Lincoln’s Dilemma is a four-part documentary series now streaming on Apple TV+ and based on Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times.
“Before the Civil War, the states were all separate. People used to say ‘United States are.’ Wasn’t until the war ended, people started saying ‘The United States is.’ Under Lincoln, we became one nation.” – Benjamin Franklin Gates, National Treasure: Book of Secrets
There certainly have been no shortage of films, documentaries, and books about The Great Emancipator. Lincoln’s Dilemma is just the latest in a long line. The Apple TV+ premiere comes two days before the start of a three-night documentary airing on the History Channel.
A number of historians provide insight into President Lincoln. Obviously, the series has to feature Abe author David S. Reynolds. Other scholars and historians include Mary Berry, Kellie Carter Jackson, and Jelani Cobb to name a few. When you think of Lincoln historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin comes to mind but she’s not in this one. They focus on a different set of historians and scholars who are mostly people of color. Outside of the historians, Jeffrey Wright’s narration enables viewers to connect to the Lincoln story. Meanwhile, Bill Camp and Leslie Odom Jr. bring Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to life, respectively.
You probably might be learning some of it for the first time if you haven’t read the books. One fascinating aspect is also hearing about the parallels between Lincoln and Douglass. They only met a few times but it’s hard to refer to them as friends. The best way of putting it is two people with great respect for each other. There’s also no argument that Douglass was a great influence on Lincoln’s actions and singlehandedly prevented him from sending one of the worst letters of all time. At one point, Lincoln was ready to just end the Civil War but complete emancipation wasn’t a done deal just yet. Douglass told him no and this would lead to the passage of the 13th Amendment.
There’s no shortage of never-before-heard stories when it comes to the late president. As an audience, we get to revisit the road to his presidency and his administration in a new light. Many of the new perspectives come from a wide variety of historians. Even though we’re living in the 21st century, the series is an examination of his life but within the context of his era. It would be completely unfair to look at Lincoln through a 21st century context. This isn’t to say that there are parallels because there most certainly are. I mean, look at the Confederacy’s Lost Cause of the early 1900s. It still has ramifications to this day. But still, when it comes to Lincoln, there are many people who helped shape his views, especially on slavery.
While Lincoln campaigned as an anti-slavery candidate, he was not a full-on abolitionist. This was a striking difference between the likes of him and Douglass. This is one of those contrasts that drives throughout the four hours. Lincoln’s Dilemma shows the importance of studying history because some of his flaws were never taught in schools. I’m not here to say whether that’s right or wrong but I fully appreciate learning about him in his entirety. In fact, it’s Douglass who would play a large role in making sure that the Black soldiers fighting for the Union had equality. Another aspect to appreciate is how the formerly enslaved have a voice in this doc series. There’s a big focus on the Massachusetts 54th. Under Lincoln, the Civil War becomes a fight to not just preserve the union but to completely abolish slavery once and for all.
When thousands of slaves headed north and joined the Union Army, they changed the direction of the war. It’s highly unlikely that the Union wins the Civil War without them fighting. And yet, there were Northerners who were uncomfortable fighting alongside them. We already know about the Draft Riots in New York thanks to watching films like Gangs of New York. However, this doc really shows the full impact of the riots. But even with Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, it isn’t enough and Frederick Douglass knows it. It’s not until Lincoln wins reelection in 1864 that he fully commits to abolishing slavery and does so through the 13th Amendment.
Slavery is America’s greatest sin. What we’re seeing all across the country are right-wingers not wanting to acknowledge the truth. They would rather teach revisionist history and that is 100% wrong. If they had their way, Lincoln’s Dilemma couldn’t be shown in the classroom because it shows the whole man, including his flaws. But if we don’t learn about the flaws, what good is studying history?
The series benefits from having access to the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection. It is the largest private collection of Lincoln materials, giving audiences rare access to photographs, rare books and other artifacts in the telling of his story. The use of animation is a genius idea rather than just have voiceovers speaking against a photo.
Every episode in the documentary series focuses on a different year during Lincoln’s years in office. Granted, the first episode also discusses the year’s leading up to his 1860 victory. Likewise, the last episode has to focus on both 1864, 1865, and Lincoln’s legacy. As the years move on, Lincoln is a top-five president of all time but we should focus on more than just his greatness. All of the information is out there but Lincoln’s Dilemma takes a look at the history in ways that we’ve never seen before. In fairness, I’ve had David S. Reynolds’s book for over a year now but haven’t gotten to reading it just yet. But rest assured, I’ll get to the book sooner than later.
DIRECTORS: Jacqueline Olive, Barak Goodman
SCREENWRITER: Barack Goodman
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Peter Kunhardt, Teddy Kunhardt, George Kunhardt, Josh Tyrangiel, Richard Plepler, Jacqueline Olive, Barak Goodman, and Jelani Cobb
NARRATOR: Jeffrey Wright
CAST: Bill Camp, Leslie Odom Jr.
Apple TV+ released Lincoln’s Dilemma on February 18, 2022.
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