Remember This House, and These Men: Abraham Lincoln (Young Mr. Lincoln), Barack Obama (Southside with You), and the Refusal of Reconciliation

by Daniel Garrett Volume 21, Issue 6 / June 2017 33 minutes (8059 words)

Part One: Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) and Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Human experience is, in some ways, ambiguous and complex, and in other ways definite and limited, as well as personal and public, encompassing birth, growth, solitude, play, family, friendship, school, temple, law, love, work and taxes, amid a variety of social situations and civic participation, and political competition and conflict, and even war and, certainly, death. Much depends on what is known and made of those facts, whether one has great power or little. Abraham Lincoln was a man of his country and of his time, heroic and tragic, moral and practical, funny and wise—exceptional and ordinary. Abraham Lincoln would be haunted by death—the death of his mother when he was a boy, the death of a beloved fiancée, the death of a child, and the death of men fallen in battle. John Ford’s black-and-white celluloid film of Abraham Lincoln’s early life, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), with a screenplay by Lamar Trotti, makes fascinating viewing, as it helps anyone who cares to get a glimpse of what the man might have been like when he was young and beginning his admirable career. The narrative can be elliptical but the scenes are suggestive, illustrating possibilities and problems, and the personality and principles with which Lincoln would face them throughout his life. The motion picture begins with a poem written by Rosemary Benet, from the perspective of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks, about the life and destiny of her son Abe; and following that is a scene featuring a man denouncing Andrew Jackson from a porch, then—preceded by a cello playing—a short speech from Lincoln (Henry Fonda), lacking pretension, accompanied by light music. An impoverished but friendly traveling illiterate family offers books in exchange for supplies—and Lincoln (Fonda) reads the books, including books of law regarding rights attached to people and property. Lincoln walks in the country—beneath trees, between moving water and a fence—with Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), the capable, smart, and pretty young woman he loves, and she talks about Abe’s good mind and ambition despite his humble claims: she believes he will refuse to be reconciled to mediocrity and obscurity. Soon heavy music composed by Alfred Newman attends Abe as he alone walks over snow near a half-frozen river to put a few flowers over Ann’s grave—and Abe speaks with her about his future, about whether to pursue law. The dead girl who believed in him is part of his conscience—and Lincoln becomes a lawyer and a leader.

Abraham Lincoln, with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is one of the American presidents of popular legend. Whereas someone like John Kennedy may have had more glamour than genuine achievement, Lincoln’s character and legacy have passed the tests of history and historians. The Kentucky log cabin born Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865), a longtime resident of Illinois, a lover of literature and humor, a volunteer soldier, a lawyer, a state legislator, and a member of Congress as a representative, and an orator as well as a debater, Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States, beginning his term in 1861. Lincoln defeated Stephen Douglas, who had won, previously, a Senate campaign against Lincoln. As president Abraham Lincoln would promote both agriculture and manufacturing, but that is not what he is known for. Southern states seceded from the Union, refusing federal law and refusing to recognize the humanity of the enslaved, refusing to give up the advantage of free labor—and seceding, they called themselves the Confederate States of America—and fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, beginning the civil war that would last until 1865: Lincoln wanted to hold the Union together, wanting reconciliation, but as the war continued Lincoln became determined to free the enslaved. The thirteenth amendment, outlawing slavery, was passed in the Senate in 1864 and passed in the House of Representatives in 1865. Abraham Lincoln, elected for a second term in 1864, was assassinated April 14, 1865 in Ford’s Theatre in Washington by an actor of racist impulse and murderous rage, John Wilkes Booth. (The conspiracy to murder President Lincoln was explored in Adrian Moat’s 2012 film Killing Lincoln, which premiered February 2013 on the National Geographic channel and was released on digital video in June 2013.) Lincoln was mourned, and mourned profoundly; and some people still think him the greatest man to live as president in the White House, the executive mansion, which was built of Virginia sandstone in 1800: the presidential residence was the town of Washington’s first public building, enabled by an act approved by President George Washington, who had lived in New York and Mount Vernon, and it was designed by architect James Hoban. The British attempted burning the mansion down in the war of 1812, damaging the interior and blackening the exterior—which was then painted white, thereby giving the residence the name by which it is widely known, the White House; and extensions and renovations have been made by subsequent presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy. To this day, a bedroom in the executive mansion bears Lincoln’s name. Remember this house.

