‘Listen to what he said’: remembering and honoring the speeches of Frederick Douglass

In new HBO documentary Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches, actors read some of the orator and abolitionist’s most powerful words

“I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The institutions of this country do not know me – do not recognise me as a man. I am not thought of or spoken of except as a piece of property. Now, in such a country as this I cannot have patriotism.”

The words are spoken by The Harder They Fall actor Jonathan Majors, wearing a hoodie before a bare brick wall, at the opening of Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches, an HBO documentary that makes a case that the fugitive slave turned celebrity abolitionist was also one of America’s great prose poets.

Sadly for the film-makers, no recordings of Douglass exist. But here a starry cast – Nicole Beharie, Colman Domingo, Majors, Denzel Whitaker and Jeffrey Wright – conjure his spirit by performing excerpts from five speeches, each representing a different moment in 19th-century America as well as his own political evolution.

The vignettes give ample reminder that, despite never having a day of formal education, Douglass wrote like an angel and entranced audiences like Cicero. They might also give cause to mourn a golden age of oratory that few political figures seek to match these days.

But Douglass was also one of the most photographed men of the 19th century. His understanding of the power of the pen, the voice and the image was ahead of his time. And he was not without ego.

Julia Marchesi, the film’s director, says: “He was an early social media master. That photography thing is completely channelling the power of social media so I have no doubt that he would be all over it [now].”

The film is inspired by Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, a Pulitzer prize-winning biography by David Blight, who is among its talking heads. But adapting this monumental 764-page book about Douglass’s multi-faceted life would have required countless hours of screen time. So Marchesi chose a more impressionistic structure.

“I really wanted to make people understand why he mattered and why he matters,” the 42-year-old says via Zoom from Brooklyn. “I think a lot of Americans have a sense of who he is just from his face on public murals or his name on street signs but I felt that people didn’t really appreciate why he became so famous, and that’s because of his words.

“That was the inspiration to then figure out how to showcase his writing and his speeches in a new way and that’s how we devised the five acts with actors performing speeches. You do see an interesting evolution in his demeanour, in the words but also the actors portray that as well.

“You have Denzel Whitaker, very young, very nervous, but also fiery. Jonathan Majors even more fiery and angry. But then by the time you get to Colman Domingo and Jeffrey Wright, he’s mellowed out a bit because he’s the statesman and now has a higher responsibility for being the spokesman of his people. I found the actors naturally portrayed that evolution in the way they delivered the speeches, which was great.”

The film tells how Douglass was born in 1818, escaped from slavery in 1838 and became a prominent abolitionist, offering audiences a unique story rooted in authentic experience. But white abolitionists found the Shakespeare-loving Douglass too polished, telling him to “put more plantation” in his voice so that he would not “sound as white”.

His riposte was to publish an autobiography that was not only an invaluable historical document. Executive producer Henry Louis Gates Jr says in the film: “It is an act of language. Douglass creates a work of art.”

As a fugitive slave, Douglass’s literary fame threatened his freedom, so he fled to Britain and Ireland, where he delivered more than a hundred lectures about the fight against slavery. It was there, he said, that he felt he was treated with dignity and respect rather than as a property for the first time.

Marchesi says: “It’s hard for us to understand because he talks about it as if racism doesn’t exist in England, which of course we know that it does, but I think that he was responding to it in contrast to what was going on in America at that time.

“He felt that the Brits approached him and treated him like a man’ they did not treat him like he was an enslaved man. As he says in the speech [performed by Majors], he came back with this contrast in his mind and it made him even more angry with his country. It gave him this new perspective.”

The Douglass who returned to America was more militant and fuelled by rage. Majors, 31, delivers an impassioned rendition of the “Country, Conscience and the Anti-Slavery Cause” speech that Douglass gave when he was 30.

Majors, with hoodie pulled over his head, then says in an interview in the film: “When he says that it’s crushing them to the earth, that’s when I went, ‘OK, that’s brother Floyd,’” – referring to George Floyd, an African American man murdered by police in Minneapolis in 2020. “That is that image and it’s not a new thing. It just made me want to say those words to people for the people who couldn’t.”

Douglass channeled his energy into a newspaper that effectively declared his independence from the abolitionist William Garrison. He gave perhaps his best known speech, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”, described by Gates as “the oratorical masterpiece of the abolitionist movement” and likened by Blight to a symphony with three movements.

A young Frederick Douglass overlooking Baltimore harbor.
A young Frederick Douglass overlooking Baltimore harbor. Photograph: HBO

Douglass was also a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage – he was the only male speaker at the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 – but had “difficult” relationships in his private life. The film explores his 44-year marriage to Anna Murray Douglass, whom he ignored in his writing, dooming her to be another of history’s hidden figures.

