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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

29 November

The Zong Massacre, 1781

On this day in 1781 the Zong massacre took place. A Liverpool slave ship called the Zong got lost on the high seas en route for Jamaica and, running low on water, decided to throw some slaves overboard. On 29 November 54 women were thrown overboard. 42 men were jettisoned on 1 December and over the next few days a further 36 slaves were thrown into the sea. A further ten slaves threw themselves overboard as a protest against the inhumane treatment of their fellows. When it arrived at Black River, Jamaica, the ship had only 208 slaves on board, of the 442 it had left Accra, Ghana, with on 18 August. The ship’s owners then claimed insurance against their loss, which the insurers refused to pay. The ship’s owners then took the case to court, where they argued that the slaves were an insurable asset and that they had been thrown overboard to safeguard the rest of the cargo. The argument about the crew’s actions being murder was not entertained. Though the massacre on the Zong barely disturbed the millpond of public opinion, it did stir the conscience of Granville Sharp, a British Quaker who set about a campaign of writing to members of Parliament, clergymen and fellow Quakers. The Zong massacre and the reaction to it, in some quarters at least, became one of the early spurs to the development of the Anti Slavery Movement.

Lincoln (2012, dir: Steven Spielberg)

So gigantic has the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis become in a film that he often overshadows every other aspect of the production. That’s certainly the case with Lincoln which quietly manages to be Steven Spielberg’s most nuanced, and therefore interesting, film in years. Telling the story of the dying days of the Civil War and the growing pressure to emancipate the slaves, Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner and Day-Lewis paint a portrait of a man, make a sketch of the times and tell the story of the progress of the Thirteenth Amendment (to make slavery illegal) through Congress. Rarely has a film about the horse-trading and the pork-barrel politics required to get a law changed been so fascinating. And rarely has Lincoln been depicted in so revisionist a manner. OK, Spielberg isn’t above hokiness – the opener where a black soldier and a white soldier read the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln, who looks like he’s just stepped down from the Monument that bears his name – is pure Spielberg corn. But this scene also does a lot of expositional work in a very few minutes – we now know who this man is and what this film is about. That scene apart, as said, this is not the boilerplate Lincoln movie. No Saint Abe, instead Spielberg points out that underneath that almost painfully folksy exterior there was a party political tactician who could tack against his own prevailing beliefs in order to secure a greater goal. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing True North?” is how Lincoln defends it. And there are plenty of allusions to modern-day politics, a touch of the Clinton era in the way the White House accounts are being investigated by Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, a man of principle who, like Lincoln, has to weigh whether it’s better to compromise a belief to secure something for the greater good of the greater number. And it’s surely fascinating, in light of the Tea Party and Neo-Con colour of the Republican Party these days that it’s the Republican Lincoln who’s straining to amend the Constitution, while Democrats are blocking him at every turn. As for Day-Lewis, is it the great performance that everyone says? Well, it’s starry and it’s theatrical and if you go in for that sort of thing then yes it is great. But look out for Sally Field as Mrs Lincoln. She is required in one short scene to re-orientate the film away from politics and chicanery back towards emotion. And she does it. It’s an amazing piece of work.

Why Watch?

  • Top level coffee table film-making
  • Janusz Kaminski’s sombre, shadowy cinematography
  • Spielberg atones for Amistad
  • The historical detail is exquisite and often quite brutal

Lincoln – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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