The new documentary series “Lincoln’s Dilemma” begins and ends outside of Abraham Lincoln’s era — opening with footage of the siege on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and concluding only weeks later, with the journalist Jelani Cobb’s observation that the military “occupied” Washington to keep Joe Biden safe at his inauguration. But the point this series makes is that, indeed, we’re hardly outside Lincoln’s moment at all — that the tenuousness and the peril of his era persist, as does the fundamentally unresolved question of race in this country.
Directed by Jacqueline Olive and Barak Goodman and executive produced by, among others, former HBO chief Richard Plepler, “Lincoln’s Dilemma” uses various techniques to illustrate the life and legacy of the 16th president, and the problems he faced while in office. Among these are readings of Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ words (by Bill Camp and Leslie Odom Jr., respectively), narration (by Jeffrey Wright), and the introduction of various historians.
All work well, though this viewer found the context and insight added by the present-day commentators to be of unusually high value — in particular because the circle is notably inclusive, with Black historians and intellectuals providing trenchant insights into attitudes on race in Lincoln’s moment, and ours. The Lincoln and Douglass excerpts, too, provided meaningful context for the pair’s relationship. (Douglass and Lincoln met only occasionally, but the former’s words helped shape Lincoln’s thinking on the issue of slavery.) Lincoln, the president who abolished slavery, came to his position only after a career’s worth of figuring out his stance — and after circumstances came to a head well before his presidency — and this series leans into the complication.
It’s worth noting, perhaps, that this series is generously spread out and not rapid in its pace; it makes room both for delving into the man and the roiling tumult of his times, entirely avoiding shortcuts. But its lengthy running time — as opposed to the feature documentary it might have been — makes room for exploration of, say, Lincoln’s whistle-stop tour, during which he disguised himself and changed his movements to avoid assassination, or insight into the role that formerly enslaved Black Americans, in the nation against their will, played in the Union military defense.
In the series’ final episode, we see the recent toppling of many Confederate statues in the American South; it’s a victory, but a symbolic one. The forces Lincoln faced down in his life — the dilemma of those who prize their racial hierarchy more than their nation — are still with us. Historian Kellie Carter Jackson tells the camera that Lincoln is “trying to get the entire country to grapple with ‘who are we as Americans?’” This is a corrective to the idea that Lincoln simply ended slavery as a utilitarian means of stopping the war, and a question about the nation’s soul that this documentary suggests remains unanswered. Its willingness to live in unresolvedness makes “Lincoln’s Dilemma” a contemplative, challenging watch.
“Lincoln’s Dilemma” premieres on Apple TV Plus Friday, February 18.