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‘Becoming Frederick Douglass’: On Day Marking Great Abolitionist’s Birth, Watch Clip From Stanley Nelson’s Upcoming Doc

A portrait of Frederick Douglass

EXCLUSIVE: On the day that is celebrated as Frederick Douglass’s birthday, Deadline can share the first clip from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s upcoming documentary on the historic abolitionist.

Becoming Frederick Douglass is set to premiere on PBS in fall 2022. It is one of two films from EP’s Stanley Nelson and Lynne Robinson that will debut on the public broadcaster in the fall; their documentary Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom focuses on another equally critical figure in American history.

Nelson, co-founder of Firelight Media, last week earned the first Oscar nomination of his distinguished career, for Showtime’s Attica.

“There are no two people more important to our country’s history than Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman,” Nelson said in a statement. “Their remarkable lives and contributions were a critical part of the 19th century, and their legacies help us understand who we are as a nation. We are honored to share their stories with a country that continues to grapple with the impact of slavery and debate notions of citizenship, democracy and freedom.”

Alfre Woodard narrates Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom, while actor Wendell Pierce voices the towering orator in both the Tubman film and in Becoming Frederick Douglass. Valentine’s Day is traditionally marked as Douglass’s birthday, even though as a child born into slavery, the precise date of his birth was not recorded.

In 1888, seven years before his death, Douglass stopped by an event in Washington, D.C. where he learned his birthday was being observed.

“I understand from some things that have occurred since I came in that you have been celebrating my seventy-first birthday,” he reportedly told the audience. “What in the world have you been doing that for? Why Frederick Douglass. That day was taken from him long before he had the means of owning it. Birthdays belong to free institutions. We, at the South, never knew them. We were born at times: harvest times, watermelon times, and generally hard times.”

Douglass is believed to have been born on Maryland’s eastern shore in 1818 or possibly 1817.

“He escaped from slavery in 1838 and went on to become the most well-known leader of the abolitionist movement,” notes a statement about the film. “A gifted writer and powerful, charismatic orator, it is estimated that more Americans heard Douglass speak than any other 19th-century figure — Black or white. The documentary explores how Douglass controlled his own image and narrative, embracing photography as a tool for social justice, and the role he played in securing the right to freedom and democracy for African Americans.”

Executive producers for Becoming Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom are Stanley Nelson and Lynne Robinson. Nelson and Nicole London directed and produced the films. The Douglass documentary was written by Anne Seidlitz; Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom was written by Paul Taylor, Nicole London and Marcia Smith. Keith M. Brown and Michael English are the executives in charge of production.

Funding for both films was provided by the State of Maryland and Bowie State University, the oldest Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Maryland.

Watch the clip from Becoming Frederick Douglass above.


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