Inspired by David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” and executive produced by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the HBO documentary FREDERICK DOUGLASS: IN FIVE SPEECHES brings to life the words of our country’s most famous anti-slavery activist. Acclaimed actors Nicole Beharie, Colman Domingo, Jonathan Majors, Denzel Whitaker and Jeffrey Wright draw from five of Douglass’ legendary speeches, to represent a different moment in the tumultuous history of 19th century America as well as a different stage of Douglass’ long and celebrated life. Famed scholars David Blight, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others provide context for the speeches, and, along with André Holland’s readings from Douglass’ autobiographies, remind us that Frederick Douglass’ words about racial injustice still resonate deeply today.
FREDERICK DOUGLASS: IN FIVE SPEECHES debuts WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 23(9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT) on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.
After his escape from slavery at age 20, Frederick Douglass went on to become the most famous Black man in the nineteenth century, and he achieved that position based on the power of his words. Entirely self-taught, Douglass was a powerful writer and master orator, crafting speeches that called out American hypocrisy and challenged the nation to live up to its founding principles. FREDERICK DOUGLASS: IN FIVE SPEECHES offers a new approach to understanding Douglass’ story, guided entirely by his own words about this country’s struggle for Black freedom and equality. Together with his autobiographies, the writings chart Douglass’ rise from a passionate young agitator to a composed statesman, and ultimately to a disenchanted but still hopeful older man.
- “I Have Come To Tell You Something About Slavery” (1841) performed by Denzel Whitaker. At an anti-slavery convention, Douglass recounts his story of being raised as a slave publicly for the first time.
- “Country, Conscience, And The Anti-Slavery Cause” (1847) performed by Jonathan Majors. Douglass addresses the American Anti-Slavery Society on his return from the British Isles which he found to be more accepting and equitable than his own country.
- “What, To The Slave, Is The Fourth Of July?” (1852) performed by Nicole Beharie. Douglass reminds his audience of the continuing enslavement of his people, 76 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
- “The Proclamation And A Negro Army” (1863) performed by Colman Domingo. Douglass responds to the Emancipation Proclamation and calls for the Black man to be allowed to fight in the war.
- “Lessons Of The Hour” (1894) performed by Jeffrey Wright. Douglass urges America to eliminate prejudice and look to its founding principles.
Contextualizing Douglass’ writings are scholars David Blight, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Sarah Lewis and Keidrick Roy, artist Bisa Butler, poet Nzadi Keita, and Douglass descendant Ken Morris who offer perspective on Douglass’ modern relevance and the unprecedented level of fame and influence to which he rose.
Douglass lived the entirety of the nineteenth century; he saw slavery, freedom, and the betrayal of that freedom. And though his actual voice was never recorded, the power of these performances offers an opportunity to hear the potency of his words with timely urgency over a century later.
HBO Documentary Films presents a McGee Media & Inkwell Media Production. FREDERICK DOUGLASS: IN FIVE SPEECHES is directed by Julia Marchesi; produced by Oluwaseun Babalola, edited by Derek Ambrosi, narration by Andre Holland; historical consultant, David Blight; executive produced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Dyllan McGee. For HBO: executive producers, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller and Sara Rodriguez.