln' film, nominated for 12 Academy Awards, as biographical. Public opinion is shaped by portrayals like this, so its factual errors can't be discounted. I’ve seen first-hand the problems with a popular historical narrative that doesn’t get the story right.

By Beatriz Gonzalez / February 22, 2013

Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis appear in a scene from 'Lincoln,' which is nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Op-ed contributor Beatriz Gonzalez says that screenwriter Tony Kushner should understand 'that our narration of history is incorporated into who we are, whether it is in a textbook or in an Oscar-nominated film. He should know how important it is to get that history right.'

David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/AP

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Iowa City, Iowa

One of my favorite films of 2012 was “Lincoln” and this Sunday, we’ll see if Stephen Spielberg’s epic film biography of our sixteenth president will win any of the 12 Academy Awards for which it’s been nominated.

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The film follows President Abraham Lincoln’s seemingly impossible struggle to abolish slavery and is powerful in part thanks to actor Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in recreating Lincoln’s most controversial speeches during his last months (he’s nominated for the Best Actor Oscar).

Yet not everyone is content with the film. Rep. Joe Courtney (D) of Connecticut recently called attention to a historical inaccuracy in the film, which shows two of three lawmakers from his state voting against the Thirteenth Amendment that prohibits slavery. In reality, all four representatives from Connecticut voted in favor of the amendment.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, acknowledged the inaccuracies and explained the 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.”

This last statement is disconcerting. It is true that the vote was so close, the stakes so high, and the outcome so important that it would change the course of history, but should accuracy be set aside for the sake of drama? Like all good films, “Lincoln” had its tragic hero and antagonists. But the film is based on a biography of a real president, and the antagonists were real people. And the film is billed as – and most viewers will see it as – historically valid.

Public opinion is shaped through popular portrayals like this, and most filmgoers will accept the “Lincoln” drama as realistic biography. So its factual shortcomings should not be discounted. I’ve seen first-hand the problems that arise from a popular historical narrative that doesn’t get the story fully right.

When I was in elementary school in San Antonio, I experienced, without realizing it, a filter on my history and my heroes. Just about every year, at the beginning of March, we celebrated the Independence of Texas at my predominantly Latino school. We all read about the heroes of the Alamo, James Bowie and Davy Crockett, with his famous coonskin cap. If we were lucky, we got to wear a replica of his hat and his gun “ol’ Betsy,” and look just like our hero.

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