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Becoming Frederick Douglass is a Story of Transformation

  • Christina Zeiders

 Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Becoming Frederick Douglass explores the inspiring story of how a man born into slavery transformed himself into one of the most prominent statesmen and influential voices for democracy in American history.

Through his writings, images and words, we follow his rise to prominence against all odds. The film is rooted in the truths of Douglass’s life – his insistence on controlling his own narrative and his lifelong and determined pursuit of the right to freedom and complete equality for Black Americans.

Watch Becoming Frederick Douglass on WITF TV or the PBS Video app on Tuesday, October 11 at 10pm. It will also be available to stream on-demand, for free, using the PBS Video app until November 9.

The documentary features actor Wendell Pierce as the voice of Frederick Douglass. It is co-produced by Firelight Film and Maryland Public Television, executive produced by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Stanley Nelson and Lynne Robinson, and produced and directed by Nelson and Nicole London.

“Given that Frederick Douglass was one of the most prolific and powerful orators of his time, we were interested in exploring how he created and controlled his image, and ultimately how he used it to shift public opinion around abolition,” Nelson said. “It was such a gift to have the inimitable Wendell Pierce provide the voice of Douglass to bring his words to life. Wendell’s dynamic performance, coupled with the many stunning photographs taken throughout Douglass’s lifetime, show how Douglass evolved to become one of the most influential and enduring social justice activists in American history.”

Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818 and escaped slavery in 1838. He went on to become many things – abolitionist, autobiographer, essayist, diplomat, orator, editor, philosopher, political theorist, newspaper publisher and social reformer. For decades, Douglass was the most famous Black person in the world. His lectures and speeches were so eloquent that some found it difficult to believe he had ever been enslaved.

Watch Becoming Frederick Douglass on Tuesday, October 11 at 10pm on the PBS Video app or WITF TV. Stream the film on-demand for free until November 9.

To prove his claims, he published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in 1845. It made him a celebrity, but fame increased the threat of capture. As a result, Douglass went on a lecture tour of the United Kingdom the same year. His English supporters welcomed him and purchased his freedom in 1846. Douglass returned to the United States as a free man.

Douglass also understood and used the incredible power of the new medium of photography for political and social reform. As the most photographed American man of the 19th century, Douglass presented himself as self-possessed and masterful, often gazing directly into the camera.

Compared to his abolitionist peers, Douglass was a relentless campaigner for Black equality. Finding himself confined to the role of constantly retelling his story by white abolitionists, Douglass broke away to share his own political ideas by publishing his antislavery newspaper, The North Star, in 1847.

He was a revolutionary advocate who insisted that ending slavery was necessary and also not enough to level the playing field. He was a critic of President Abraham Lincoln for his refusal to free enslaved people and allow them to enlist in the Union military. In 1863, after nearly three years of war, the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation, authorizing the arming of Black men as soldiers.

After the Civil War, Douglass was hopeful that a lasting peace had been achieved but spent the rest of his life continuing his work for Black equality.

Despite the extensive records of his life, there’s more to be discovered about Frederick Douglass. “Douglass is one of the most complicated people in our history,” said Columbia University’s Farah Jasmine Griffin. “He’s one of the few Black Americans — or Americans of any race — who left so much for us to read and engage with that he’s still, in some ways, directing us as we try to learn more about him.”

Watch Becoming Frederick Douglass on Tuesday, October 11 at 10pm on the PBS Video app or WITF TV. The film can be streamed on-demand for free until November 9.

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