When filmmakers Jacqueline Olive and Barak Goodman began working on Lincoln’s Dilemma, a four-part docuseries that has recently premiered on Apple TV+, they were excited to challenge some overly simplistic narratives about the former U.S. president,.
“I had done two previous films on Lincoln, and was struck in both experiences about how different he is as a human being than the mythology that surrounds him and the iconography that surrounds him,” Goodman tells Realscreen.
“He didn’t descend from Mount Olympus. This was a human being who went through a lot of personal pain to arrive at a place that was in many ways ahead of the rest of the country, but he didn’t start that way. So that’s the journey we wanted to chronicle.”
Olive added she was excited to give a nuanced account of how Lincoln came to be president and how his stance on slavery evolved over time, while also elevating the stories of Black people of the era.
Produced by Eden Productions and Kunhardt Films, Lincoln’s Dilemma covers Lincoln’s journey towards declaring the end of slavery in the U.S. at the height of the Civil War. The series features narration by actor Jeffrey Wright, as well as the voices of Bill Camp and Leslie Odom Jr. as Lincoln and anti-slavery advocate Frederick Douglass, respectively. Expert commentary is provided courtesy of journalists and historians such as Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker, author Kellie Carter Jackson, and University of Maryland professor, Christopher Bonner.
Directors Olive and Goodman sat down with Realscreen for an in-depth discussion about the new series, their archival process and use of animation, and creating a new project about a heavily researched and discussed topic.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What kind of challenges do you face when working on a documentary subject that has been covered as deeply and as often as Lincoln?
Barak Goodman: The series is not as Lincoln-centric as many of the past projects [on Lincoln] have been. We tried to place Lincoln in the context of his time, and, very importantly, we tried to understand the people around him who most influenced him on this issue [of slavery]. That includes ordinary enslaved people, who with their own actions made a deep impression on Lincoln. So it’s trying to widen the lens, take away some of the hagiography that tends to surround Lincoln. That was the mission from the very beginning.
How did you highlight voices of ordinary people around Lincoln from that era?
Goodman: We have a certain number of “slave narratives” that have been handed down. These are the original accounts of enslaved people in their own words. Those are available to us, and they gave us a roster of possible characters from which to draw. In addition to that, we have some credible accounts of what are called the contraband camps — essentially refugee camps of enslaved people in the North, even in the South behind Union lines, where enslaved people escaped to. Those encampments were visited by African American journalists at the time, and those accounts survived. Then, of course, we have the unbelievably eloquent writings [and] speeches of Frederick Douglass, which we draw on heavily in the film.
Olive: In episode four, there’s a story of a massacre of Black soldiers in Tennessee in the spring of 1864. And it is really key to understand how ordinary and often enslaved folks would come to serve in the war, sometimes fresh out of slavery, to fight and to help abolish the institution, and then to understand the disproportionate danger that they faced. So the story of the massacre at Fort Pillow is really enlightening. It’s those kinds of stories that were really important to elevate, and that help [us] to understand Lincoln beyond the myths and the overly simplistic narrative about who he was and about the time.
Are there any common misconceptions in how Lincoln is discussed that you wanted to take on with this series?
Olive: It’s the narratives that are didactic. That either Lincoln was racist and that was it, or that he was totally progressive and completely and solely responsible for the liberation of Black people. Neither one of those is accurate, and so when you start to unpack the nuances of that, you get to really understand that Lincoln was a man who was open and willing to struggle with his own internal contradictions, and that he was surrounded by a very chaotic mesh of political ideas that were often in opposition. Lincoln was willing and open to navigating that and to challenging his own perceptions by speaking to ordinary people.
Goodman: Lincoln is not one thing, he’s not static. He’s someone who is full of contradictions, and someone who changed over time. The Lincoln of 1861, where he’s basically beseeching the South to come back into the Union even if it means that they’ll have to accept slavery in those seven states, is totally different to the Lincoln of 1864 and 1865, who’s pushing the 13th amendment. That process of growth and change, which involved a lot of questioning of self, a lot of contradictions, that’s the main Lincoln that we’re trying to present here. It’s understanding how he changes and why he changes and all the missteps that happened along the way that really illuminate him.
Jelani Cobb says in this series that it’s only by understanding the things [Lincoln] got wrong that we appreciate and learn from the things he got right, and I think that’s right on the nose. I think that we tend to believe that Lincoln was sort of perfect and was kind of above reproach, but he wasn’t. He was a human being, a man of his time, a politician at heart. Someone who was driven by enormous conscience, but who didn’t have all the answers, and had to struggle and learn and do all those human things to arrive at his final destination.
How did Apple TV+ come to be the platform for this series?
Goodman: My understanding, and it’s one step removed, is Richard Plepler, who is formerly of HBO and a giant in the industry, went to Apple TV. He had read and optioned a book called Abe by the historian David Reynolds, and we should say that that book has really inspired a lot of wonderful new stuff in our series. Apple TV saw this as not just another familiar historical documentary, but really something that could be new and different and bring in a whole new angle to and really comment on contemporary times. They see it as a very timely and relevant series for where we are right now as a country.
What was the archival process like for this series?
Goodman: Jackie and I were hired by Kunhardt Films, which is a family company. It just so happens, not only are they wonderful filmmakers, and have an amazing track record, they are also owners of the largest Lincoln archives in the world. Their great-, great-, whatever-grandfather collected all of the original glass-plate negatives of Lincoln himself, of the Civil War, all that era. The Kunhardts have this vast collection, which they did make available to Jackie and myself. And not only that, they have the expertise to know what that collection is and where we can find things.
It’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of archival imagery, and obviously there’s no footage in there — it’s all photographs — but we then brought an animation team to bear on these photos to make them not the traditional sort of Ken Burns look. Lots of different kinds of treatments of these photographs make them come alive — [we're] incorporating them into more complex animations, using them in novel ways. It was our intention from the beginning not only to create a new visual look, but also to bring the kind of diversity of voices that has not been seen before in the social documentary about this era. We have a new generation of Black scholars who are incredibly exciting and interesting. So all that gives it a very fresh feeling.
What else makes this a timely documentary project to be released now?
Goodman: The takeaway for me [is that] in that period of time, we had a leader in Lincoln who was deeply driven by principle, but also capable of change, of listening and questioning himself. That is the lesson of leadership that I would hope that our current leaders are paying attention to.
Olive: It’s very short-sighted of us to continue to lean into the myths and the oversimplified stories of Lincoln. After having a couple of centuries of evolved understanding on this topic, to continue to perpetuate those narratives really discounts all that we know, all of the evolution of our understanding about questions about race, freedom and democracy — all those things that we’ve learned for the past 200 years. I think that we really need to move on and to do less of the reflexive regurgitating of those heavily simplistic myths. When we combine that information and we uplift it, then you have a greater understanding about what’s going on now, and you really benefit from the lessons of Lincoln and the folks of his period.