'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.

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

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.

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.

We learned how they freed Texas from the “savages” and how Stephen F. Austin made Texas a Republic, becoming the “father of Texas.” The celebration was sometimes choreographed with a play or a parade. Some children were fortunate to play the role of a Texas hero, while other, not-so fortunate children, were forced to play the role of the Mexican army. Someone has to play the bad guy, right?

I engraved in my being this history of Texas, and the more I learned this history, the more I believed I was an outsider, even though I was born and raised in San Antonio. My ethnicity and my Texas-born ancestors were not part of this Texas history, at least, not in a good way. I shared the likeness of the savages. I spoke their language and looked like them.

According to the narrative we learned in elementary school, the history of Texas began when the white man arrived. Crockett, the king of the frontier, is the stuff that Disney movies are made of. He was to be seen by us, Latino children, as the quintessential Texan, never mind the fact that he was from Tennessee and had only been in Texas for two months before he died at the hands of the Mexican army. Nothing much was said, or even remotely celebrated, about the Spanish and Mexican “Texians” who began the revolution, and who had lived in Texas for more than 300 years before the first white settlement in 1821.

As a child, the story of Erasmo Seguin – who was once mayor of San Antonio, wrote part of the Mexican Constitution, helped Stephen F. Austin colonize Texas, and later supplied the Texas army with the essentials for a revolt – was foreign to me. I should have known the story. Hearing it in school would have offered a more accurate reflection of the story of Texas. Instead, the name Seguin was just another county in Texas to me.

The stories of other Hispanic “heroes” who began the revolution were never a part of my education. Not until college did I realize 300 years of Texas history had been erased from my education. I learned to deconstruct this narration not because it affected how people perceived me, but because it was affecting how I perceived myself.

As I got older and more socially active I became more and more uncomfortable with the question, “Where are you from?” It’s a normal enough question that all strangers ask after being introduced. Naturally, I always respond, “San Antonio, Texas.” On many occasions that response is not enough for the inquirer. Many times the person will ask a second time with an additional statement usually referring to my parents or my ethnicity. On many occasions I get: “No, but where are you from?”

I then get into the uncomfortable position of having to explain who from my ancestry came from Mexico and whether I’m first-generation American or not. Traditional Texas history doesn’t emphasize Hispanic ties to this land. As a result, society treats all Hispanics as if they immigrated yesterday. I grew up accepting comments from others that I was not from Texas – that my ethnicity was not part of the fabric of Texas.

No doubt, Kushner, the director of the “Lincoln,” has had similar experiences of others questioning his background or identity. As a gay man and a Jew, his sense of place in the world has likely been shaped by the filters and histories he has encountered. He should understand, better than many, 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.

Beatriz Gonzalez is a second year law student at the University of Iowa College of Law.

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