Abraham Lincoln and Southern Reaction: Robert Redford’s The Conspirator

By Daniel Garrett

The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford
Screenplay by James Solomon
American Film Company, 2010
(Released 2011)

Robert Redford’s film about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the trial of a boardinghouse owner, Mary Surratt, accused as part of the conspiracy, and the young lawyer who represents her, The Conspirator, is one of the most vivid films of dramatized history I have seen, and it achieves an independent life. Mary Surratt and the others charged in the murder of the American president were given a military rather than a civilian trial, and not allowed to speak for themselves. The situation does call to mind military trials established following the attack on the World Trade Center and the American war against terrorism. Decision after decision is made against Mary Surratt during the proceedings, despite her lawyer’s best efforts to prove that the conspirators may have met in her house but that does not mean she was involved. The conspirators, of whom her son had been one, were southern patriots and northern traitors, refusing to accept the defeat of the south and appalled by Lincoln’s intention to recognize the rights of blacks. They intended first to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for the freedom of southern prisoners of war, before John Wilkes Booth advanced a more violent rebellion.

Robin Wright plays a proud southerner and loving mother, Mary Surratt, whose son was a friend of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and James McAvoy plays the lawyer, Frederick Aiken, who is repelled by Surratt’s probable guilt, then determined to give her the defense law requires, and then, appalled by the contrivances of the trial, becomes sympathetic to her. Robin Wright, dressed in black, has eliminated every shallow glimmer, and exudes grave awareness and concern, though the way she handles her black veil in certain acts expresses anxiety, self-protection, or resignation. It is no surprise that there are rumors that Surratt spits in the faces of Union soldiers or wears human bones around her neck—a southern Catholic woman seen as different, a kind of demon. James McAvoy, at Redford’s direction, is more still than usual, his face less flooded with emotions; and sometimes the way he is framed—against other men, in doorways, and within large plots of land—accentuates his lack of height; and yet he remains a compelling and likable actor. The film’s casting and acting are formidable and persuasive in a film that has Kevin Kline, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson, and Evan Rachel Wood. Kevin Kline is forceful as the nation’s secretary of war, Stanton, a man who wants to bury the turmoil of war and assassination with the conspirators; and it is one of Kline’s best performances. Danny Huston plays the prosecutor as a cunning peacock, and Wilkinson is a fair-minded but pragmatic Maryland senator and lawyer, and Evan Wood the fragile but prickly Surratt daughter.

The Conspirator is a film of surprisingly fresh beauty. Its locations are impressive. Whether scenes were set in a private home or a large but bare prison, they had a visual richness that fed the senses, the imagination. The contest between the American north and south, and then between justice and vengeance, come to life, though it is very strange that the black presence is so slight in the film, inclining at least one viewer to wonder if old Hollywood, however flawed, was better than contemporary Hollywood at dealing with African-Americans. The blacks in Gone With the Wind are more interesting and respectable than those seen as perfect and perfectly quiet servants here; but then I do recall Beloved, Glory, Nightjohn, Sankofa, feature films that welcomed the African-American presence—and I was lucky enough around the time that I screened The Conspirator to find a documentary on African-American soldiers during the American civil war, one that acknowledged the prejudice and brutality directed against Negroes and their struggle for rights and dignity, The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (2005), a film directed by Jacqueline Shearer and narrated by Morgan Freeman. In the documentary film, one sees the different kinds of work African-Americans did, some of it quite accomplished, and their willingness to leave work and family to participate in the war; and when they did join the effort, they performed with courage and pride, and earned respect. (The fundamental importance of the war—to maintain national union, and end slavery—was apparent, but I am not fond of the idea that to earn citizenship one has to volunteer to die.) Seeing The Conspirator and The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, it is clear that information is available, and there are good intentions too, but the struggle continues to achieve a complex and truthful, as well as unified, American history.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. His comments on Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, featuring Robin Wright and James McAvoy, appeared on Garrett’s internet log focused on visual culture, The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.