Abraham Lincoln, like poet Walt Whitman, has been defined as a quintessential American: confident, dissenting, able, ambitious, determined, judicious, virtuous; as ordinary and exceptional, as an exemplary man of a democratic nation: “Lincoln and Whitman respect the people too much to want to flatter them. They agree that democracy—to remedy evils which it has itself brought into being—requires a self-respect more thoroughgoing than can be found in any other system of manners. The maintenance of democracy will be a task different in kind than its founding,” wrote essayist David Bromwich in “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” in his book Moral Imagination (Princeton University Press, 2014; page 97). Lincoln, like Whitman, saw the limits of others, judged them accurately, but accepted and affirmed the best in them: elemental qualities of strength and virtue; and each man hoped and worked for the improvement of others, leading by example of character and the imaginative content of their speech. Whereas Thomas Jefferson and Henry James were cosmopolitan, men of ornamental transformations, Lincoln and Whitman had the common touch. Remember these men.

The leaders of a country are expected to embody the principles and practices of that country, but countries are full of contentions (commerce versus culture, intellect versus sentimentality); thus, a leader is likely to be in himself a form of reconciliation (if not conflict); but, sometimes, a leader is a form of reconciliation that is not accepted by all. That last fact is almost always a surprise, although a predictable one. Most of the presidents we think of as great or even good were trailed by controversies having to do with business, class, race, religion, gender, sexuality or some other significant matter, such as international conflict or war. Of course, the creation of nations can be as much a result of accident as intention or contention—and, inevitably, nations contain diverse persons with differing aims. Christopher Columbus, sailing for Spain, was looking for India, when he found what became America; and I do not recall what England’s John Cabot, Italy’s Giovanni da Verrazano, or France’s Jacques Cartier were looking for: new territories to conquer? Nations, like great fortunes, often begin with great crimes. The swindle or theft of land from its first peoples, the Algonquin, Apache, Cayugas, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Iroquois, Mohawks, Oneidas, Senecas and other tribes, is one of America’s original crimes, with the enslavement of Africans a very close second. Jamestown was founded in 1607, a company town with power over the civic assembly, a typical bond of money and power; and tobacco farming commenced, using enslaved Africans. A pioneering people who sought their own freedom, freedom of religion and freedom to pursue prosperity, took the freedom of others: circles within circles of liberty and restriction. England asserted colonial authority; and other nations claimed territory too. The Mayflower compact of 1620 laid a foundation for democratic government, and the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay colony laid a foundation for the growth of society. However, trade prohibition alienated the early colonists from the English crown, as would other regulations and taxation, fomenting rebellion; and the colonies would declare their independence—and the country would contain its contradictions. The men elected as president of the United States of America, although not kings, have wielded great power; and it remains important to remember them, and what they did, why, and how. History works through them, and much of the future comes through them: they set standards, shaping society.

John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln

In John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Abraham Lincoln speaks to Ann Rutledge in her grave, and confirms his inclination to become a lawyer—and we soon see him mediating with a casual wit a dispute between two arguing men before attending an Independence Day parade (there are still veterans of the 1776 revolution alive to march or ride in the parade). There, Lincoln is shown to meet Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver); and he judges a pie contest, the poor bachelor taking pleasure in tasting the apple and peach pies, then he wins a rail-splitting contest before engaging in a little cheating for a group tug-of-war. Such a portrait of the man is warm, easy to like.

The wagon-traveling family, the Clay family, that gave Lincoln books in trade for supplies is harassed by local men—the Clay women flirted with and the Clay men, a couple of brothers, are taunted—and there is a fight, and, subsequently, one of the local men is killed. The Clay brothers are arrested for the murder, with Abe Lincoln intervening in what might have been a lynching by an angry, drunken mob. I thought it was the sheriff who was afraid to represent the law before such a group, taking off his badge; but a report I read said it was a new deputy. Abe Lincoln, speaking for common decency and against violence, agrees to represent the accused brothers in their court trial; and Lincoln jokes about the professional opportunity the trial represents for him and the prospect of losing clients to the mob. Henry Fonda conveys the integrity—the candor, honesty, intelligence, and wit—we believe Lincoln to have; and he is photographed at times to suggest the images that lie in our memories. The motion picture was admired by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein; although the Cahiers du Cinema critics, very strangely, thought it an embodiment of capitalist ideology and sexual repression.

Abraham Lincoln attends a ball, where Mary Todd is, beautifully dressed; and she approaches him—and he says he would like to dance with her in the worst way, and after they have danced, she agrees it was the worst way. On the balcony together, they look at nature. Honesty, humor, nature—it seems they may share affinities, a valued find for a strange man who mixes intellect, purpose, and wit, and rides a donkey and plays a Jews’ harp or mouth organ (not actually connected to Judaism; possibly connected to an old English word gewgaw), emitting a music that seems experimental even now.

