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‘Frederick Douglass in Five Speeches’ Now on HBO
By Lapacazo Sandoval, Contributing Writer
Published March 3, 2022

It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”― Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass as middle-aged man. (billofrightsinstitute.org)

No truer words have been said, and this is just one example of the continued power of Frederick Douglass and his words, which is explored in the new HBO documentary — “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches.”

It’s a blow to our nation that there are certain states that are working, hard, to remove African American history from being taught in schools. That’s not saying much — it’s saying absolutely, everything about the state of race relationships in this country.

I would suggest that “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” is not only screened in every junior high school and high school classroom in America, but I would add and challenge every single Christian church in America, and beyond. This act of unity would be a victory for historical truth, healing, enlightenment, and education.

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Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” ― Frederick Douglass

Directed by Julia Marchesi with a swift-running time of 58 minutes and currently playing on HBO and HBO Max, this work is inspired by David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” and pulls no punches choosing, instead, to present the facts in a very straightforward manner.

This absolutely highlights the continued relevance and importance of his collected works.  It’s beautiful to watch, thanks to the lush illustrations and graphics of Douglass, which help us go back in time and journey with Douglass, who become one of the most photographed figures of the 19th century.

To bring his thoughts to life, the director challenges various cast members to the task of telling Douglass’ truth. Marchesi deftly weaves these performances with interviews of historians such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Keidrick Roy, and Blight, all of whom provide invaluable context.

Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” ― Frederick Douglass.

There’s so much rich material to pull from, and Marchesi has Andre Holland reading from Douglass’ autobiographies, giving Denzel Whitaker, Colman Domingo, Jonathan Majors, Jeffrey Wright, and Nicole Beharie each turns interpreting excerpts from speeches where each thespian, sans costumes or sets, bring their own style to the task.

Douglass was an orator, abolistionist and statesman (visitmaryland.org)

To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. ― Frederick Douglass. 

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Let’s focus on the word “suppress” and lean into what’s happening as it relates to the vote in our timeline. And it was Douglass who made it clear that  “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave,” and in one episode, actor Holland recalls how, when he was about 12, the wife of the slave owner, Hugh Auld, taught him to read (which, was illegal) and when he found out stopped those lessons reminding her that it was against the law to teach a slave to read.

The slave owner believed that once an African American slave understood that he was a human being, and deserving of the same rights as any other human being, he would become unmanageable and of no financial value to his master.

It’s that understanding that knowledge was a vital key to changing his position in life that altered his life. “These words sank deep into my heart and called into existence an entirely new train of thought,” Douglass wrote.” From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

“The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers … “ Douglass wrote and he taught himself how to read by trading pieces of bread for reading materials.

The documentary smartly continues to move along a linear timeline, detailing how Douglass escaped slavery by jumping on a train out of Baltimore holding borrowed documents and eventually settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In this new city he attended a convention that was organized by passionate abolitionists in Nantucket — and encouraged to speak out about his experience as a slave, he accepted their invitation and never looked back.

There is no denying that Douglass used his experience and natural ability to make a person’s heart stir to bring attention to the injustice.

From his own words:  “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 …”

(Credit: HBO/HBO Max)

Amen. Understanding Douglass’s value, the Massachusetts anti-slavery coalition hired him, placing him on the speaking circuit where he told his story cemented his reputation as an insider to one of mankind’s greatest evils. His first autobiography was published in 1845.

Surely, the pressures on Douglass’ shoulders were significant and the doc touches on his two marriages and how he dealt with depression. Imagine — what it must have been for this runaway “slave” to become, unquestionably, the most famous African American man in the world by the middle of the 19th century.

In July 1852, Douglass delivered one of his most famous speeches, titled, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, N.Y. Many supporters have said that this speech would be marked as a “masterpiece of the entire abolitionist movement.”

Kudos to the directors’  decision to let the words from this speech spill from actress Nicole Beharie’s mouth. The speech cleverly begins by praising the “Founding Fathers” as brave revolutionaries, but then segues (hard) into the ugly truth and condemns the horrors of slavery, which he lays out with shocking detail.

No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”― Frederick Douglass.

There are many reasons that make “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” so entertaining and it’s a gift to watch Jeffrey Wright and Colman Domingo breathe life into Douglass’ journey through slavery, the Civil War, and historic first meeting at the White House with President Lincoln where he arrived (1863) without an appointment.

Perhaps Douglass was the living embodiment of the “truth will set you free” because his fame kept growing and he even appeared on the cover of Harper’s magazine (1870s ).

Jeffrey Wright as Douglass, delivering “Lessons of the Hour” in 1894 makes a mark in an already brilliant documentary.

Ten out of ten. It’s amazing and inspiring that you can still hear Frederick Douglass’ words — still alive — and still inspiring and driving generations.

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