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The Great Influencer

VMFA’s stunning new film installation on Frederick Douglass offers poetic insight into a singular American life.

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To use a 21st century term about a 19th century man, Frederick Douglass was an influencer.

Certainly not in the current sense of social media marketing and product placement, but rather an influencer who spent decades combatting the disparaging depictions of Black people used to justify bondage. Instead of trying to sell product, Douglass sold himself by using the power of his noble image to influence and revise cultural perspectives.

There’s a reason he was the most photographed person of the 19th century.

“Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass,” the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' stunning and immersive new film installation, will leave visitors moved by the poetic meditation of its nonlinear story and with greater insight into a singular American life. Situated in a gallery with 10 screens of varying sizes, multi-directional sound and six benches for viewers to take it all in, the installation is mesmerizing on multiple levels.

Renowned, London-born installation artist and filmmaker Sir Isaac Julien gives viewers glimpses into seminal moments of Douglass’ life, including a sense of the loneliness experienced by his wife, Anna Murray Douglass. She carried on alone at home while her husband traveled to speak out against slavery, upending perceptions of what enslaved people, and in a larger sense, what Black people could be or were capable of.

Shakespearean actor Ray Fearon portrays Douglass, imbuing excerpts from three of his seminal speeches – “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to a Slave is the 4th of July” and “Lecture on Pictures”- with a brilliance and intensity that makes them resonate as much today as they must have when first spoken.

"The North Star" (Lessons of the Hour) 2019,  a photograph on gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum. © the artist - COURTESY THE ARTIST AND VICTORIA MIRO
  • Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
  • "The North Star" (Lessons of the Hour) 2019, a photograph on gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum. © the artist

“Lecture on Pictures” seems particularly prescient as Douglass talks about how Louis Daguerre’s invention of the photograph -Daguerreotypes- converted the planet into a picture gallery where people could see themselves as others see them. He also laments how images were pushed on visitors in every home with an opinion expected immediately; instead of simply hanging on walls and speaking for themselves, much the way this installation does.

Images of cotton fields being picked, accompanied by the sound of a whip cracking, give way to Douglass sharing that his mother was a fieldhand who he only saw four or five times in his life -- and then only at night. He laments that she was always gone when he awoke because the penalty for not being in the field at daybreak was a whipping. Images of his own scarred back are overlaid by his words about the unseen wounds of “the system” on his soul -- a trauma still recognized today as “living while Black.”

Excerpts of letters Douglass wrote as he traveled via train through the United Kingdom for two years reveal how strikingly different he was treated overseas. In trading what he calls the bright blue skies of America for the soft gray fog of Ireland, he looks around in vain for someone who will challenge his equal humanity or claim him as a slave. Instead, he marvels at how he rides in cabs with white people, enters the same hotels as them and dines together with them, and no one is offended. His wonder at this treatment was damning for a young America still trying to sort itself out.

Throughout the 25 minutes that the films run, images converge and fragment into a montage. As Douglass speaks to an onscreen audience about the meaninglessness of Independence Day to enslaved people – “a day that reveals to him more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim”- some screens show displays of fireworks while others show black-and-white images of present day civil unrest and protest. It’s a potent trifecta.

"J. P. Ball Studio 1867, Douglass (Lessons of the Hour)" 2019, a framed photograph on gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum. © the artist. - COURTESY THE ARTIST AND VICTORIA MIRO
  • Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
  • "J. P. Ball Studio 1867, Douglass (Lessons of the Hour)" 2019, a framed photograph on gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum. © the artist.

Because the film is nonlinear, there is no start or end. Viewers come into the gallery and stay as long as they choose. On the day I was there, one family with young children walked out when the hanging feet of a lynched man were shown onscreen. Others took a seat in the gallery only to add light pollution by regularly checking their phones or tablets and only occasionally looking up at the screen. Everyone’s interaction with art is different.

Maybe consider silencing or putting away your phones; use the same etiquette you would if watching a live performance in a theater. It's worth it because “Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass” is a visually and sonically compelling work that celebrates Douglass’ important legacy while engaging the viewer's mind and senses.

It’s too much, too poignant and beautiful, to take in with just one viewing.

“Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass,” runs through July 9 at VMFA, 200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard, vmfa.museum