Abe Lincoln cuts wood for the illiterate, good but troubled family that gave him books, the Clays, and the family is settling down to make a life, and also worried about defending its young men, the brothers accused of murder, in court. The father of the family died, killed by an Indian, a Native American, after the family moved there, Lincoln learns. The young lawyer remembers his own family and talks about the impact of slave labor on white workers—less work, less pay. (Here, then, cited although briefly, are haunted aspects of the American experience: the contested positions of Native Americans and of Africans in America.) Lincoln asks the mother which of her sons killed Scrub White (Fred Kohler Jr.); and she declares that she cannot say. He, the lawyer, seems to want to know whom to save. The court is simple, with the selection of the jury a parade of characters—and the prosecutor, a small bald man with a cane, is both flowery and harshly jeering. Abe Lincoln is folksy and joking but logical in court, ingratiating and shrewd. The judge arrives at the meaning of jokes after others do, and falls asleep in court. American law and justice seem rudimentary. Lincoln describes the mother of the accused brothers, Abigail Clay, as one of the women who say little but do much, who asks little but give all (the actress playing her is good: Alice Brady). Lincoln uses the Farmer’s Almanac for details about the availability of moonlight on the night of the murder to disprove testimony given by Palmer Cass (Ward Bond), an associate of the murdered man, testifying against the brothers. Lincoln’s defense is successful; and Mary Todd congratulates him, the crowd applauds him, and Lincoln says goodbye to the freed brothers and their relieved and grateful family, continuing his own walk into history, as the John Ford film ends: the film gives us, its viewers, a sense of the kind of man Lincoln was, but he has, still, the mystery of personality. We do not know why he was driven to be good or great—he could have been a man of power or success without having admirable qualities. Principle was real, rather than merely ideal, to him.

During his failed 1858 Senate campaign against Democrat Stephen Douglas, the Republican Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig party member, had given a speech in which he said that he, Lincoln, expected the country to decide for or against slavery but not both: that it would be no longer a house divided (Douglas argued that states should be able to decide for themselves; and, although Lincoln would win the popular vote, the final decision for selection of senators was made by the Illinois state legislature, which chose Douglas). Stephen Douglas and Lincoln ran against each other again for the nation’s highest office, with Lincoln winning an electoral college majority and forty percent of the popular vote in a four-way race that included John Breckinridge, a Democrat, and John Bell, a Constitutional Union party candidate, as well, though Lincoln’s name did not appear on all ballots. Before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, seven southern states announced their secession, intending to form a separate nation, a confederacy; and at his 1861 inauguration Lincoln argued against the right of secession and, while saying he had no desire to end slavery in southern states, Lincoln asserted the applicability of federal law in all the states. Southern states fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, beginning the civil war, but Lincoln proved a very capable commander, growing the nation’s army and navy to fight the greedy, selfish, slave-holding traitors. As the civil war was fought, Lincoln, who had thought the Union would have to be for or against slavery, was challenged by Republican party abolitionists and decided to free the enslaved Africans and the Negroes born in America bondage: Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, following a summer military victory, in November 1863: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln began, acknowledging that the civil war was testing the nation’s principles and endurance, as he dedicated a memorial for dead soldiers, a cemetery, in the place of a decisive battle in which they had fought and died, declaring that the living must continue the work of the dead, the cause of freedom, and the continuing existence of the nation. Yet Abraham Lincoln, who would be one of the most revered presidents, was controversial—members of his own party wanted to run another candidate for president in 1864, but Lincoln, while getting a small majority of the popular vote, won a second term with an electoral college win against General George Brinton McClellan, a Democrat, of 212 to 21 votes. Abraham Lincoln asked the nation to seek peace and healing rather than vengeance—to “bind up the nation’s wounds”—in his second inaugural speech in 1865. Robert Edward Lee, the general of the rebels, surrendered to Ulysses Grant, the Union general, on April 9, 1865 at the Appomattox courthouse.

