The Problem With CNN’s Lincoln Documentary

If it weren’t for having to work on taxes last night I probably wouldn’t have caught a single episode of CNN’s new documentary about Abraham Lincoln, called “Divided We Stand.” Last night’s episode focused on the first half of the war. It included a focused look at the impact of Willie’s death on his parents and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. I was quickly underwhelmed.

I was very encouraged by the number of talented historians that were employed for this documentary, but the way in which they are utilized is problematic. The film moves from person to person for what amounts, in most cases, to only a few words. These fragments are strung together to form a coherent narrative. I found the constant back and forth distracting.

If you are going to include such a talented list of historians, use their commentary to support a rich narrative rather than the other way around. You can’t build a compelling and historically interesting narrative by cobbling together fragments of commentary from 10 different people. This is essentially the tail wagging the dog.

The questions posed to each historian should emphasize his or her area of expertise, which in turn can be used to enrich specific places in the narrative. I found it frustrating that most of the time the questions posed could have been answered by anyone.

And that leads me to what I see as the overall problem of the documentary. In the end, the content is uninteresting and fails to add much of anything to what you can find in any number of documentaries about Lincoln and the Civil War.

6 comments… add one
  • Brad Mar 18, 2021 @ 19:11

    I’ve been watching it here and there but have generally found it uninteresting for the reasons you mentioned. The producers are trying to be amateur Ken Burns’ but failing abjectly. Having actors play historical characters who look nothing like the people they represent also makes little sense.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 9, 2021 @ 16:06

    I never understand this when it comes to documentaries. Is it a matter of historians saying what they are told to say by the producers of the program? Or is misinformation the result of cut-and-paste editing?

    I will say, though, one of the better recent documentaries was the Grant miniseries on the History Channel. I really appreciated that they used a whole new generation of historians for the program- Caroline Janney, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Christy Coleman, Barton Myers, and others. Plus, it offered a very refreshing narrative of Grant’s life.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 9, 2021 @ 16:35

      I agree, Bryan. The Grant miniseries was much, much better.

  • zcrockett53 Mar 8, 2021 @ 3:16

    As a librarian I helped a Black fifth grader write a report on the Emancipation Proclamation. I also helped him see who it really freed and who it didn’t. I went to hear him give his oral report, which he started with, “The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free slaves outside the South, but that’s okay because it lead to the 13th Amendment.” Very proud day.
    Back in February, when CNN was promoting “Lincoln: Divided We Stand,” they published this from six historians. Evidently they didn’t use these effectively in Episode 1: https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/14/opinions/abraham-lincoln-divided-we-stand-roundup/index.html

    • Walter Kamphoefner Mar 8, 2021 @ 7:02

      Wow, a fifth grader nailed it much better than a lot of neo-Confederates and the occasional Black militant (strange bedfellows!) hammering on the “Lincoln was a racist” trope.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 8, 2021 @ 7:09

        This is one of the things that I found so frustrating about the documentary. Here you have this talented group of historians to work with and an opportunity to deepen our understanding of Lincoln in this regard and move beyond some of these tired tropes. Instead, they make room for Conan O’Brien.

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