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Docuseries offers a more complete history of Lincoln's journey to end slavery


We've known Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, the man who abolished chattel slavery. A new documentary series called "Lincoln's Dilemma" challenges that idea by presenting a nuanced portrait of a man, a president, full of contradictions.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He did not start his presidency to be the Great Emancipator. He wanted to be the great unifier, the person that brought the country back together again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The phrase the Great Emancipator - it's not a phrase Lincoln asked to be applied to himself. And we can do better, beginning with the recognition that emancipation began with the emancipated.

FADEL: The series, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, shows how that fight for emancipation was much larger than one lionized man. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass made Lincoln understand the brutality of slavery and the humanity of the enslaved. But there are also the countless names and faces of formerly enslaved people never mentioned, never depicted in history books, who guided him. Directors Barak Goodman and Jacqueline Olive say they want their documentary to lift up the voices of African Americans who guided the president along a path to freedom.

JAQUELINE OLIVE: I was just in an Uber. I was - the Uber driver, I was asking about - I mentioned the series and what I do and asked him what he knew about Lincoln. And he said that Lincoln freed the slaves. And it's just really overly simplistic. There were so many points in history and so much effort by enslaved people for their own freedom. Their very lives depended on emancipation, on ending the institution of slavery. And so what that meant was is that there was this large movement towards actively engaging in their own freedom.

BARAK GOODMAN: And I would just add that as the war went on, Lincoln was not only fighting the South, he was fighting Northern public opinion, who were getting increasingly fatigued with the whole thing. And so during that period of time, there was a critical need for soldiers, for people to fight, and the only people clamoring to fight were African Americans, enslaved - formerly enslaved people. And their example moved Lincoln, personally, towards an appreciation of the humanity of Black people, of the need for complete emancipation. So we have to remember that it wasn't just enslaved people leaving the plantations and coming north. It was their insistence on joining and fighting in the Union cause that really moved the country.

FADEL: One thing that really stuck with me with this series that maybe I didn't fully understand myself before was this incredible moral journey. I mean, Lincoln did not come to this great moral decision on his own. But he also - there are moments where, for example, he talks about colonization, if you could get into what that is and what he ultimately was doing in the middle of this war.

GOODMAN: Yes. Lincoln was a man of his times. We forget that in all the sort of hero worship we do around him. He hated slavery, hated what it did to human beings, but he thought that perhaps Black and white people couldn't get along together in the United States as free people. And therefore, the best solution was to colonize, to ship free African Americans from the United States to a country of their own somewhere - let's say, in Africa or in Central America. And I think it's one of those things that really complicates our views of Lincoln and makes you scratch your head and makes you perhaps pierce the veil of who this man was and understand him more clearly. There were plenty of examples of backsliding, equivocation, uncertainty around the future of African Americans in the United States. And that journey, that moral journey, is at the heart of our series.

OLIVE: It is. And if it wasn't for folks like Frederick Douglass, who, by the way, when Lincoln came into the presidency, was one of the most famous men in America - and Frederick Douglass had just been recently out of slavery himself a few years earlier. And so he understood what colonization meant for Black people who had built a home in this country and who had roots in America and what that meant for the future of Black citizenship. And so there are these forces that were pulling on Lincoln, and there were times when Lincoln was pulling the country along where he was far more politically progressive than the rest of the country. And so really, what I was excited to create with this series is this ebb and flow, this really complicated, nuanced understanding of Lincoln in the times.

FADEL: Yeah. Are there moments that you learned as you tracked his journey and those that helped him arrive, ultimately, to the decisions he made that surprised you, that stuck with you?

GOODMAN: It's really remarkable to look back at this era where a president has personal contacts with ordinary people - not lofty, you know, fellow politicians or famous people, but ordinary people - and how those encounters really changed Lincoln. You know, he would ride in his carriage from his residence in - outside Washington, when he wasn't at the White House, the Soldiers' Home. And he would go past these camps where refugee, enslaved people were living, and he would have personal conversations with them. And he was a man who was moved by pain. He had great empathy for people, and I think that's an under-looked-at aspect of Lincoln's life and something that speaks so highly of who he was as a human being.

FADEL: Now, these refugee camps of freed slaves that he'd walk through, they were also called contraband camps. So even though he's in these camps, speaking to human beings, still, words for property are the title of the camp.

OLIVE: Yeah, that's the contradictions and the complexity of the time - right? - is that there is this - even as - in the midst of this push towards emancipation and abolition, there is still not the complete understanding of the full humanity of Black people and the knowledge and the desire for them to become full citizenship. So you have all of these contradictions at play. And that Lincoln navigated them and ended up as a proponent and as instrumental in emancipation is really, I think, quite extraordinary.


FADEL: Jacqueline Olive and Barak Goodman, thank you both so much.

OLIVE: Absolutely.

GOODMAN: Thank you.


FADEL: The four-part docuseries is called "Lincoln's Dilemma." It streams on Apple TV+ tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.