K. Tempest Bradford is the main writer behind the Angry Black Woman blog, and also the author of that great list of stock science fiction TV plots we linked to a few years ago. Here, she explains why Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn't just a weak genre mashup, but also the ultimate white guilt fantasy.
In the annals of Lies My Teacher Told Me, one of the biggest and most pervasive has to be that old saw about how Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War to free the slaves. I remember hearing this one as far back as Kindergarten, but the formal teaching of this dubious factoid came during my third grade American history class.
Given that kids in the third grade are possibly not the most sophisticated thinkers, it makes sense to offer up a simplified version of events. Thing is, the Civil War being fought to end slavery is not a mere simplification — it's simply not true.
These ideas about Lincoln and the Civil War are what I like to call White Guilt Fantasies. The kinds of stories white Americans tell themselves about the history of our country to make themselves feel better — or, at least, not have to grapple with the realities of the things their forefathers thought or did.
And this White Guilt Fantasy pervades Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. So much so, it inserts several plot points, incidents, and characterizations into the movie that are so unbelievable, the part where vampires actually exist comes off as far more plausible than the rest.
Hey, You Got History In My Blockbuster!
To be sure, I did not expect a high level of historical accuracy from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It's alternate history at best, and clumsy supernatural allegory at worst. But as many liberties as the movie takes with historical events and people, it never deviates from the White Guilt Fantasy about Lincoln or the war.
In the first scene, an 11-year-old Abraham watches as two (previously free) black adults being dragged away and a boy about Abe's age screaming and crying and fighting the man who's hauling them away. My first reaction to this was: Why are they acting like this is not something completely normal in their lives?
Let's be honest: During this time, black people had been slaves for decades. Even those not born as slaves had to be careful, since they might still get snatched up because they were black and someone could decide they must be property. Any black person with sense, including a child, would not be fighting and carrying on like this unless they wanted to get a severe beating.
And that's just what happens.
A white man starts whipping the young black boy, which is Abe's call to action. He goes after the man with an axe. This doesn't end well for anyone, and eventually the man with the whip starts beating on Abe, too. His mother jumps to his rescue while spouting some abolitionist slogans about how no man can be free unless all men are free.
This scene is supposed to show us that little Lincoln was raised up by slavery-hating people, and his willingness to put his own body on the line for a black person.
All of this is utter and complete crap. I'm sorry, but it is. Nothing about this scene makes any sense in the historical context of the movie itself.
This is our first taste of the White Guilt Fantasy at work and the building blocks on which our understanding of Lincoln in this movie are based.
Our Vampires Don't Sparkle, But Are Just As Nonsensical
When Abraham starts in on his vampire-hunting career, the movie still takes time to drop plot cookies that illuminate how awesome and pro-abolition he is, and how this fact makes him beloved by all good people. Such as the moment when Mary Todd, his future wife, gets all interested in him after he says something vaguely anti-slavery. Or the time when he and the black boy from the first act (Will Johnson) end up in jail for fisticuffs against some men who are determined to cart Will away as a slave.
Given that Mary Todd came from a wealthy slave-owning family, I doubt that aspect of Abe was really what turned her head. And I highly doubt she'd have called on a politician friend to get some random black dude out of jail. I also don't think the local police would have thrown Will in jail for beating up on white men. That was a lynchable offense, even in the North.
Even if we wave all that off, there's still the incomprehensibility of the plot with the vampires.
Henry, the man who reveals to Lincoln that vampires exist, tells Abe that these creatures have been in the new world for ages. First they preyed on Native Americans, then European settlers for a bit, then hit the motherlode when the slave trade started up. Now they have a stronghold in the Southern states, where there's an unlimited supply of food.
Vampires as an allegory for Southern slavers I can buy. But vampires who buy slaves just so they can eat them? Not so much.
These vampires don't seem to have any control. Once they bite you, they eat you all up forever, or turn you into one of them. Given this fact, they'd have to keep buying slaves all the time to stay fed. How is that economically viable?
In one scene, we see a very large plantation where there are no slaves — except those who are dinner. So who, exactly, is doing all the work here? The vampires? I don't see that happening. How does this plantation make money?
This movie forgets that slavery was the backbone of the South's economy. The reason why abolishing it was such a contentious issue wasn't just about feelings or mean racists, it was about how folks were supposed to make money without the cheap labor slaves provided.
Plus, at this time in history the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been abolished, which meant that slave owners relied on slaves breeding for more "stock". If a large proportion of the Southern populace killed slaves on a regular basis, and thus cut into the number of workers, this would disrupt the economy big time.
If we'd been shown vampires selectively feeding off of some slaves while others worked, I might have bought the premise. It would have at least been thought through.
The vampire allegory fails, because it doesn't add anything to our understanding of slavery or the civil war or Lincoln. Slavery is bad because vampires? Isn't slavery itself bad enough?
Once Abe abandons vampire-killing, we're treated to an outline of the Cliff's Notes of his political career. It's implied that Lincoln ran for office on an abolitionist platform. In real history, Lincoln was anti-slavery but not an abolitionist — an important distinction when understanding his motives as a politician, president, and commander-in-chief during the war.
But, whatever, have a high-speed horse chase.
That Awkward Moment When Real History Is More Interesting Than Vampires
The climax of the movie involves a lot of ridiculous plot twists, including Mrs. Lincoln inviting Harriet Tubman to the White House and Abe driving the decoy supply train to the troops at Gettysburg himself. The action-filled sequence that follows is impressive in its absurdity — and only manages to out-absurd the subsequent revelation about what Tubman is up to because there's more fighting and CGI involved.
When the South loses the war, the vampires mostly leave the U.S. for Asia and South America. One can only presume they do so because the supply of expendable non-white people is just as high on those two continents even without widespread institutional slavery.
When Lincoln finally rides off to see Our American Cousin in the end, we're still left with the idea that he did it all for the good of black people and the country, or something. Whether you cloak it in supernatural allegory or not, it's still a White Guilt Fantasy — and not even beginning to approach a worthwhile truth.
The story could have been better, and remained Hollywood-worthy, if the screenwriter had bothered to toss real history a bone. Lincoln hates vampires, because one killed his mother when he was just a boy. So it would have worked better for him to oppose abolition on legal grounds — but in the end dispense with slavery as a means of cutting off the vampire food supply, make them weaker, and ultimately destroy them. This works perfectly as allegory, because that's close to what did happen and why (sans blood suckers).
The real history of the Civil War, and of Abraham Lincoln personally, is complex and interesting, even by Hollywood's standards. Adding vampires to the mix should have added to that complexity, while illuminating the true horror of the institution of slavery. Instead, we got the Fisher-Price version of history.