I've dug up an old post in honor of the holiday, mostly for the beauty of the above photograph by Tony Fischer.
January 21, 2013
Tonight my husband, Peter, and I are planning to celebrate the birthday of MLK, Jr. and the second inauguration of Barack Obama by going to see Lincoln. We saw it for the first time before Christmas, but I want to see it again now after having finally read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals. I've heard some critics fault the movie for its narrow focus and the conspicuous gaps it leaves in the "small" story it tells: that of the legislative struggles that culminated in the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery from the soon-to-be re-United States. But I think the narrow focus and the gaps are two of the movie's great strengths (just behind a beautiful, bone-graven performance by Daniel Day-Lewis). Unusually for Steven Spielberg (but characteristically for Tony Kushner), this is storytelling with some "negative capability," with an appreciation for (even a relish in) the many mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts that surround the tightest of narratives (whether historical or fictional). Lincoln is a suggestive movie instead of being a (falsely) exhaustive one - whatever its distortions or oversimplifications, it whetted my desire to know more. Kearns Goodwin gave me seven-hundred-fifty-four (fascinating, comical, heart-wrenching) pages' worth of more, and my curiosity is not yet sated. But I am excited to go back and see the film again, now that I have come to know the man a little better.
Also to love him better. Lincoln was no saint, and therein lay his great virtue. What emerges most strongly in Kearns Goodwin's portrayal is Lincoln's profound appreciation for his own limitations and the genius with which he turned those limitations to his personal advantage and to the preservation of the country. He was a faithful student of human frailty in general, but just as faithful a student of the weaknesses and deficits that were peculiar to him. Of course, he also knew his own strengths.
I don't know MLK's complex, embedded story nearly as well as I should (haven't even seen Selma yet) but what little I do know suggests the same paradox, of a very fine dust. Who wants to walk behind (or beside) a leader who hasn't got feet of clay? Not I.