John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012), written by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and partly inspired by a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln), opens with a battle between Negro Union soldiers and rebel soldiers, demonstrating blacks fighting for their own freedom (there were more than 100,000 black soldiers, whom Abraham Lincoln considered essential); and the film provides a portrait of Abraham Lincoln not as a novice but as a great man, showing us some of the last months of his time in office, as he tries to win the war and get anti-slavery legislation passed, the thirteenth amendment. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) speaks with two black soldiers (David Oyelowo as Corporal Ira Clark and Colman Domingo as Private Harold Green), with one soldier noting the lack of equality in the military, before two white soldiers arrive to speak with Lincoln—it is the complaining black soldier Clark who remembers best Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”—dissent as the essence of democracy—and recites lines from it. Abraham Lincoln, four years into the civil war and two months after his re-election, tells his wife about a dream he had, which she interprets as being about the anti-slavery amendment—and, upon seeing Mary Todd Lincoln, her colored dressmaker intuits Lincoln has told Mary a dream. With terrific comprehension, Tony Kushner’s screenplay and Spielberg’s direction creates a complexity of thought and feeling, of different people moving with and against each other.

Are men born free? Are Africans men? Slavery is a question, a conundrum, to which different answers are given. The African-American philosopher Alexander Crummell (1819 – 1898), a philosopher of language and history, reason and morality, had been an advocate of natural rights, rather than of rights accruing to color or circumstance; and Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest, a college lecturer, and the author of The Future of Africa (1862) and Africa and America (1891), as well as an abolitionist, was of a long line of men and women, of activists, intellectuals, and artists, who have given testimony to African-American humanity, but neither Crummell nor Frederick Douglass (1817 – 1895) can be seen or heard in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), although there serving Lincoln and his wife Mary in the White House are two free and respected Negroes, a butler and a dressmaker (Stephen McKinley Henderson as William Slade and Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley; and it has been noted that the historical Slade was an activist who researched Negro life on behalf of social change and Keckley raised money for fugitives, activities not shown in the film). An old white couple visit Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) about a property dispute, and they say they support the anti-slavery amendment as a way to end the civil war but would prefer blacks not to be free to compete for work or property. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln listens, his countenance dark, wrinkled, and canny, as described by Walt Whitman. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln has authority and assumes others will listen to him, even when he tells bad jokes and long stories, as well as when he gives commands about legislation or military strategy. The young Lincoln did not hold power, but the older Lincoln does.

The conservative Republicans, led by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), want President Lincoln to negotiate peace with the rebellious southern states, while Lincoln and his military plan attacks on Wilmington and Richmond. Lincoln speaks of his assumption of war powers, and the legal issues regarding human beings as citizens and as property. (Lincoln, elected to defend the Constitution, and execute the nation’s laws, the leading bureaucrat and the military commander, would have to be aware of his own legal conundrums.) Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad, a bright boy, admires soldiers and looks at photographs of the enslaved, at evidence of their torture, which torment him; and the young Tad is shown reading with a pipe in his mouth, a touch of visual humor, when a House of Representatives leader comes to speak to Abraham Lincoln about introducing the anti-slavery amendment. Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the Ways and Means committee chair and an abolitionist, who had helped to finance the Union war expenditures and has argued for schools, property, and voting rights for Negro freedmen, meets with fellow Republican radicals, who have doubts about the president, and Stevens says that Lincoln can be surprising. Meanwhile another official, the secretary of state William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), hires men to corral Democratic party votes, though Seward does not want the effort connected to the president, a campaign of necessity and low comedy (a drink thrown in a face, an awkwardly attempted shooting). There are rowdy congressional discussions—with one representative, Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a New York Democrat sympathizing with the southern states, calling Lincoln a tyrant.

Spielberg’s Lincoln

Preston Blair (Holbrook) returns with news that a delegation from the confederate states is coming to discuss a possible peace, something that disturbs the secretary of state William Seward, who thinks news of a negotiation could sabotage the passage of the thirteenth amendment. General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), meeting with the delegation, will insist on terms of surrender rather than an offered peace between warring nations, as there is one nation with rebels. President Lincoln insists on the reconciliation of the country: Lincoln wanted reunion and reconstruction: and while Lincoln would win the war, there would be decade after decade after decade of resistance to, and sabotage of, the envisioned reconstruction, with segregation of the freed minority population and negative discrimination, withholding fair access to education, employment, housing, health care, protection of law, safety, and other opportunities and resources. The irony is that to keep the Negro down, the southern states had to restrict their own progress (provisions that would help both poor whites and blacks were not accepted as they would help blacks). Why? The black male had been not merely servant and slave, but scapegoat and sacrificial lamb: his low place confirmed the high value of whites; and his death was a repudiation of evil, a bonding ritual for whites. The black male had a spiritual as well as economic and social value, a value possessed not by himself but by others. The southern secession had been one refusal of reconciliation, the war another, and the decades that followed, despite the work of abolitionists and civil rights activists of African and European descent, more refusal; and later, after the passage of civil rights legislation and attempts at social integration, the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama for president would reveal both admiration and the suspicion that still followed African-American men, even one whose character, experience, education, and career brought forth the most excellent of men. Barack Obama himself screened Lincoln at the White House, and when asked about Abraham Lincoln, Obama said, “Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the higher ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you also engage and get your hands dirty. And there are trade-offs, and there are compromises. And what made him such a remarkable individual, as well as a remarkable President, was his capacity to balance the idea that there are some eternal truths with the fact that we live in the here and now, and the here and now is messy and difficult. And anything we do is going to be somewhat imperfect. And so what we try to do is just tack in the right direction” (“Setting the Stage for a Second Term,” Time magazine, December 31, 2012 / January 7, 2013).

