As someone who considers himself highly informed when it comes to Civil War history and the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln, I’ve easily seen well over 100 films dealing with either or both subjects and liked almost all of them—even the widely panned “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
Co-directed by veteran “Frontline” producers Jacqueline Olive and Barak Goodman, “Lincoln’s Dilemma” (based on the book “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times” by David S. Reynolds) is a handsomely mounted sub-genre documentary containing vast quantities of information on what most people would consider to be obscure facts of the mid-19th century. Many of the events covered have never been addressed in other films, including the best production of its kind ever made: Ken Burns’s 15-hour watershed epic “The Civil War” from 1990.
Lincoln and Douglass
Narrated by Jeffrey Wright, the principal thread in “Dilemma” is the complicated relationship between Lincoln (voiced by Bill Camp) and escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.). Not meeting in person until near the end of Lincoln’s first term, the men followed each other via news reports and inadvertently began an uneasy but always-improving, long-distance, détente partnership.
The “dilemma” in the title refers to the sticky situation Lincoln made for himself after being elected in 1860. Running on an “anti-slavery” platform on the campaign trail, Lincoln back-walked it somewhat after assuming office. Winning with less than half of the total votes, it’s a miracle he become president at all as he didn’t even appear on Southern slave-state ballots. Lincoln’s “anti” sentiment morphed into “stopping the spread” of slavery, not eliminating it. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with Douglass.
What Douglass at the time and numerous talking heads and historians in the film perhaps didn’t realize was Lincoln’s biggest priority was in vanquishing the Confederacy and bringing the Southern states back into the Union, and he was willing to do almost anything to do so.
In a letter sent to New-York Tribune founder and editor Horace Greely, Lincoln stated: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
At one point, Lincoln considered using government funds to relocate any slave who was interested to the African country of Liberia.
Emancipation: Not If but When
A master politician, Lincoln knew full well that if he based the war on emancipating the slaves, he would receive little support from Northern free states. His masterstroke was waiting until the Union was fully committed and engaged before leveraging everything on the passing of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery “forever” and “for all time.” For more details on this monumentally game-changing bit of history, check out Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) starring Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.
Unlike Burns’s documentary—and likely because of time constraints—Olive and Goodman don’t include details of every major battle and in their stead make the wise choice of including lesser-known events, people, and the details of landmark U.S. legislation. These include the Christiana Riot of 1851, in Pennsylvania, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1850, and the New York Draft Riot of 1863, which was dramatized in great detail in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” (2002) also starring Day-Lewis.
Once it became evident to Douglass that Lincoln’s intent to abolish slavery was sincere (if a tad late in arriving), he became even more insistent that Lincoln finally approve former slaves and free Northern blacks to join the Union Army. Lincoln later credited this action with providing the turning point in the war.
Perhaps the best-known event involving black Union troops was the unsuccessful Second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, which provided the concluding scene for Edward Zwick’s “Glory” (1989), also reviewed by me in The Epoch Times on Jan. 21.
Defeat Stolen From the Jaws of Victory
For the first 3 1/2 episodes, the filmmakers and contributing scholars do a reasonably good job of appearing unbiased and were headed to a very good, if not excellent, series; their frequent use of sepia-tinged animation is particularly arresting and original. Where they drop the ball in a major way is in the last 15 minutes when their unabashed, vainglorious stripes are revealed.
There’s a half-cocked connection made between the origins of the Lincoln Memorial and the heightened security present at the Jan. 20, 2021, presidential inauguration, uncomplimentary footage of people who likely didn’t vote for the current occupant of the White House, the deriding of the iconic Lincoln “emancipation” statue in Boston, and so on and so forth. It’s obvious, blunt-force partisanship and is wholly ill-fitting in a series about two unselfish, legendary men who moved mountains to save this country during its darkest time.
We could sure use their wisdom and fortitude now.
Debuts on Apple TV+ on Feb. 18.
Directors: Jacqueline Olive, Barak Goodman
Stars: Jeffrey Wright, Bill Camp, Leslie Odom Jr.
Running Time: 3 hours, 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: TV-PG
Release Date: Feb. 18, 2022
Rating: 2.5 out of 5