WASHINGTON -- At the morning showing of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, most of the other folks in my row are the children of the children of slaves. Five theatres of a multiplex in a wealthy corner of the capital are packed and hushed before noon on a Sunday, after 11 sold-out screenings the day and night before.
As the lights go down, it occurs to me the integrated seating -- unthinkable here until the 1950s -- belies the younger Lincoln himself, who, as an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate in 1858, declared that "I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races." But this is not the Lincoln we see on the screen this fall, or the Lincoln we remember from our schoolbooks.
The audience is restless as previews of rival costumed epics -- Anna Karenina; A Royal Affair -- are offered to the crowd. Then the feature attraction begins with a brief and gory tableau: men destroying each other with bayonets in an abattoir of mud. (It is the only combat scene of the movie. "Why is there so much talking?" a boy in front of me, about the age of Lincoln's son, Tad, asks his father halfway through.)
A moment later, we gasp at the first glimpse of Daniel Day-Lewis in his apparational rendition of Lincoln as the trinity incarnate: the martyred messiah of black liberation; the father of two dissonant, anguished families -- political and marital -- and, unexpectedly, as the devious and impeachably conniving ghost-of-Nixon-future.
"It is HIM!" exhales the African-American woman two seats down.
The 16th president's stature is such that even this portrayal is spun, in places, as worship. In fact, the very last frames of the film flash back to Lincoln's second inaugural address, six weeks before his assassination -- "with malice toward none, with charity for all" -- and then fade to black with Day-Lewis's arms outstretched in crucifixion; Lincoln as a squeaky-voiced Christ.
"I gave the people a year and a half to think about it, and they elected me," Lincoln tells his cabinet at one point, defending immediate emancipation. One imagines the current president crowing the same tune to the GOP about Obamacare.
From the theatre, divergent paths lead a seeker on journeys physical and virtual. It still is possible in 21st-century Washington to follow Lincoln's nightly canter from the White House to a cottage on the grounds of a home for retired soldiers; to sleep in the Abraham Lincoln Suite at the Willard Hotel; to stand on the ramparts of Fort Stevens, where, during a daring Confederate incursion in 1864, he became the first and only American president to come under enemy fire while in office.
Lincoln's hat and coat and pocket watch -- Spielberg borrowed and recorded the latter for the soundtrack of the film -- are on display at the Smithsonian; his box at Ford's Theater remains as it was when he and his Mary went to see Our American Cousin on the first peacetime Good Friday after four full years of war, and the bullet that killed him, squashed and grey, is in a medical museum along with bloody kerchiefs and a fragment of skull.
Even Grover's, where 12-year-old Tad -- enjoying a performance of Aladdin! Or His Wonderful Lamp while his parents are four blocks away at Ford's -- learns of his father's assassination, still is in operation as the National Theater. We took our daughter there in April to see The Fresh Beat Band.
And there are trails of curiosity that can take you:
To the transcript of the actual debate over the abolitionist Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives in January 1865, to wit:
On MR. ENGLISH and MR. GANSON voting "ay," there was considerable applause by members on the Republican side of the house.
THE SPEAKER called repeatedly to order, and asked that members should set a better example to spectators in the gallery.
MR. KALBFLEISCH and other Democratic members remarked that the applause came, not from the spectators in the gallery, but from members on the floor.
To the real Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (portrayed in the film by Tommy Lee Jones) -- who did indeed live with, and possibly slept with, a woman of colour named Lydia Hamilton Smith, and who later would be entombed in the only integrated cemetery in Lancaster, Penn., under an epitaph of his own composition that espoused "in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life; equality of man before his Creator."
To the report by a White House constable named Col. William H. Crook that, the night before he was murdered, Lincoln experienced his recurring dream -- the same dream in which we meet Daniel Day-Lewis -- of sailing alone on a mighty ship toward a distant, illuminated shore. "To me," wrote Crook, "it all means that he had, with his waking on that day, a strong prescience of coming change... As the day wore on the feeling darkened into an impression of coming evil."
No one needs two hours in a movie theatre to know what Abraham Lincoln stood for; sitting next to a fellow human of a different race recapitulates his mission. That the constitutional elimination of slavery required dirty tricks and bribery from the White House on down is amusing now. Meanwhile, a top-hatted father lost two little sons and his wife's sanity, while a savagely divided country wasted 600,000 boys.
"What did you think?" I ask my neighbours as Christ/Lincoln disappears and the credits begin to roll.
"If it wasn't for the civil war, we'd STILL have slavery," says the black man next to me.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.