Barack Obama admired Abraham Lincoln as a writer, a speaker, and a politician, recognizing Lincoln’s evolution and the role of writing in Lincoln’s reflections; and Obama told Time magazine, “How does he think about slavery? How does he think about Union? How does he think about the Constitution? How does he think about the role of popular opinion? The Lincoln who is a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, isn’t the same Lincoln as the one who addresses Gettysburg. They’re different people” (December 31, 2012 / January 7, 2013). In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a work of history and drama, of choice and consequence, Abraham Lincoln is leader and husband and father, and his son Robbie (Joseph Gordon Levitt) argues with him about joining the army: Robbie wants to join and his father forbids it. Abraham and Mary have lost a son, Willie, not long before, which Mary (Sally Field) remembers with guilt and sorrow—she is a strong woman of wild passions (he threatens her with the madhouse), and she is both pleasant and tough as hostess at a party given as part of Lincoln’s campaign for votes. Mary (Field) is pointed with Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), noting the decrepit state of the White House when she and her husband arrived and the cost of restoring it, and comparing his lesser popularity to that of her husband; but Stevens tells Abraham Lincoln that Stevens was elected to lead, and does lead, and that Lincoln should try that, noting the ossification of the moral compass of white people. Lincoln does work at all hours, keeping his assistants awake, but he delays the arrival of the southern delegation to the nation’s capital; and he himself begins to ask congressional representatives for their votes—and when the House vote is held, the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery is passed. Abraham Lincoln and his team of rivals and their congressional colleagues had won a victory for the nation. Walt Whitman had said that Abraham Lincoln’s portrait would require the talents of Plutarch, Aeschylus, Michelangelo, and Rabelais; and Lincoln has inspired writers from Whitman and Carl Sandburg to Gore Vidal and George Saunders, but Lincoln may have found ideal portraitists in John Ford and Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg’s Lincoln

Part Two: Barry (Vikram Gandhi, 2016), Southside with You (Richard Tanne, 2016), and Barack Obama (Biography channel, 2008)

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” said Barack Hussein Obama on January 20, 2009, addressing the nation from a public podium in Washington, the District of Columbia, on the day of his first inauguration as the forty-fourth president of the United States. Barack Obama, who would be elected twice as president, leaving the office on a wave of approval and popularity despite differing assessments of his accomplishment, stated, “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor—who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.” Who was this man who had articulated a persuasive promise of hope and change, yet whose character and policies were resisted by some people? Barack Hussein Obama was a child of America and of Africa, a resident of Asia, a lover of literature, music, and film, a basketball player, a New Yorker, a Chicagoan, a community activist, a lawyer and lecturer, a state legislator, a senator in the United States Congress. Was he too cool, too intellectual? Was he a secret radical, a secret conservative? Was he too black, not black enough? Was he this and not that, blah, blah, blah? What would he do as president? Barack Obama, at his first inauguration said, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. When the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. When the answer is no, programs will end.” It was an assertion of competence as well as compassion—of American pragmatism. It was an assertion of American principles and will.

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of the earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of cold war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself, and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace,” the new president said. In his first term in office, Barack Obama would sign the most significant reform of the American finance world since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, the Dodd-Frank Act, as well as the stimulus plan that helped restore the economy, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; and Obama, intellectual, humane, eloquent, would work with international allies on shared concerns and problems, and he and his administration eliminated well-funded terrorist leaders as threats, and helped to salvage the auto industry, signed an equal pay act for women workers, extended federal benefits for same-sex partners, increased minority access to investment capital and supported settlements for disadvantaged black farmers, developed programs in clean energy technologies for displaced workers, instituted more rigorous consumer protections, created artists corps for public schools and increased arts funding. Several photoplays suggest the beginning path of Barack Obama: Barry (2016), written by Adam Mansbach and directed by Vikram Gandhi; and Southside with You (2016), written and directed by Richard Tanne.

