Reel Reviews | Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

The life, times, and fight of one of the most influential Black Americans in the history of this country are brought to the small screen in the HBO documentary, Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches.

Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave who taught himself to read and write, has become one of the most recognized and respected abolitionist voices in the country in the mid-1800s.  In his speeches, he bares for the world not just his life and struggles but those of the entire population of people from which he comes.  A group of people dragged to this land and considered property.  His anger and spirit agitate the nation and the world through five particular speeches.

Inspired by David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” and executive produced by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches is an HBO documentary directed by Julia Marchesi, produced by Oluaseun Babalola and edited by Derek Ambrosi.  It is narrated by Andre Holland (Passing) and stars Gates, David Blight, and other famous scholars as they unpack who Douglass was and his impact upon a nation.  Excerpts from the speeches of Frederick Douglass are read by Holland, Jonathan Majors, Nicole Beharie, Colman Domingo, Denzel Whitaker, and Jeffrey Wright.

There are two themes that are the most striking and probably the most resonant about this documentary.  First, it correctly presumes that most of the nation knows little about Frederick Douglass.  In Washington, DC, Douglass’ home is a historical site, preserved as a museum to the man.  There is a street and a school named for him.  Soon, a hospital will also bear the name of the great orator.  However, sadly, outside of the District of Columbia where he resided, little is known about him.  Outside of the state of Maryland, where he was a slave, even less.  Douglass, who was most likely the loudest and strongest voice for the abolishment of slavery in the United States, is little more than a footnote in most history books in this nation.

Frederick Douglass

Douglass is called “volcanic and magisterial” in his command of voice and pen in the decry against slavery.  His words are brought to power as they are delivered through the undeniable talents of the actors who read them.  Jonathan Majors, Andre Holland, and Nicole Beharie deliver the earlier speeches and encompass the youthful desperation and ire with an insightful inspiration that allows us not only to hear the words but to feel them deep within our souls.  Likewise, Colman Domingo and Jeffrey Wright transport us to the later years in the life of the fighter who is weary and worn but still finds himself dragged into the cause for the people that he loves inside a country that hates them.  Their voices impeccably capture the essence of the older Douglass with a graceful and tempered timbre that still holds the passion if not all the fire.

The second theme that is probably the most profound about the documentary is how it relates the words and struggle of Douglas to today.  Whether it be a glance or just a straightforward expression, this documentary lets us know that the fight still goes on.  Although Douglass saw the Emancipation Proclamation take effect and rejoiced over the abolishment of the formal institution of slavery, he recognized that the power of white supremacy had not been eradicated.  It is those words that he spoke to the rise of lynchings and killings and Jim Crow laws that speak to us even today.  This documentary does not shy away from correlating the past and the present in a way that honors the spirit of the legendary speech maker himself.

In fact, Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches should be categorized as the sixth speech.  It breathes the same fire, the same truths, and the same mentality of all of Douglass’ other speeches to land and possibly a world that has not just failed to finish the fight for equality but seems to be fanning the flames hotter than ever.  It is an educational and inspirational story of the power that lies within intelligence and fortitude that is 100% true.

Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches can be seen on HBO on February 23, 2022, and on HBO Max. 

Grade:  A