Lessons of the Hour, by Isaac Julien
On view in April at Metro Pictures in New York, Isaac Julien’s visionary ten-screen film installation “Lessons of the Hour” explored the incomparable achievements of America’s foremost abolitionist figure. After escaping slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass gained celebrity on the abolitionist circuit as an extraordinary orator, becoming the most photographed American of the 19th century.
Julien’s project is informed by some of Douglass’s most important speeches, such as “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?,” and “Lecture on Pictures,” the latter being a text that connects picture-making and photography to his vision of how technology could influence human relations. Julien’s immersive work gives expression to the zeitgeist of Douglass’s era, his legacy, and the ways in which his story may be viewed through a contemporary lens.
Created in consultation with Douglass scholar Celeste-Marie Bernier of the University of Edinburgh, Julien’s film imagines the person of Frederick Douglass through a series of tableaux vivants and gives life to his relationships with other cultural icons of the time. Mostly women, these characters were chosen for being representatives of ideals of equality and include African-American photographer J.P. Ball; Douglass’s wives Anna Murray and Helen Pitts; Anna and Ellen Richardson, the English Quakers who allowed Douglass to return to the United States as a free man; Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist and Douglass’s longtime friend; and Ottilie Assing, German intellectual, activist, and Douglass’s lover.
Employing both 35mm film and the latest 4K digital technology, the film was shot in Washington, D.C., where Douglass lived late in life and where in 1894 he gave his final speech, “Lessons of the Hour,” which addressed the shocking phenomenon of lynching in the post-Civil War American South. Additional filming took place in Scotland and England, where Douglass delivered over four hundred anti-slavery speeches – several of which Julien had reenacted inside the period rooms of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
The presentation at the gallery included four tintype portraits of characters who are featured in “Lessons of the Hour” – Frederick Douglass, J.P. Ball, and Anna Murray Douglass. The series is titled “Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow” after a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom Douglass once said was “the most promising colored man in America.” To create the works Julien had a tintype camera and developing facility on the film set provided by photographer Rob Ball, who produced the tintypes for the Lessons of the Hour project.
Additionally, the exhibition featured a selection of color photographs from Lessons of the Hour, a number of found archival images that appear in the film, and an assemblage of black and white analog photographs related to Julien’s film Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983). Reflecting upon the death of Colin Roach, a 23-year-old black man who was shot dead at a police station in London’s East End, this early work meditates on the continued quest for equality that was Douglass’s life-long ambition, while also evoking the current Black Lives Matter movement.
An original score for the film was created by composer Paul Gladstone Reid. This is Julien’s first work made in the United States since Baltimore (2003). “Lessons of the Hour” was commissioned and acquired by the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, where it is now on view through May 12, 2019.