Steven Spielberg has made history by directing some of the most crowd-pleasing films of the past 30 years, but time and again the filmmaker has used his clout as one of the most commercially successful filmmakers ever to delve into history, tackling issues and subjects that no studio would consider making films about otherwise. With this week’s release of Lincoln, Spielberg is once more looking toward our collective future by engaging us with our past. To commemorate the occasion, TakePart is also looking back—at the director’s contributions to the culture and the public good. Click through and revisit the ways Steven Spielberg has focused on now through what’s gone before.
Photo: Courtesy of DreamWorks/Touchstone Pictures
The Color Purple
Steven Spielberg’s first venture beyond the blockbusters he had come to be known for since Jaws resulted in The Color Purple, one of the most successful films ever with an African American-led cast. An adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the rough life of a young African-American woman growing up in the South at the beginning of the 20th century, the 1985 film was an unlikely candidate to make $98 million at the U.S. box office. Profit aside, the story of Celie Harris, who overcomes grave misfortune to make a life for herself, forced the country to consider a contentious past of prejudice and discrimination that had not ended when slavery was abolished. At the time of The Color Purple’s release, Spielberg was taken to task for glorifying some elements of the South aesthetically and portraying African-American men in a negative light (something he never intended and made amends for in 1997’s Amistad), but in casting Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in leads for their first major film roles, his movie provided a launchpad to two great cultural forces.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
The film that finally won Spielberg the Oscar is likely to become the filmmaker’s most enduring legacy, and not because of what he achieved on celluloid alone. Schindler’s List is a staggering film adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel about a German industrialist who used his factories as a safe haven for Jews during the Holocaust. Beyond that, the 1993 Best Picture-winner became the engine for the creation of the Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has compiled the testimonies of almost 52,000 survivors of the Holocaust to ensure such a tragedy will never be forgotten, and hopefully never perpetrated again.
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Because the material wasn’t considered “commercially viable,” no one in Hollywood would make Debbie Allen’s passion project, a film about a little known event in American history: The 1839 legal limbo of 53 Africans on a slave ship to Cuba who successfully revolted against the ship’s Spanish crew, but wound up in American courts after the La Amistad docked on American shores. Their petition for liberty pitted former President John Quincy Adams against sitting President Martin Van Buren to decide on the Africans’ freedom. Allen, the famed dance choreographer, discovered the story in 1978, and held onto the rights tightly until Spielberg came aboard nearly two decades later. Amistad offered a rare mainstream portrait of strong black men and the horrific nature of slavery.
Photo: Courtesy of DreamWorks
Saving Private Ryan
Spielberg’s third trip to the front lines of World War II, following the wacky 1979 comedy 1941 and the harrowing depiction of what was being fought for in Schindler’s List, brought back one of the director’s most important works. In telling a story about a group of American soldiers who cross enemy lines to rescue a paratrooper whose three brothers have died in battle within days of each other, the film not only exposed audiences to the visceral experience of being in combat (especially its legendary opening sequence on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy), but was said to allow many veterans of the war to finally open up about their experiences. Saving Private Ryan ultimately earned Spielberg his second Academy Award for Best Director, and he was also awarded the U.S. military’s highest civilian honor—the Medal for Distinguished Public Service.
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks
The director knew he was heading into a hornet’s nest with 2005’s Munich. The drama centers on the terrorist murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and on the aftermath of those murders. To protect the production against leaks, most actors on the film never received a complete script. What emerged from that shroud of secrecy was a film that not only spoke to the still-existing divide between Israel and Palestine, but about the ramifications of terrorism in a post-9/11 age. The first part of the story had previously been recounted in the incredibly tense documentary One Day in September, but the events depicted in Munich really resonated in the public consciousness when Daniel Craig and Eric Bana teamed up as members of the Mossad to avenge the deaths of the Israeli athletes at the request of Prime Minister Golda Meir. Spielberg’s ability to raise questions at the same time he’s raising pulses as a gifted dramatist once again engaged audiences with a difficult subject matter.
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures/DreamWorks
After the movies taught us this summer that Abraham Lincoln was an axe-wielding vampire hunter by night in an adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s fantasy novel, they’re back again to remind us that our nation’s 16th president was even more impressive in his day job, ultimately negotiating the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Spielberg’s serious-minded account that’s out in theaters this week focuses on the short period prior to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, a matter of months in which the president capitalized on his recent reelection to navigate the contentious amendment through a fractured congress. Although the director has insisted that the film shouldn’t be used as a “political football” in the terms of our current state of political affairs, seeing one of America’s greatest presidents lead the way to a brighter future should be used as inspiration for the chief executive elected into office this week.
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Lincoln is being released in U.S. theaters by DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox film, in association with TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, on November 9, 2012, with expansion on November 16, 2012.
Timed to complement the new motion picture, Lincoln: A President for the Ages is a Participant Media book that introduces a new Lincoln grappling with some of history’s greatest challenges.
Would Lincoln have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? How would he conduct the War on Terror? Would he favor women’s suffrage or gay rights? Would today’s Lincoln be a star on Facebook and Twitter? Would he embrace the religious right—or denounce it?