Frederick Douglass’ ‘Lessons’ Resound in the Contemporary Moment

Isaac Julien, 'The North Star (Lessons of the Hour),' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist, Jessica Silverman, San Francisco, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice)

He was a writer, orator and social reformer, each of those roles shaped by his former status as an enslaved person.

Frederick Douglass committed his abundant talents to abolishing slavery, and in doing so, shaped the course of American history like few individuals have. He is memorialized in our cultural lexicon across media—in paintings, marble busts and murals all over the world. Now, Lessons of the Hour, on view at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through March 2021, commits Douglass to film, and powerfully underscores the lessons he embodied, those necessary to building a more perfect union.

Installation view of 'Lessons of the Hour' at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. (©Henrik Kam, 2020)

Lessons of the Hour is filmmaker Isaac Julien’s latest immersive cinematic project, but it’s not the first time the British born, UC Santa Cruz-based artist and educator has shown his work in the Bay Area. Playtime, a quietly scathing take on the global art market and rapacious capitalism, sprawled across Fort Mason Center in 2017. Others may know Looking for Langston, Julien's impressionistic take on Langston Hughes’ life as a gay Black man during the Harlem Renaissance.

A non-linear presentation projected across 10 screens, Lessons of the Hour imagines Douglass as he traveled across the United Kingdom, lecturing in England, Scotland and Ireland for 19 months beginning in 1845. Douglass fled the United States that year for fear of being captured and re-enslaved after publishing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the first of three biographies he would write. While in Europe, Douglass enjoyed both wide public acclaim for his contributions to anti-slavery efforts, and movement free of harassment or abuse for his race.

Movement and stillness characterize both Julien’s installation and New Labor Movements, the brilliant companion film exhibition curated by Leila Weefur that explores Black political history across time. In Lessons, viewers’ eyes must move from screen to screen, never seeing the entire film at once. The effect mimics that of looking at canvases arrayed across walls in 19th-century fine art salons, each painting competing for attention.

Isaac Julien, 'Rapture 1846 (Lessons of the Hour),' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist, Jessica Silverman, San Francisco, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice)

My eyes paused on Douglass (portrayed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Roy Fearon) standing in a grove, gazing at the bend of a massive tree branch where lynchings were perpetrated. My gaze paused again at the sight of Fearon’s broad shoulders in a deep blue bespoke jacket as he spoke before a lecture hall audience made up of actors wearing both 19th and 21st-century clothes. The different sartorial choices didn’t make sense until I understood that Douglass’ 19th-century contemporaries learned from his insistence that Black lives matter, a message contemporary audiences are still learning.

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Stillness, and undeniable nobility, emanate from the large color and tintype photographs that round out Julien’s installation. Identified as the most photographed American of the 19th century, Douglass understood how the then-emerging technology could be used to benefit abolitionist efforts in the United States and abroad; specifically, that photographs could help convince white Americans that their Black countrymen and women deserved to live beyond the abject horrors of slavery.

Isaac Julien, Installation view of the series 'Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow,' 2019. (©Henrik Kam 2020)

Like his peer Sojourner Truth, who sold her photographic shadow to support her activist work, Douglass was keenly aware of the multiple messages embedded in photographic portraits, at least one of which resonates today: representation matters.

As with all its exhibitions, the MFA hosts an accompanying installation curated from its own collection (in this case, by Julien, Mark Nash and Nion McEvoy). For Lessons of the Hour, the exhibition of still photographs complements and complicates the themes and ideas raised in Julien’s absorbing exhibition. Greeting audiences in the gallery immediately behind the visitor services desk, Builder Levy’s iconic 1968 photograph I Am a Man/Union Justice Now, Memphis, TN stridently reaffirms Douglass’ demand that Black lives be valued. Less comfortably, a 2004 portrait of then-Senator Barak Obama reminds us that though social justice strides have been made since Douglass’ era, the election of the first Black American president in 2008 did not, could not, usher the nation into a “post-race” era. 

We have much to accomplish. The lesson is still in progress.

‘Lessons of the Hour’ is on view by appointment at San Francisco’s McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through March 13, 2021. Details here.