Barry is what Barack Hussein Obama is called by his friends when he is a Columbia University transfer student of twenty, living in New York’s Morningside Heights, a halting, intelligent, solitary yet sociable biracial boy-man in the city of the brash, combative, wily Edward Koch in Reagan’s America. Devon Terrell, an Australian actor, as Barry is attractive, reticent, skeptical, a political science student learning history while moving through currents of singular beauty, power, and danger in Vikram Gandhi’s anecdotal film Barry (2016). What is left of the civil rights movement? What will be the effects of a resurgent conservatism on the lives of workers, and the poor? Will Barry give in to the lassitude of despair, doubt, and drugs? Will Barry be seduced by white girls and the possibility of a comfortable life? The film is about indecision and promise—which is to say, one man’s youth.

Richard Tanne’s film feature Southside with You (2016) is a small film, intelligent and sweet, admiring but honest, about the young Barack Obama in Chicago and his first date with lawyer Michelle Robinson, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, who at first denies it is a date, as she prepares to go out with him to a community meeting. He is a Harvard student working as a summer associate at the firm where she works. Barack relaxes, reading, taking a call from his grandmother, before his date; and he arrives at Michelle’s house a little late, in an old car, Janet Jackson on the radio (“Miss You Much”). Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) discuss law office work—the grunt work that young lawyers do, the disregard for the views of junior associates. She thinks it is inappropriate for colleagues to date, especially when she is his supervisor, thinking further involvement would ratify negative assumptions regarding gender and race. Yet, with a little time to spare before the community meeting, they attend an Ernie Barnes art exhibit, at which Barack recites a Gwendolyn Brooks poem (“We Real Cool”).

Southside with You

Barack and Michelle are two intelligent people, and the Richard Tanne film presents their personalities, and their ambitions, and indicates their awareness of how others might try to limit them. The shrewd Michelle’s diction is precise, firm, a little tense; and she speaks of early training in piano and French, part of her family’s commitment to education, self-improvement, and mobility. He smokes, tries to hide it—and she insists on sharing the cost of lunch. Parker Sawyers captures Barack’s confidence, and measured analytical speech, and wit; and Tika Sumpter distills Michelle’s wary awareness, her dignity, earthy strength, and surprising warmth. They talk about childhood—and he smokes when he talks about his father, whose life he sees as incomplete. Michelle talks about the dichotomy between white and black social scenes; and Barack speculates that she is frustrated with the lack of social purpose in her work, trademark law. She finds his criticality—considering Barack is at the same firm as a summer associate—hypocritical, creating tense moments between the two.

The community meeting, at which Barack Obama is greeted warmly, respected, and given a platform to speak, compels her to take a second look: people are happy and proud to see him (he confirms their value, they confirm his). Barack gives a good speech, and offers advice when people assert the difficulties of getting a community center: Barack sees both sides, that of the establishment and of the community, arguing that the community must identify what assets and benefits its members are bringing to the negotiation table and how to appeal to the establishment’s self-interest. (Obama’s intellectual and political education and strategies were discussed by James T. Kloppenberg in his 2011 Princeton University Press book Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition.) Barack’s perspective is one of reconciliation. Michelle, after the meeting, notes how smart it was to bring her somewhere that would frame him well—and she admits that she has been struggling with herself about the law firm, something she was not fully conscious of until he brought it up. They discuss, over drinks, Steve Wonder’s music album Talking Book (Michelle’s favorite) versus Wonder’s Innervisions (Barack’s), before seeing Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). Michelle advises Barack to forgive his father, to become reconciled with the ancestral memory, so Barack can be free to become himself, becoming better than his father; but she is vexed when they see work colleagues at the Spike Lee film, thinking assumptions about their being together will work against her—and she holds on to her objection, her anger, and he attempts to soothe her, seeking reconciliation. As with John Ford’s Young Mr. _Lincoln__, the film _Southside with You suggests the promise of someone who would go on to be a significant American president.

