‘This isn't usual, Mr. Pendleton, this is history’: Spielberg's Lincoln and the production of historical knowledge

This brief essay considers the ways that Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln produces historical knowledge. As many scholars have pointed out, there are details in the film that are not borne out by the historical record. A much more important critique, persuasively articulated by historian Kate Masur, takes issue not with isolated facts, but with overall interpretation. She argues that the film erases the work African Americans did to fight for their own freedom. The goal here is not to champion the film, but rather to use the space to examine the film's narrative and stylistic strategies, including affective engagement, for producing a certain kind of historical knowledge, and also to consider the political ramifications of this kind of knowledge. More specifically, this essay asserts that the film is written and structured in such a way as to register, in a completely unsentimental way, African American demands for equality and the stakes of those demands. Finally, by insisting that the fundamental goal of democracy is equality, the film brings into relief some of Jacques Rancière's contemporary ideas about what constitutes the political.