One of the most memorable scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which leads the Oscar race with 12 nominations, takes place four days before the vote on the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. The President, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is having a night-time conversation with a woman of colour, Mrs. Keckley, who is part of the White House retinue. Screenwriter Tony Kushner has called the scene “in many ways the cornerstone of the film.”
After Mrs. Keckley assures the President that God will ensure the anti-slavery amendment is passed, Abraham Lincoln admits he has little familiarity with black people and wonders what part they will play in the reborn nation. Keckley’s answer speaks both to her own experience and three centuries of oppression.
“What my people are to be, I can’t say,” she responds. “Negroes have been fighting and dying for freedom since the first of us was a slave. I never heard any ask what freedom will bring. Freedom’s first. As for me: My son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?”
Many reviewers have assumed that Mrs. Keckley was a household servant, or personal maid to Mary Todd Lincoln. They’re wrong, and the assumption annoys Gloria Reuben, the 48-year-old Toronto-born actress best-known for her role as the HIV-infected physician’s assistant Jeannie Boulet on ER, as well as recurring appearances on Homicide: Life on theStreet and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Far from being a servant, Keckley was an independent businesswoman, one of the top dressmakers, or modistes, in Washington. She was also a social activist, who formed an organization to provide assistance for freed slaves and former black soldiers during the Civil War. And she was the woman that Mary Todd Lincoln called her best friend, at least until Keckley published a tell-all book in 1868. Behind the Scenes – or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House was intended to defend the beleaguered former first lady but reviews were vicious and the President’s widow never forgave her for publishing private correspondence. One Washington reviewer wrote: “What family of eminence that employs a Negro is safe from such desecration?”
“I think,” says Reuben on the phone from her home in New York, “that those reviewers should have done their homework. I don’t mean to be harsh but … all that it takes is a Google search. I don’t think I’m being petty. She’s a pivotal part of the story.… It would please me no end to never read anything like that again.”
For a moment, she sounds at a loss for words: It’s obvious that responsibility for the legacy of Elizabeth Keckley means a lot to her personally. “I mean – it’s such a tricky thing, having already portrayed her,” she says. “I’m not sure what I can do about it except to say that the film was an extraordinary thing to be a part of, and this is a chance for people around the globe to learn more about her.”
Born a slave in 1818, Keckley was the child of her mother’s white master. Her mother taught her to read (it was illegal) and sew, and Keckley eventually supported both her and her owner’s family with her dress-making skills. In 1852, with the help of donations from white clients, she amassed $1,200 to buy freedom for herself and her son, George (the product of a rape by a white neighbour). She eventually set up shop in Washington where she established herself as the go-to dressmaker for the wives of the elite, including the spouses of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. She also became Mary Todd Lincoln’s favourite dressmaker, and then friend, tending to the first lady when she was ill and keeping vigil over the Lincolns’ dying child Willy just months after Keckley’s son, a college freshman who could pass as white and enlisted in the Union Army, was killed in his first battle.
When Spielberg invited Reuben to audition for the role of Elizabeth Keckley, she did her homework. She was most struck by a picture of Keckley, then in her 40s, photographed by the famous Matthew Brady – specifically, she says, by the quality of dignity and melancholy in Keckley’s eyes. During the interview Reuben suggests I read an essay she wrote for Lincoln: A President for the Ages, a collection of essays related to the film. She sends me a portion of it, printed in a script font.
The part she didn’t send, which I read after the interview, is more personal, adding details to her official biography. It’s about her connections to the emotional pain of the character. Reuben was the second youngest of six kids from a white father and black mother, who grew up in Scarborough, Ont., and London, Ont. She studied classical music and dance, won Miss Black Ontario in 1986, modelled and appeared on the children’s TV show Polka Dot Door, where her half-brother, the late, Denis Simpson, was a longtime host. The essay deals with her experiences growing up in a mixed-race “second” family (her father had been previously married), her parents’ separation when she was 5 and her father’s death when she was 12. Just shy of 16, she writes, she was raped, but “told no one for almost 23 years.”
Reuben writes: “The look in Elizabeth Keckley’s eyes, so dark, deep and mysterious. I relate to all that I see there.”
She made it her mission to know Keckley, as well as she could. This was her first time in the real South, and she did a driving tour of places that were important in her character’s life, from her workplace to the cemetery where she was buried. While filming, instead of taking the 21/2-hour drive back to New York from Richmond, where the movie was shot, she stayed around the White House set on days off. “That’s the thing about this story. Almost any character involved would be worth a movie.”
And Keckley, who died in poverty at 89 in 1907, finally seems to be getting her due. Jennifer Chiaverini’s historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, was published in January. A new play about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Keckley, Mary T. and Lizzy K., by Tazewell Thompson, will open at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington in March. Given Keckley’s extraordinary personal saga and her ringside seat at a critical moment in American history, it’s a wonder it has taken this long.
“The trouble is,” Reuben tells me, “This movie has spoiled me. I was watching a video of Daniel’s speech at the BAFTAs [the British film awards] the other night, and he was talking about how much he loved these characters and how he missed them. That’s exactly how I feel. To speak Tony Kushner’s words, to be directed by Steven Spielberg while looking into Daniel’s face. Yeah.”
What’s the feeling, I ask.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included a misspelling of Keckley and incorrectly spelled Denis Simpson as Dennis Simpson. Also, Gloria Reuben;s parents were separated when she was five years old, not divorced as the article said. This version corrects all of these errors.