Review by Tatiana Miranda
Categorized as "the most famous Black man in the world in the 19th century" by Henry Louis Gates Jr. is abolitionist and public speaker Frederick Douglass, the star of HBO Max's documentary Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches. The 54-minute film gives an overview of Douglass' life and speeches in a way that is unlike other recently made documentaries. While this documentary does feature a traditional talking head style of interview, it also incorporates performances of Douglass's most popular speeches and excerpts of his autobiography.
This documentary is filled with modern Black actors, filmmakers, and scholars discussing Frederick Douglass's speeches and trajectory from slave to public speaker. In between interview clips, Andre Holland reads pieces of The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, which gives context to his life in his own words. These excerpts piece themselves together with performances of five speeches by Frederick Douglass that span the abolitionist movement and beyond. The speeches are performed by famous actors and actresses: Nicole Beharie, Colman Domingo, Denzel Whitaker, Jeffrey White, and Jonathan Majors.
The choice to have actors read Douglass' speeches is a unique and wise decision on the part of director Julia Marchesi. Every speech is performed with an intensity of emotion that matches how Douglass intended his speeches to reach their audience. The ages of each actor also relate to the age of Frederick Douglass when he had written the speeches. After his performance of "Country, Conscience, and the Anti-slavery Cause", Jonathan Majors points out, "This is the speech in which we were closest in age. Frederick Douglass is 30 years old in this moment, and I'm 31 years in this moment". By pairing the ages of the speaker and Douglass, it's almost as if they are playing as Douglass. This aspect makes the documentary less of a documentary and more like an acted portrayal of Douglass's own performances.
Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches also comments on Douglass's celebrity status while he was alive. In the 19th century, Douglass was the most photographed Black man, and even the president at the time, Abraham Lincoln, was aware of his speeches. He took on the role of being a representative for Black America, his portraits an attempt to counter racist caricatures. He was the first famous Black man in America, portrayed by current famous Black men and women in this documentary. This is a subtle way to showcase how representation of Black voices has grown and how it still has room to grow.
Overall, in a time where documentaries often fit the same cookie-cutter mold, Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches takes a creative direction in recounting the life of an important figure in American history. The story of Frederick Douglass's life from slave to famous speaker, along with the fantastic performances of Douglass's written works, make this a beautiful portrayal of Douglass's career.
Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches is now streaming on HBO Max.