Lincoln’s Dilemma Review: Being Honest About Abe

Doc reconsiders Lincoln's legacy as "the great emancipator"

5 mins read

Lincoln’s Dilemma
(USA, 4 x 58 min.)
Dir. Jacqueline Olive, Barack Goodman


Is it time to be honest about Abe? Lincoln’s Dilemma confronts American President Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as “the great emancipator.” This four-part documentary series directed by Jacqueline Olive (Always in Season) and Barack Goodman (Slay the Dragon) is a timely consideration of the mythology that creates heroes. Lincoln’s Dilemma frames its reconsideration of Lincoln within the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, as well as the Trump inspired insurgency on the Washington Capitol and the heavily guarded inauguration of Joe Biden in its aftermath. As the series observes Americans advocating for the removal of monuments that lionize figures of the nation’s racist past, it asks how one can navigate a historical figure’s complicated history in the present. It’s not easy and it requires a roster of experts to set the record straight.

The general premise of Lincoln’s Dilemma is that it’s not entirely inaccurate to characterize Lincoln as the man who freed the slaves. The series begins by noting that abolition was not on Lincoln’s agenda when he assumed office. Rather, the experts say that Lincoln denounced slavery, but was ambivalent about ending it. Instead, the series argues that ending slavery became a political tool for preserving the Union. The experts agree that Lincoln had some checkered politics but that he was a great politician as he used abolition to gain enough momentum to beat the Confederates. Excerpts from Lincoln’s personal correspondence and public statements, read with stately authority by Bill Camp, illuminate both sentiments.


Conventional Delivery

Lincoln’s Dilemma offers a thorough overview of Lincoln’s journey in which he came to see the inhumanity of slavery. The roster of historians and experts, which appropriately affords considerable space to Black voices, explains how Black Americans were responsible for bringing America to this pivotal moment of change. They credit Frederick Douglass, voiced valiantly by Leslie Odom, Jr., for being a persuasive critic of Lincoln’s hesitance to touch slavery. They emphasize how ordinary Black Americans, including escaped slaves, took up arms and fought for freedom. These experts don’t necessarily diminish Lincoln’s legacy: they just offer a more expansive and inclusive consideration. It’s a fascinating example of revisiting history that was previously written through a white lens.

The arguments are thorough and clear. They are, however, a bit repetitive. Lincoln’s Dilemma bears the trademark of many doc-series pushed through the streamers. There’s probably a great feature here that’s been stretched and padded to four hour-long episodes. A conventional tapestry of archival images and animation is complemented by compelling voiceover narration by Jeffrey Wright. The animation, however, is both crude and inconsistent. Lincoln’s Dilemma relies heavily on filler animation to fill the inevitable gaps in the archive, which also underscores how much of the debate is, to an extent, speculative. Some details are rich, however, rich. Particularly the discussions about military strategy and the parallelisms of Lincoln’s fateful train rides to and from Washington. It’s all a bit dry, though.


Series Invites Worthy Conversation

There series provokes interesting questions about contemporary politics. The talking heads don’t quite give Lincoln credit for this open-mindedness, but the conversation illustrates what happens when people listen. Despite the polarized times, Lincoln’s handling of abolition illustrates the potential for change that arises through productive debates and advocacy. The final episode smartly interweaves footage from 2020 with the archives of the 1860s to parallel the divisiveness in America. The difference in Lincoln’s time, however, was that Republicans listened.

There is nevertheless a great idea behind Lincoln’s Dilemma and a smart conversation to have afterwards. History buffs will probably love the intricate take on the Civil War, but the protracted analysis of the argument delivered in the first episode admittedly wears thin. The debate in Lincoln’s Dilemma might actually work best as a book or a podcast. As a documentary, though, it leaves something to be desire, to be honest.


Lincoln’s Dilemma is now streaming on AppleTV+



Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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