Marchesi says: “This was an enduring partnership; she got him through. They met before he escaped so this was a woman who’d been there for everything and that kind of bond never breaks. His life got very complicated but she was always there.

“A lot of people argue that she was the reason he could do what he did and that has not been celebrated in the history books. This woman was at his home, taking care of his kids, pressing his clothes and entertaining people.

“Who knows whether he would have been able to have the influence he did if he didn’t have a woman like that? That’s something that people never used to talk about with Douglass and David has opened that up a little bit with his book.”

Whether he remained faithful is “much disputed” (after Anna’s death, he caused a scandal by marrying a white woman). His letters suggest he was a good if often absent father. In his biography, Blight calls him “‘beautifully human” and in the film, Gates says: “Douglass had his flaws, he had his weaknesses. I think the most human we make our heroes, the more noble they became.”

Marchesi adds: “We need to understand the full man. When you hold someone on a pedestal, I don’t think it does anyone any favours. You need to know that they have weaknesses because I think it makes people want to listen to them more. It’s like, oh, actually there’s three dimensions to this person and he was a brilliant orator but he had a messy personal life and so do I. There’s an element of hero worship that isn’t actually helpful.”

It was a sentiment shared by South Africa’s anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who said he did not want all the statues and hagiography and deification. But Marchesi replies: “I don’t think Douglass would have said that. This is a man who had over 150 pictures of himself taken, so he liked the celebrity aspect. People digging into his personal life was not what he wanted, for sure.”

Denzel Whitaker in Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches.
Denzel Whitaker in Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches. Photograph: HBO

The American civil war began when Douglass was 43. He was too old to fight but not to deliver another stemwinder or two. He saw the north’s fight against over the slave-owning south as the culmination of all his striving: the death knell for slavery.

Douglass met President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The Union’s victory and emancipation later should have brought a sense of vindication and victory. But he observed: “Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves, they were not yet quite free. I therefore soon found that the negro had still a cause and that he needed my voice and my pen to plead for it.”

White supremacy was just asleep, Gates explains, and not for long. The horrors of Reconstruction brought a backlash of mob violence from former slaveholders and their allies and a realisation that Douglass’s work would never be done. He wrote his final speech in 1893 and took it on the road despite chest pains, trembling hands and deep weariness.

Gates observes in the documentary: “He’s always drawn back into combat. The war’s never over because white supremacy is the beast that won’t be defeated.”

Marchesi, previously producer and director of the series Reconstruction: America after The Civil War, observes: “We’re only truly appreciating now that the end of slavery wasn’t the end. That’s why Douglass’s life is just this constant three steps forward, two steps back. It’s constant heartbreak and just as he thinks they’re there, this epidemic of lynchings starts sweeping the country.

“He has to get out there again and it’s exhausting because he thinks we won this battle and I’m not sure he saw that coming. There was a lot of hope right after the war. There were all these Black men elected to Congress and I think his feeling was that Reconstruction was going to work and no one could have foreseen that backlash and how harsh it really was. I don’t think Douglass did.

“He gave some speeches about it: I thought we settled this question with the war; why are we still doing this? He’d be saying the same thing today, maybe to a lesser degree – lynchings aren’t sweeping the nation – but we still are dealing with the aftermath of the civil war for sure.”

Douglass died in 1895 at the age of 77. Since then, through the deathless prose, he has been a constant voice urging America to do better, to live up to its ideals. In 2017 a confused President Donald Trump used the present tense in remarking: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington.
The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Marchesi reflects: “It’s easy to name a street after him or put up a mural and say he is important but the purpose of this film is here’s why this person matters. Listen to what he said. Listen to how he wrote it. Listen to the skill that he had to persuade people, How can we harness that now?

“Speech making is not really a skill that we talk about much anymore. There’s Obama and JFK but nobody really talks about speech making a something that’s a particularly prized skill. But the power of persuasion and how we talk to each other and how we communicate activist messaging - he was a master and so he should be studied for that reason.”

Douglass’s first autobiography is taught in schools, Marchesi notes, and she would like to see his speeches more widely read. “Even more than this icon of the abolitionist movement, he’s an extraordinary person, an extraordinary American on par with Lincoln. He needs to be celebrated.

“Yes, he was influential and he was an activist and agitator but he was also an artist. He wrote literature and he used words to move people. Because his voice was never recorded, we don’t have a sense of how powerful those words really were.”

  • Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches is now available on HBO Max with a UK date to be announced


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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