Frederick Douglass: A Life

2026 | WETA

In the pantheon of self-made Americans, Frederick Douglass stands alone for the wide arc his life took from enslavement to freedom, from a sensational career as a writer and speaker to leading his people at the crossroads of history during the Civil War. Douglass never had any illusions about the glaring gap between the nation’s sacred ideals, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and the violent reality of its slave economy. Yet as a man in the fray, he devoted his energies to narrowing that gap by lobbying presidents, launching journals, recruiting troops, and bringing rhetorical pressure to bear on those making the decisions at every level of the government. No African American of his generation had a greater influence on the “course of human events” during the critical hours of the Civil War era than Douglass. In addition to penning three classic memoirs, Douglass was the nineteenth century’s most photographed American man, black or white, and a renaissance man who played the violin and dabbled in philosophy and science. Douglass understood the importance of self-curation in representing black people amid the onslaught of negative stereotypes flooding the Jim Crow era. Yet behind those portraits, he was, in every sense of the word, a man: visionary and ambitious, passionate and political, complicated both in his public and personal lives.

This four-hour documentary film from the renowned Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., will honor Douglass ’remarkable life by exploring his humanity – from his marriages and children to his lifelong obsession with uncovering the “facts” of his elusive birth. Following his death at age 77 in 1895, the New York Times said in its obituary of him, “Mr. Douglass ’life from first to last was filled with incidents that gave to it a keen flavor of romance.” Frederick Douglass: A Life will trace that romance and the real life behind it.

Filmmaker: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.