Frederick Douglass was a visionary African American writer, abolitionist and a freed slave, who was also the most photographed man of the 19th century. The narrative is informed by some of the abolitionist'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 is a text that connects picture-making and photography to Douglass' vision of how technology can influence human relations. In the film, the character of Douglass interacts with other cultural icons of his time.
Mostly women, these characters were chosen for being representatives of ideals of equality, which were as important then as they are today. The film features Anna Murray and Helen Pitts, who were respectively Douglass' first and second wives. Anna Murray Douglass was responsible for helping Douglass' achieve not only his freedom, but she also supported him throughout his life and managed their home during his long absences. Anna and Ellen Richardson were two English Quakeresses who enabled Douglass to return to America as a free man. Susan B. Anthony, was one of the most important American suffragists as well as Douglass' longtime friend. On the day he died, he had been on stage for the last time in the company of Anthony. Ottilie Assing was a feminist friend and lover, who translated Douglass' autobiography into German for the first time and engaged with the abolitionist cause by writing numerous articles published in Germany for the first time.
JP Ball was one of the first African-American prominent photographers, a friend of Douglass, and a campaigner for anti-lynching. In the film, Ball's photographic salon and studio are restaged while we hear parts of Douglass' speech on photography, titled "Lecture on Pictures". In this text, Douglass precedes Walter Benjamin's idea of the reproductibility of images and the lost of their aura.
Through extensive use of Frederick Douglass' timely words Julien gives expression to the zeitgeist of Douglass' era, his legacy, and ways in which his story may be viewed today. The work was shot in Washington, DC, at The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, where Douglass lived late in life, and where his house in Cedar Hill has been kept conserved as it was during the abolitionist's time. In Scotland, where Douglass was an active member of the "Send Back the Money" movement, and where he delivered a number of anti-slavery speeches, Julien has reconstructed scenes of Douglass' life. His speeches have been restaged inside London's Royal Academy of Arts to an audience which includes both 19th century characters, and also contemporary, real-life characters such as scholars and Royal Academicians. Douglass delivered more than 300 lectures in England, Scotland and Ireland as he sought to affirm his struggle for equality as a global citizen, who was very much ahead of his time.