New Apple TV+ docu-series Lincoln’s Dilemma delivers a fine history lesson in classical PBS form. The four-part series, which premieres today, brings you the story of Lincoln’s presidency and the ways in which he approached the issue of slavery, from his first dealings with the issue until his death at the hands of a Confederate sympathizer.
Stewarded by executive producer/directors Jacqueline Olive and Barak Goodman, executive producer Jelani Cobb and a host of historians and activists, the series’ form is likely too sturdy and utilitarian to change the way anyone views Lincoln.
However, the filmmakers’ intent is admirable. They set out to neither oversell nor undersell Lincoln and his views on slavery, how history has sought to simplify the political figures of the 1860s, and how the Great Emancipator was and was not an adequate moniker for the 16th president of the United States.
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Lincoln’s Dilemma review
Our story starts in 1861, with Abraham Lincoln aboard a train for Washington, D.C.. His closest friends and advisers urged caution, because he had been seen as an antislavery candidate before winning the 1860 election.
Joseph Pinkerton, the head of a detective agency of the same name, uncovered an assassination plot awaiting Lincoln at his stop in Baltimore, so some subterfuge was required. The president-elect switched hats and clothes with others. And his train number was kept secret from the public. (These efforts are dramatized in Anthony Mann’s incredible 1951 noir, The Tall Target).
Lincoln got to Washington to begin his first term in one piece. However, the irony of having to smuggle the president of the United States into the White House was lost on no one. Unless you’re sneaking it in, real progressivism had no place in Washington.
Lincoln, slavery and the Civil War
Lincoln’s Dilemma is a fairly comprehensive look (though there could be even more detail, in my opinion) at the Lincoln presidency as it related specifically to slavery and the Civil War. It’s based on Abe: Abraham Lincoln in his Times by David S. Reynolds. The author appears as one of a number of talking heads in the Apple TV+ documentary, including Chrstopher Bonner, Chandra Manning, Manisha Sinha, Justene Hill Edwards and executive producer Jelani Cobb (also lately seen on another four part docu-series, Showtime’s We Need to Talk About Cosby).
They seek to show that Lincoln is not the sainted emancipator of neoliberal historical revision. Nor is he quite the monster he’s sometimes painted as by both activists today, and conservatives nostalgic for a time when white men answered to no one.
Howard University historian Edna Greene Medford is quick to make sure we understand how times have changed.
“The Republican Party then is not the Republican Party of today,” Medford says, “and the Democratic Party then is not the Democratic Party of today. They have switched.”
You know, just in case it wasn’t clear who’s rooting for what. (You can’t take much for granted anymore.)
Lincoln never did what anyone told him to
The limited series’ portrait of Lincoln is more interesting than what gets trotted out by most contemporary media, even though formally it’s a very ordinary documentary. It relies on talking heads, Ken Burns-style zoom-ins on pictures and documents, animated interludes, and voiceover narration from Jeffrey Wright.
That last part is a little dodgy. Wright was once tied up in a diamond mining concern in Sierra Leone. Seems a strange choice, but maybe that’s the point. This is, after all, about men who contained … let’s say multitudes. Lincoln ended slavery but dragged his feet on the issue for reasons that in hindsight don’t seem at all defensible. For many years, people suffered because he wouldn’t put pen to executive order. Perhaps Wright’s complacency is part of the metatext of the narrative.
Some of the interviewees go to great pains to point out that Lincoln was a much more radical man in his heart than he sometimes publicly showed himself to be. That he would have freed every slave the minute Fort Sumter fell, or even indeed the minute he stepped into office, but his belief in the Constitution and democracy prohibited him from so doing.
He wanted the end of slavery to be correct in the eyes of the law, lawyer that he was. I happen to think Lincoln’s hemming and hawing in the face of legality set a terrible precedent that allows liberal presidents and policymakers to couch inaction in deference to the Constitution. But that’s perhaps neither here nor there.
Making a Lincoln movie
The point is, the Lincoln of the best art must take a side and choose a personality for the president to inhabit. That’s true of Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, to which this documentary frequently plays as a direct companion (complete with animation by Chris King in the same style as the dream Lincoln has in the early going of Spielberg’s movie and Lincoln co-star Bill Camp reading Lincoln’s correspondences and speeches in the Apple TV+ series). It’s also true of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, John M. Stahl’s The Son of Democracy and A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels.
In order to make a movie about Lincoln, you need a big budget to do it, and a conflicted, more human version of Lincoln wouldn’t be an easy sell. He has to be mythic (the absurd Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter even turns him into an actual superhero).
That’s the beautiful thing about art. It can move you this way or that without needing to persuade you of a political position. I love Spielberg’s movie, which is about to celebrate its 10th birthday. I think it features some of his finest craft as a filmmaker, and some of the greatest performances of the last decade. However, there’s no denying that film’s message of compromise is outdated and no longer useful, if ever it was.
Lincoln’s Dilemma doesn’t toy with the truth
Lincoln’s Dilemma isn’t coy or cagey about the things he did wrong or the things he had to say to get what he wanted, or that he dragged his feet and needed a push toward the right outcome.
Indeed, though the argument is persuasively made that the “friendship” between Lincoln and Frederick Douglas (voiced here by Leslie Odom Jr.) is blown out of proportion, I think there is no denying that without Douglas’ influence, Lincoln does not become the more publicly radical figure as which he ends his life.
There’s an anecdote told here that I hadn’t heard before, and I wonder how many have: Lincoln very likely killed his valet William Henry Johnson by exposing him to his case of smallpox in 1864. Johnson never got to live freely, really. He was “free,” but he was bound to Lincoln night and day and then died because his job meant never leaving his side.
That, I think, sums up the contradictory impulses of Lincoln the politician. He may have had his heart in the right place. Indeed, he may have done the right things eventually. But his way of doing things proved fatal for many.
The persistence of racism
Lincoln’s Dilemma is also none too subtle about the ways in which racism hasn’t changed in the last 150 years. Lincoln’s opponents weren’t shy about suggesting he may have had black ancestry, and drew racist caricatures of him. Slave-owning states kept him off ballots to make sure their people couldn’t vote for him. (That he won anyway is a rich little upset.)
The ways in which racist politicians and people cling to their imagined superiority hasn’t altered at all, as a heartbreaking montage in the final 10 minutes of the last chapter tells us. Cobb and the other historians sort of look sideways as they explain that too little has changed, that Lincoln’s death proved he hadn’t done enough to protect his policies, and indeed that the system he fought to protect undid his work.
Cobb’s last words still ring in my ears, days after watching this fine piece of work: “The south pledged to rise again…. Instead the rest of the country sank down to meet it.”
Watch Lincoln’s Dilemma on Apple TV+
Lincoln’s Dilemma premieres on February 18 on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.
We originally published this review on February 8, 2022.