Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) kissing Lydia Hamilton Smith (S.
Epatha Merkerson) in the movie Lincoln.
Stevens/Lincoln Movie Discussion
Randy Harris’s Piece:
In its October 30th presentation of Thaddeus Stevens videos, the Cemetery
Foundation intentionally excluded of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln
which includes the most recent and perhaps most well-known portrayal of
Thaddeus Stevens. Cemetery managers acknowledge the film’s overall fine
quality, which garnered many awards, including an Oscar for Best Actor by
Daniel Day Lewis in his depiction of the slain 16th President, but they say they
are concerned with key elements they describe as inauthentic, insensitive to
African Americans and historically misleading.
The reasons range from a minor aesthetic mistreatment by actor Tommy
Lee Jones in his Stevens portrayal, to another fault that, like others
commentators, questions the accuracy, lack of depth and sensitivity in the
depiction of the key, true-life African American historical characters, most
notably, Congressman Stevens’ confidante, Lydia Hamilton Smith.
On the aesthetic, as Tom Wiggins, the Lancaster star of the one man show,
Remarkable Radical: The Life and Times of Thaddeus Stevens notes in his
public presentations on his work: While Jones brought to contemporary
audiences a powerful and awareness-raising portrayal of Stevens, “he was a
New England Yankee and never would have had the Texas twang that Tommy
Lee gave him.”
But most importantly, according to the Cemetery Foundation, the film gives
nominal – even fleeting and perhaps spurious recognition of the actual
significant accomplishments of the African Americans portrayed as the close
associates of President Lincoln, his wife Mary, and Stevens.
Those characters are, respectively: William Slade, the president’s valet, who
also worked extensively on social issues in Washington, D.C. during this time;
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818 –1907), who had been enslaved earlier in her
life, and who became a successful seamstress, civil activist and author; and,
more close to home, Lydia Hamilton Smith (1815-1884), a free woman of
color who became Stevens confidante and property manager here and in the
Capital. She later owned and managed a prominent boarding house in
Washington near the White House. She also bequeathed $600 for the
maintenance of Stevens grave in perpetuity, which continues to provide funds
administered by the Cemetery Foundation to this day.
“None of these positive attributes of these remarkable people are reflected
in the film,” said Harris. “And Mrs. Smith’s portrayal is especially unsettling.
Mr. Stevens, who chose to be buried at Shreiner-Cemetery as a final testament
in his quest for racial equality, probably would not have been pleased with this
aspect of the film.” Established in 1836, the privately owned public cemetery
held no restriction on burials based on race or religion.
Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern is the author
of “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality
in Washington, D.C.” She wrote the following in an opinion piece in The New
York Times, November 13, 2012 as the film premiered:
“Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith (played by S.
Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania
congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy
Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject
of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.”
Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the
sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official
copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together
— reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift
from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which
African-Americans themselves played a role. It’s disappointing that in a movie
devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery, the African-American characters
do little but wait for white men to liberate them.”
To read the entire article, see: In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black
Frank Ninivagi’s Response:
People must remember that this was a movie about Abraham Lincoln, not
Thaddeus Stevens. If the movie had any chance of success, it had to focus on
Lincoln. That was also the only way to draw in people who would only be
marginally interested. As such, the depiction of Stevens did earn Tommy Lee
Jones a Screen Actors Guild award as well as an Academy Award nomination.
Love and admiration for Stevens are an acquired taste, I have found, among
knowledgeable Americans. If you dig around a bit it becomes quite obvious
that Stevens was a figure of greatness, worthy of admiration. On the other hand,
some, even well-meaning people, think of him as an obstinate fanatic. My view, is of
course, the former.
The movie was never going to focus on Stevens let alone Lydia Hamilton Smith.
Stevens was indeed an influential figure and along with Charles Sumner, was the
cutting edge of what Radical Republicans would tolerate. Even so, they were not the
only decisive people. We have seen that Lincoln moved at his own pace, and took
dictation from nobody.
I think those who complain about the depiction of Smith are truly being unrealistic.
We should all appreciate that Smith, as a character, was even in the movie at all, plus
the fact that Spielberg took a leap of faith by posing her as Stevens's lover, in a great
scene, at the end. I believe that S. Epatha Merkerson, and the other
African-Americans actors in the movie, would not have taken the roles if they thought
they were negative portrayals. It has never been proven that Smith was his lover, nor
that she even spent any significant time in Washington, D.C. during the time
portrayed. Of course, no progressive person would have any objection if they were
The movie covered less than one year's time at the end of the Civil War. To expect
the movie to delve into the other accomplishments in the lives of Elizabeth Keckley and
William Slade is, I believe, ridiculously unrealistic.
I think the Keckley character was played with great sensitivity and dignity, and she
had some great lines, and a conversation with Lincoln. Those of us who have
extensively read of these times, are aware of the importance of these people.
Harris thinks the portrayal of Smith is especially unsettling...... Why, I wonder. She
was barely on screen for a few minutes.
I emphatically disagree with the comments of Kate Masur. She writes of the film's
...."determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not
as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role." She
continues, "It's disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of
slavery, the African-American characters do little but wait for white men to liberate
Ah, where to begin .......First, she decries Stevens's handing the bill to Smith as a
gift-giving. I regarded it as his excitingly showing a person he deeply cared about, the
proof of what had just occurred, since regrettably she had not been present.
Secondly, unfortunately, the vast majority of slaves indeed could do nothing but wait
for "white men" for lack of a better term, to liberate them. What did she expect most
of them to do? They were vastly outnumbered, in a nation whose central government
battled for decades over whether it had any power even to restrict, let alone abolish
slavery. We were not like South Africa, where the overwhelming Black majority took
great actions, including violence, to move the system to justice.
It was hardly in the scope of this movie to highlight the heroic, but comparatively
small number, of brave African-Americans, who took a great risk in opposing slavery,
by either escaping, helping the Underground Railroad, joining the Army, or in other
ways. The harsh reality is, that more white Americans, of sheer numerical necessity,
and due to the power structures of the time, had roles in ending slavery than Black
Americans. It is important that this monstrous injustice was ended, not who gets
The film Glory does a nice job highlighting the contributions of Black troops.
However, once again, the vast majority of troops fighting and dying were not African
American. Even the Morgan Freeman character states this.
I make these points not out of any animus, or pride, but just because I believe things
must be kept in historical perspective. It troubles me to even have to go into these
details. The ending of slavery was no gift, and I know of nobody who would feel that
way. It was a long overdue, blood-soaked necessity, and the just punishment of a
nation that was born with it and tolerated it for so many years.