Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour — Frederick Douglass
Sir Isaac Julien’s moving image installation Lessons of the Hour (2019) interweaves period reenactments across five screens to create a vivid picture of nineteenth-century activist, writer, orator, and philosopher Frederick Douglass. Through critical research, fictional reconstruction, and a marriage of poetic image and sound, Julien asserts Douglass’ enduring lessons of justice, abolition, and freedom that remain just as relevant today.
Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), a leading abolitionist, delivered thousands of lectures calling for an end to slavery and wrote extensively about portrait photography as a tool in the fight for freedom. He understood its power to capture the essential humanity of each subject and to be an engine of social change. Lessons of the Hour features passages from Douglass’ key speeches, including the titular “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and “Lecture on Pictures.”
Julien weaves together reenacted scenes from Douglass’ life and lectures, filming at his historic home in Washington, DC, and a restaged studio of famed Black photographer J.P. Ball (1825–1904) as he makes a portrait of Douglass. Images of contemporary Baltimore—the city where Douglass was enslaved and escaped from bondage in 1838—including footage of fireworks and protests in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray, Jr. while in police custody, are interspersed as the struggle to make good on America’s promise of equality continues.
Lessons of the Hour was jointly acquired by SAAM and the National Portrait Gallery in 2023. The 28-minute work debuted for Washington audiences December 8, 2023, and remains on public view through the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States in 2026.
The presentation is organized by Saisha Grayson, curator of time-based media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Charlotte Ickes, curator of time-based media art and special projects at the National Portrait Gallery.
It coincides with the exhibitions J.P. Ball and Robert S. Duncanson: An African American Artistic Collaboration, on view at SAAM through March 24, 2024 and One Life: Frederick Douglass, on view at the National Portrait Gallery through April 21, 2024.
This presentation received federal support from the Smithsonian Collections Care Initiative, administered by the National Collections Program, and from the Smithsonian Secretary and the Smithsonian National Board.