Jeffrey Wright Shares ‘Lincoln’s Dilemma’ and the Critical Role Frederick Douglass Played In It All

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Image: courtesy of Apple TV +.

Lincoln’s Dilemma, Apple TV+ four-part docuseries about one of the country’s most famous presidents, is more thorough than people will expect, shares the actor Jeffrey Wright, the narrator of the series. After watching the very first episode, Wright says, “I immediately found myself Googling certain details that I had previously been unfamiliar with.”

Based on historian David S. Reynolds’ acclaimed book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His TimesLincoln’s Dilemma explores the nation’s sixteenth president described for decades as “the Great Emancipator.” Uncovering the many grand myths surrounding “Honest Abe” is a multiracial group of journalists, educators, and scholars, including the historian and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, the series executive producer . 

But this examination, shares the D.C. native, reveals more than just Lincoln, it also showcases “the complexity of our history, and the intimacy of our relationship, whether we’re Black or white, to the history of our country,” he says.

One illustration of this for the Tony and Emmy winner is a rarely cited pre-Civil War incident in which Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorusch traveled to Christiana, Pennsylvania in the Greater Philadelphia area just after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law to retrieve his escaped property of four men. By the standards of the time, Gorusch believed himself to be a good man, offering freedom to those he enslaved after a certain amount of time served and employing those he formerly enslaved for seasonal work. It was his belief that his men had been lured away and would willingly come back with him. However, when he and his party of eight white men arrived, they were met with armed resistance from a group of Black men and women. Even more interesting, Gorusch, who did not survive, had an extraordinary personal relationship with one. 

“This story of a man backed by the United States government going to retrieve men who have escaped enslavement from him and one of those men is also his son, who would rather return fire on his own father than return to the brutality of slavery, just speaks to the complexity of the time that led up to the Civil War,” Wright says.

One particularly refreshing aspect of the docuseries is the focus on Frederick Douglass, whom fellow Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. voices, and his impact on Lincoln’s evolving views on abolition and Black equality. “Douglass, in some ways, is the president of Black America at this time, and Douglass is a forceful voice in helping usher Lincoln through the evolution that he undergoes during his presidency. He’s not an abolitionist at the beginning of his presidency,” explains Wright, who also narrates the classic memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, recently released by Apple

“If the institution of slavery in the South was to be preserved, and that kept the Union together, he was fine with it,” says Wright of Lincoln. “But he eventually evolves to a presidency that’s not just about preserving the Union, but it’s also about emancipating Black folks in the South. And Douglass was very influential in Lincoln evolving in that way.

“He was constantly prodding him that the war must be fought about emancipation [and] constantly prodding him as well that Black men must be given arms and included in the Union army so that Black people could have a hand in the fight for their own freedom,” continues Wright who recites “Lessons of the Hour,” the giant’s last major speech, in the Dr. Henry Louis Gates-produced Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches.

For Wright, Lincoln’s Dilemma provides useful insight for right now. “If there’s anything that we can learn from Lincoln’s presidency, it’s how to navigate complex times,” adds The Batman actor.

Lincoln’s Dilemma is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.

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