Film Screening: Lincoln and Douglas: Touring Illinois in Turbulent Times

AHA Session 164
Saturday, January 8, 2022: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Napoleon Ballroom C3 (Sheraton New Orleans, 3rd Floor)
Graham A. Peck, University of Illinois at Springfield
Nathan Peck, Saint Xavier University
Sunshine Clemons, Black Lives Matter Springfield
Kevin J. Wood, Abraham Lincoln by Kevin Wood and Association of Lincoln Presenters

Graham Peck, director, and Nathan Peck, director (2020)

A screening of the documentary film will be followed by a roundtable discussion with the filmmakers and a BLM activist interviewed in the film.

Session Abstract

This innovative 47-minute road film explores the debates over historical memory that exploded in the summer of 2020. The filmmakers, Graham Peck, a Lincoln historian, and Nathan Peck, an artist, initially sought to make an art film on a historical subject during a unique time, presenting the back story of historical reenactors while capturing America in the throes of the coronavirus. To do so, they visited the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate sites in the middle of the pandemic to take footage of Lincoln and Douglas reenactors and to interview them about their craft. However, protests against the Stephen A. Douglas monument at the Illinois State Capitol became a public news item in the middle of the production. These protests echoed the powerful critiques of American history rolling through the country, and the Pecks pivoted to make an even more contemporaneous film. To do so, they brought in two additional perspectives: Sunshine Clemons, a cofounder of BLM in Springfield, and the leading voice to remove the Douglas statue; and Kathyrn Harris, a retired director of library services at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and a leader of Springfield’s African-American community. The result is a multilayered film that draws American political history into the present by transcending disciplinary boundaries and traditional documentary approaches in an effort to reach the broader public.

The film highlights the contested character of contemporary public understandings of history in order to promote shared understanding. To do so, it seeks to portray sympathetically the differing perspectives of those filmed; it does not draw a conclusion about who is right. But the film is not anodyne. It provides critical contextual information about antebellum political history by interweaving excerpts from TV footage of Graham Peck and from the Pecks’ conversations with each other and the film’s subjects. The interplay of different perspectives builds a more interesting story and encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions about the historical roles of Lincoln and Douglas. For instance, Douglas’ racial attitudes and toleration of slavery are balanced against his unyielding Unionism after the firing on Sumter. But the film also recognizes that historical monuments mediate between the past and present in a different way than do historians. Consequently, decisions to maintain or remove a statute cannot be made only by reference to the historical record; the meaning of monuments are litigated in the present. For Clemons, Douglas’ history is too checkered to be celebrated in the state capitol, which she called the “people’s house.” Her position carried political weight. Shortly after the Pecks finished production, the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives had the statue removed from the grounds of the capitol without public discussion. It was a telling political coda to a controversy rooted in contemporary politics. Influenced by these circumstances, the film seeks to intervene in contemporary debates over history by using art to broaden perspectives, deepen historical understanding, and open dialogue. In the film Q&A, the filmmakers and Clemons will discuss these issues and others raised by the audience.

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