Does it really matter who becomes president? What can—and cannot—a president do? Among the men who had preceded Barack Hussein Obama as president were George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George Herbert Walker Bush. Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), a reader and writer, a landowner and farmer, a diplomat and politician, contributed to both the culture and politics of the country, but his skepticism of manufacturing and urbanity, his ferocity when opposed, and his intimate relation with enslavement despite his advocacy of freedom have made him a subject of enduring criticism as well as profound respect. The Virginia-born Jefferson, a libertarian and a member of the defunct Democratic-Republican party, was an advocate of liberty, public education, and the separation of church and state; the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson as president enlarged the size of the country with purchase of the Louisiana territory. Ulysses Grant (1822 – 1885) has been considered a great military general but a weak Republican president (and, apparently, the S. that Hiram Ulysses Grant put at the center of his name was an affectation, standing for nothing—though his mother’s maiden name was Simpson). Theodore Roosevelt had been a frail boy who grew into a strong, adventurous man of some innovative and progressive views, and was known, as well, for his enthusiasm for war, a fact that has led some commentators to think of him as a madman. Theodore, or Teddy, Roosevelt (1858 – 1919), had been a writer on war, and a Republican New York state assemblyman, a cattle rancher, an assistant secretary of the nation’s navy, a Spanish-American war volunteer (of the Rough Riders), and a New York governor, before becoming vice-president, then president, at which time he worked to regulate industrial monopolies and acted to protect the environment and increase food and drug safety. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, two Democrats, are both known for social programs that helped the young and the old, the disadvantaged and the poor—and Lyndon Johnson (1908 – 1973) is known for his candor and toughness and shrewd mastery of legislation, but chagrin follows awareness of his manners and he is condemned still for his participation in the war against Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson was a high school teacher before he became a member of Congress as first a representative then a senator; and after being a powerless vice-president, Johnson became president and promoted education and civil rights and fought poverty. (His failure to run for a second term, arguably, made possible the election of Richard Nixon.) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) is one of the men sometimes called the greatest American president—possibly rivaled only by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Roosevelt, an aristocrat and a Democrat, rescued the country from the great depression of the early twentieth-century and was elected to four terms as the country’s chief executive: he was probably the most respected official resident of the White House of the twentieth century. Franklin Roosevelt had been a New York state senator, an assistant secretary of the American navy, a New York governor, and a vice president before winning the highest office; and once president Franklin Roosevelt with his administration created government work programs, advocated labor unions, supported limits on industrial monopolies, provided old age pensions and unemployment compensation, and supported the arts and protected the environment, while sometimes facing opposition from Congress, the Supreme Court, large businesses, and even his own party. Roosevelt worked with Churchill to defeat Hitler (and, following Albert Einstein, made possible the development of the atom bomb). The great documentarian Ken Burns devoted himself to a multi-part audiovisual series on the Roosevelts, a great family—principally on Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt—and The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) is a very special work, full of facts and ideas, full of political and professional history, an admirable and instructive history that exorcises the distractions and destructions of a public realm now given at best to petition and protest and at worst to sensation and scandal, to the trite and trivial. The glamour that attends artists and entertainers or even activists or intellectuals, cannot compare with what a man or woman of principle and power, with the resources of government, can do. Such a perception, no doubt, encouraged Barack Obama, a community organizer, a lawyer and lecturer, to enter electoral politics, and to think of the White House, to run for president. Remember this house, and these men.

Barack Hussein Obama entered the White House with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha. Barack Obama, who had reconciled his divergent heritage, would attempt to reconcile the country, to renew its dedication to first principles while pursuing progress. On the day of his first inauguration as president, Barack Hussein Obama had said, “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levee breaks, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.” Barack Obama had arrived at that day after a long, challenging political campaign, against a large slate of Democratic party candidates, then against Hillary Clinton, and finally against Republican senator John McCain. Some of the campaign can be seen in a 2008 documentary on Barack Obama from the Biography channel, one that features interviews with friends and associates as well as some of the reporters who followed Obama’s career, such as Barack’s sister Maya Otero-Ng (her name has been given also as Soetoro-Ng), an educator and an expressive figure of both friendliness and force, and Marty Nesbitt, a friend of Barack, an attractive, soft-spoken professional, apparently a founder of an airport parking company, and Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell. The documentary recounts Barack’s 1988 visit to Kenya, his parents’ meeting and separation, and his mother’s second marriage and their life in Indonesia. Barack is sent by his mother back to Hawaii, from Indonesia, to live with her parents, his grandparents, when he is about ten, in 1971: he felt orphaned.

