Frederick Douglass’ provocative words crackle in HBO documentary
Colman Domingo, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Beharie and other brilliant actors interpret the speeches of the great abolitionist.
“The desire for freedom only needed a favorable breeze to fan it into a blaze at any moment.” – Frederick Douglass
It would be a victory for education, enlightenment, historical truth and critical thinking if the HBO documentary “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” is played in every junior high school and high school classroom in America. With a half-dozen brilliant actors reading from Douglass’ autobiographies and five of his most important speeches, this is a vibrant and important piece of work.
HBO Documentary Films presents a documentary directed by Julia Marchesi. Running time: 58 minutes. Premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on HBO and available then on HBO Max.
Directed by Julia Marchesi and inspired by David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” is filmed in a clear, straightforward, Ken Burns-ian style.
With handsome graphics and illustrations of Douglass augmenting the journey (Douglass was one of the most-photographed figures of the 19th century), various cast members bring Douglass’ crackling, soaring, thoughtful, provocative, brutally honest words to life. Director Marchesi also does an expert job of weaving in interviews with historians such as Blight, Keidrick Roy and Henry Louis Gates Jr., who contribute invaluable scene-setting context.
“He could take you in a single sentence inside of a crisis and say, ‘Here’s what this is doing to us, here’s what it’s doing to you, here’s what it’s doing to the nation,’” notes Blight.
Andre Holland reads from Douglass’ autobiographies, while Jonathan Majors, Denzel Whitaker, Colman Domingo, Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Beharie take turns interpreting excerpts from speeches. (No costumes or sets are used.) Each actor brings their own singular style to the table.
Holland as Douglass recalls how when he was about 12, Sophia Auld, wife of the slave owner Hugh Auld, was teaching him to read — but when Hugh Auld found out, he forbade the lessons, telling her “it was unlawful as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master. These words sank deep into my heart and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
And from that moment, Douglass taught himself — trading pieces of bread for reading materials, piecing together tattered pages of a discarded Bible. The documentary continues along the linear timeline path, chronicling how Douglass escaped slavery by hopping on a moving train out of Baltimore with borrowed documents and eventually settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he attended a convention held by abolitionists in Nantucket — and accepted an invitation to speak.
Denzel Whitaker as Douglass: “My friends, I have come to tell you something about slavery. What I know of it, as I felt it. When I came North, I was astonished to find the abolitionists knew so much about [slavery], they were acquainted with its deadly effects … but although they can tell you its history … they cannot speak as I can, from experience. They cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can …”
The Massachusetts anti-slavery coalition hired Douglass and sent him on the circuit to tell his story, and Douglass further established his reputation as a major voice with the 1845 publication of his first autobiography.
“He was young, he was outraged, he was powerful, and he wasn’t going to take it anymore,” says artist Bisa Butler. The documentary also touches on Douglass’ two marriages, his bouts with depression and the pressures he faced as arguably the most famous Black man in the world by the middle of the 20th century.
In July 1852, Douglass delivered perhaps the most famous speech of his life, titled, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, N.Y. — a speech Gates says “will go down in history as the oratorical masterpiece of the entire abolitionist movement.”
Nicole Beharie takes the reins for this segment and delivers a mesmerizing performance as Douglass starts out by praising the Founding Fathers as brave revolutionaries but then segues into a scathing condemnation of the horrors of slavery, spelled out in detail designed to shock the audience out of its comfort zone, and says, “What do I or those I represent have to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice embodied in that Declaration [of Independence] extended to us?”
Two great actors, Colman Domingo and Jeffrey Wright, bring Douglass’ story all the way home, through the Civil War; Douglass’ historic first meeting at the White House with President Lincoln; Douglass becoming ever more famous, with constant press attention and an appearance on the cover of Harper’s magazine in the 1870s (a huge deal at the time); Douglass taking bureaucratic jobs in Washington, D.C., in the late 1870s and 1880s; and his public disputes with the next generation of Black leaders.
Jeffrey Wright as Douglass, delivering “Lessons of the Hour” in 1894: “Put away your prejudice, banish the idea that one class must rule over another, recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved. … Based on the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.”
You can feel the great man’s words resonating through the years, through the decades, into the 21st century.