There is certainly a rich story waiting to be filmed about the life of Frederick Douglass, the slave turned abolitionist whom Abraham Lincoln called "the most meritorious person I have ever seen." Unfortunately, PBS' "Frederick Douglass, Slave and Statesman" is not it.
Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Maryland in 1817, the writer and orator served as a house servant in Baltimore and, at the age of 16, was sent out to become a field hand. In 1838 he escaped to New Bedford, Mass., where he worked as a laborer and changed his name to Douglass to escape capture. In 1847 he began the publication of the abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester, N.Y. During the Civil War, Douglass served as an adviser to President Lincoln; he later became marshal of the District of Columbia (his home here is a national historical monument and museum) and later consul general to Haiti.
His autobiography, "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass," is a literary classic that a decade ago caught the attention of actor William Marshall. On July 4, 1974, Marshall re-created Douglass' famous speech, "What to the Slave is Your Fourth of July?," at the Kennedy Center. Two years later Marshall began touring the country giving a one-man show drawn from Douglass' writings and speeches.
Tonight at 9 on Channels 26 and 32, Marshall appears in a one-hour production of his stage show. The program opens with a famous black-and-white photographic portrait of Douglass, and then dissolves into a color freeze frame of Marshall. It is immediately astounding how much the two men look alike, and one suspects that Marshall has done a wondrous job of re-creating Douglass' oratorical style. The strength in the words still rings powerful, particularly a few lines from the Fourth of July address:
"This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice; I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacriligious irony."
There's a problem, however, that quickly becomes apparent in this production: it's one thing to see a stage presentation on a stage; another thing entirely to see it on a screen. And while one assumes that the program is an accurate reading of Marshall's show, it doesn't quite translate into good television. The Baltimore house, the fields where he toiled, the newspaper office in New York, the Washington residence--all of these become conspicuous in their absence. If the camera and the television are devices that can reveal a far-off world to the viewer, they are hardly explored or exploited here.
Instead, the viewer is treated to a finely honed example of one man's philosophy and oratorical style. Instructive, yes; but better suited to stage and radio than to the pictorial demands of a visual medium.