The Biography channel documentary presents facts that will become legend. Barack Obama went to a prep school in Hawaii, while his mother worked toward a master’s degree in anthropology. Barack had a meeting as a boy with his father, a judgmental man who gave him a basketball and African music, a man the boy does not feel close to, a distance that would be shadow and trouble. Barack tried to “act black” and indulged in stereotypes, rebelling; but, subsequently, he attended Columbia University in New York, where he was appropriately studious. Barack observed the racial divisions in the city; and his father died while Barack was in his early 20s. He would work in Chicago as a community activist on behalf of school reform and a job training center. He would meet his father’s family in Kenya, then Michelle Robinson at a Chicago law firm. Barack Obama became president (chief editor) of the Harvard Law Review, a prestigious post that comes with public attention; and one of his professors, Laurence Tribe, talks about Barack’s combination of gifts, intellect and charisma. Barack Obama then publishes a book summarizing his experiences and thoughts, and he lectures at the University of Chicago. His mother attends his marriage to Michelle Robinson, but dies before their children are born. Barack Obama becomes a state legislator in Illinois, as had Lincoln, but as a Democrat, and Obama is frustrated by Republican majority opposition; and he runs for Congress against Bobby Rush, and loses, yet Obama passes twenty pieces of legislation as part of the state senate. Barack Obama, at age forty-two, gives a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic party convention, affirming unity above discord; and he is, subsequently, elected to the United States Congress as a senator with more than seventy percent of the vote, the fifth black elected senator, and the highest black elected official in the country. Barack Obama would spend a short time in the Senate before being elected president of the nation.

Barack Obama acknowledged the difficulties of the financial crisis the country faced, a crisis his policies would help end, noted the courage and fortitude of the nation’s founding and the contributions by immigrants, the diversity of perspectives, and the role of the country as beacon of democracy; and he declared at his first inauguration, “Our challenges may be new. The instrument with which we must meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.” Who could deny the appeal of such admonitions? Who refuses to be reconciled to facts? Who would reject proposals for progress? Who would refuse the reconciliation of old conflicts? Sometimes we refuse reconciliation because of actual hurt to ourselves, or due to an exaggerated sense of hurt; and sometimes we refuse reconciliation out of principle, or out of a quest for power; and sometimes out of contempt, egotism, fear, indifference, or rage.


After he began to do his work as president, Barack Obama reduced American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and propelled health care reform. When Barack Obama’s first term was ending, he ran again for president against Mitt Romney, a Republican businessman and politician. The election could have gone against Obama—there were people who suffered from the lack of good jobs, the loss of status. Obama’s political opposition had been formidable, with Republican legislators set against cooperation, no matter the probable benefits; they were determined to frustrate and obstruct him, and were aided by a conservative media—particularly on television and radio—that distorted the facts and lied as a matter of regular course, fomenting hatred. Barack Obama’s personal cordiality was rebuffed: “In the fall of 2012, he organized a screening at the White House of Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. Spielberg, the cast, and the Democratic leadership found the time to come. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and three other Republicans declined their invitations, pleading the press of congressional business,” recounted David Remnick in the January 27, 2014 New Yorker magazine. Barack Obama argued that he was fighting on behalf of ordinary citizens, ready to collaborate with anyone with the same mission, something discussed by Jeffrey C. Alexander and Bernadette N. Jaworsky in their book Obama Power (Polity Press, 2014); and their Polity Press book makes a case for Obama as a persuasive interpreter of American history and current events. Yet African-American critics, public commentators such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, claimed Obama had not done enough for blacks (West was especially vicious), calling to mind past disagreements among black leaders about American culture and politics and the best strategies for Negroes, such as conflicts between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Little), something written about by Michael Eric Dyson (The Black Presidency). Barack Obama saw himself as the president of all Americans, and at his second inauguration, in January 2013, cited the nation’s founding commitment to the inalienable rights of citizens, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, declaring, “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” The president spoke of the economic recovery that had begun, and the importance of rewarding the effort and determination of every single American; and he said that the country could offer to the world the advocacy of tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice. During his second term, the president and his administration opened relations with Cuba and made a pact with Iran to contain that country’s nuclear weapons development; and, to protect citizens from violence Barack Obama worked to expand background checks for gun purchases; and he signed a Paris accord with almost two-hundred other nations to control greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change. Two books document his achievements: Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America by Jonathan Chait (HarperCollins, 2017); and A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama by Michael D’Antonio (Thomas Dunne Books/Macmillan, 2017). Many would be sad to see Barack Obama leave the White House. Knowing the example of men such as Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, how could one want less; how could one abandon intelligence and principle for impulse, selfish and mad? Remember this house, and these men. Of course, there are always people who refuse arguments for compassion, liberty, justice, and progress, people who refuse reconciliation. (DG, July 2017)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 21, Issue 6 / June 2017 Film Reviews   abraham lincoln   african american studies   barack obama   government policy   history on film   progressive politics   social change   steven spielberg   transcending race   transcending social barriers