At a recent Petersburg, Va., screening of the film “Lincoln,” hosted by the Virginia Film Office and the City of Colonial Heights, I was curious to see how African-American characters close to the Lincoln family, would be portrayed. My concern was based on experience with historic films when Black characters were often minimized, stereotyped or left out altogether. In June 2011, I contacted the Virginia Film Office (VFO) to express my concern that Black characters be included, and with the assistance of a VFO executive, sent a letter to Steven Spielberg encouraging him to at least highlight a little known woman named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, who was confidante and friend to Mary Todd Lincoln. Much to my surprise, the Virginia Film Office emailed me a response, “…we did submit your request to Steven Spielberg and his team…it looks promising for Elizabeth Keckley to be included in the film.”
“Lincoln” is a powerful history lesson that focused on the Civil War leadership of President Abraham Lincoln, brilliantly portrayed by actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The film tells how President Lincoln skillfully maneuvered Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to permanently abolish slavery. And, while the film would have been enhanced by featuring the involvement of Abolitionist heroes like Frederick Douglass, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and Rev. Francis J. Grimke, I am glad that at least Keckley and a few other African-American characters were portrayed.
Actress Gloria Reuben does a sensitive portrayal of Keckley, a pioneering dressmaker extraordinaire and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field. Reuben captures the grace of Keckley, who was born into slavery in Dinwiddie, Va., and overcame brutality, humiliation, and sexual violence and somehow managed to purchase freedom for herself and her son. When, as a free woman, she relocated to Washington, D.C., Keckley opened a sewing business and designed gowns for wives of the most powerful men of the era. Her clients included Varina Davis, wife of then-Senator Jefferson Davis; Mary Custis Lee, wife of then Colonel Robert E. Lee, and many others. A compassionate woman, Keckley also established a re-settlement camp on the land where Howard University now stands, for Black people fleeing slavery.
Although her role is small, Keckley is shown as dignified, well-dressed and in direct conversation with President Lincoln about the plight of Black people. She is seen sitting next to Lincoln, in the balcony of the Congress, where she bears witness to major events in U.S. history, including debates between famous Abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, and his opponents as they fought over passage of the 13th Amendment. In my view, she is a symbol of the Black working middle-class.
The second little-known Black woman portrayed in the movie is Lydia Hamilton Smith, played by actress S. Epatha Merkerson, former star of Law and Order. For 25 years, Smith was the housekeeper and intimate companion of Senator Thaddeus Stevens, powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. She was also the senator’s business partner and managed his properties in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. And, amazingly for a woman of her era, Smith also owned property of her own, including a boarding house across the street from the Willard Hotel, in Washington, DC.
While I wish Spielberg had put emphasis on the critical contributions Black leaders made in the war to abolish slavery, I still commend him for including scenes with Black Civil War soldiers, Keckley, Smith and others in this highly personal movie profile about Abraham Lincoln. While there are many details missing about the fascinating Black characters in “Lincoln,” the void leaves opportunities for other producers. In closing, I wish to thank the Virginia Film Office for passing the concerns of a history buff to the Spielberg team.
Dr. Stephanie Myers is Vice President of R.J. Myers Publishing and Consulting; National Co-Chair of Black Women for Positive Change; and a Black history researcher and author. Her website is www.myerspublishing.com; email firstname.lastname@example.org