This prominent abolitionist deserves his screen time

From the unflinching brutality of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013) to Steven Spielberg’s brooding, verbose Lincoln (2012), the subjects of slavery and abolitionism permeate some of the most thought-provoking films that cinema has produced.

The same can be said of small screen miniseries like Roots (2016), an adaptation of Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It tells the harrowing tale of fictional 18th-century Mandinka tribesman Kunta Kinte.

The stirring power of oratory, too, is central to a plethora of cinematic masterstrokes. Often in depictions of great speakers, like David Oyelowo’s rousing performance as Dr Martin Luther King in Selma (2015), but also in narratives of oratorical challenges, such as box office phenomenon The King’s Speech (2010).

It’s incredible, then, that as yet there’s been no big screen biopic of prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A man who escaped slavery in Maryland and became one of the great orators of his day. A formidable civil rights reformer and the most influential black leader of the 19th century, Douglass is a fascinating figure for all kinds of reasons. Yet, plug his name into, and only a handful of documentaries and TV dramas surface.

Hollywood is set to recognise Douglass soon

That’s set to change, though. Spike Lee, who has spoken frequently and blisteringly on the whiteness of Hollywood, is reported to be in the early stages of production. Set to be a Douglass biopic based on Guenveur Smith’s acclaimed one-man play, Frederick Douglass NOW. Meanwhile, in TV land, actor and rapper Daveed Diggs, who scooped a Tony Award for his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in musical juggernaut Hamilton, was confirmed earlier this month to play Douglass in Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, impacting 2020.

So, what could we expect from a Douglass biopic? In BBC Radio4’s podcast In Our Time: Frederick Douglass, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss some of the most intriguing aspects of Douglass’ life and vision, cherry-picking extracts from one of his three autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, first published in 1881

Frederick DouglassBBC Radio4’s podcast In Our Time: Frederick Douglass


A right to freedom and liberty

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in 1818, the social reformer’s life began at a time which Nicholas Guyatt, Reader in North American History at the University of Cambridge, describes as a “moment of transition” in the history of American slavery. This is when the northern states had embraced an immediate or gradual emancipation of slaves, yet in the lower south, cotton production and slavery were accelerating.

Douglass was separated from his enslaved mother, Hannah Bailey, in early childhood. His father was “almost certainly white”, according to his biographer David W. Blight, though his identity is unknown. Later, he lived with his maternal grandparents, before being relocated to the Wye House plantation in Baltimore.

Two revelations were crucial to Douglass’ early life. The first, says Celeste-Marie Bernier, Professor of Black Studies at University of Edinburgh, was that “literacy was the path not only to physical freedom but intellectual freedom”. He learned the alphabet from Wye House plantation mistress Sophia Auld, and persuaded local white children to share knowledge with him “using chalk, or bribes of food”.

The second, marking the start of Douglass’ politicisation – as explained by Karen Salt, Professor in Transnational American Studies at the University of Nottingham – was Douglass’ “recognition of himself as an actual person”, that he had rights to freedom and liberty, and his body was not an object to be monetised and brutalised.

An important life after slavery

Douglass’ escape involved multiple endeavours, from two failed attempts, to a two-hour physical battle with his master Edward Covey, to travelling to New York disguised as a sailor with the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore who became his wife. Douglass and Murray went on to raise a family of philosophers and grass roots activists.

What to the Slave is the 4th of July? Douglass’ speech on the dark contradictions between America’s supposed libertarian values and its slave trade, delivered in 1852, would likely be a cornerstone of a biopic, being one of the greatest anti-slavery speeches of all time. In it, he asks his audience, “do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

In Britain and Ireland, where Douglass later travelled and addressed audiences, supporters made donations to pay off his owner, safeguarding him from recapture. Following the abolition of slavery, he campaigned for equal rights for African-Americans, arguing against the view, peddled by Lincoln and others, that freed slaves should leave the US and found colonies elsewhere. “We were born here,” he said. “And here, we shall remain.”

In all his work, Douglass took a marked interest in the plight of women, and was an active supporter of women’s suffrage. He graphically details the brutal treatment of enslaved women by male slaveowners in his autobiographies, articulating that “slave mothers have many children, but they have no family”, an idea he returned to throughout his life.

But oratory as power was, in the words of Celeste-Marie Bernier, Douglass’ “life-long song – a way to get passed the dominant written word and communicate freedom”. Before his speaking career, Douglass was an avid listener, and ahead of any speech he “communed with the memories of those who suffered in slavery”.

One of that century’s most prominent abolitionists

American author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his blog The Atlantic: “One of the frequent responses I get when posting the stories of people like Frederick Douglass… is that their story deserves a movie. The person who would bankroll [such a biopic] would not have to be black, but I don’t know how you separate the paucity of black people with the power to green-light from the paucity of good films concerning black people in American history.”

However Douglass’ story is translated to a biopic, it will be a poignant to see the activism and artistry of a revolutionary figure who – despite being the most photographed man in 19th century America – is markedly absent from film history, unfold on the big screen.