RICHMOND, Va. | A 10-screen film installation on abolitionist Frederick Douglass is available for public viewing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
“Lessons of the Hour — Frederick Douglass,” by British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien, is a portrayal of Douglass’ life in 1841 before and during his travels to the United Kingdom.
“Douglass called upon the nation to make important reforms and embrace human rights, regardless of race or gender, subjects that are still relevant today,” said Michael Taylor, chief curator and deputy director of art and education at VMFA, during a media preview.
Douglass is played by Shakespearean actor Ray Fearon. The film’s main subjects include Douglass, his wife, Anna Murray Douglass (Sharlene Whyte), and African American photographer J.P. Ball (Ukweli Roach).
Julien has become known for his innovative, multi-screen, multi-channel method of storytelling. In “Lessons of the Hour,” the screens sometimes work in unison, but during other moments, split into multiple angles and visuals.
“People will be immersed in an environment where there’s a choreography of visuals to see and take in,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at VMFA.
Throughout the 28-minute film, Douglass’ voice is heard narrating his famous speeches: “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and “Lecture on Pictures.”
“Douglass’ words were very powerful, but also prophetic,” Oliver said. “He was very prescient and understanding that if we did not deal with the issues around bondage and subjection and perspectives around Black bodies, that this would have a rippling effect into the future.”
While much of the film centers on Douglass’ life, the screens periodically cut to stills and footage of various points in American history: from flag-waving parades of the 20th century to FBI surveillance footage of the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore in 2015.
“There’s this back-and-forth where Douglass’ words do bring us into the present day, into the current struggles that we’re dealing with,” Oliver said.
Tintype portraits of the actors in their respective roles are displayed near the exhibit’s entrance, which is located on the second floor in the Evans Court Gallery.
“Lessons of the Hour” premiered in 2019 at the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester. VMFA partnered with the University of Rochester to commission and acquire the film for display at both museums.
The COVID-19 pandemic combined with other scheduling conflicts delayed the VMFA showing of the film.
The exhibition runs through July 9 and is free to the public like most of VMFA’s galleries.
“We wanted the school groups to see it; we wanted the best possible audience to see this work,” Oliver said. “It is free, so there are no barriers to seeing that; we were very excited about making that happen.”