Titans of freedom: PBS documentaries look at Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass - Albuquerque Journal

Titans of freedom: PBS documentaries look at Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass


Portrait of Harriet Tubman. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

The best thing about Nicole London’s job is she has the opportunity to learn something new each day.

The director, producer and co-writer of “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom” had the chance to learn quite a bit while putting together the PBS documentary.

Adding to that, London was also at the helm of the companion film, “Becoming Frederick Douglass.”

“Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom” will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1. “Becoming Frederick Douglass” will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11, on New Mexico PBS. Both will be available to stream on the PBS Video app.

“These are two titans in American history,” London says. “They are so important. The two of them were born and raised roughly the same time and the same place. That was something I hadn’t considered. Their lives were almost juxtaposed.”

Frederick Douglass, a writer, orator and the most well-known leader of the abolitionist movement. (Courtesy of New York Historical Society / Bridgeman Images)

While both Tubman and Douglass make their mark, London says they were different in many ways.

“Frederick was literate and he wrote, while Harriet was illiterate,” she says. “Frederick was the most photographed man in America at the time and Harriet had six or seven photos taken of her. Their paths often crossed and that’s a fact that we don’t often learn about.”

“Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom” tell the story of the woman who is well known as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, who repeatedly risked her own life and freedom to liberate others from slavery.

Born in Dorchester County, Maryland — 2022 marks her bicentennial celebration — Tubman escaped north to Philadelphia in 1849, covering more than 100 miles alone.

Once there, she became involved in the abolitionist movement and, through the Underground Railroad, guided an estimated 70 enslaved people to freedom. She would go on to serve as a Civil War scout, nurse and spy, never wavering in her pursuit of equality.

Born “Araminta” in 1822 to an enslaved couple on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Harriet Tubman learned quickly about the cruelty of life as a slave. By the time she was 5, her duties included catching muskrats in the swamps, cleaning the slaveowner’s house and babysitting their colicky infant. Each time the baby cried, Tubman would be whipped.

The young girl preferred working outdoors and relished any chance to work outside alongside her father, Ben Ross, who was forced to live apart from the family because he was enslaved by different owners. Because of the tremendous growth of cotton production in the Deep South, the threat of being sold to slaveowners there was an ever-present fear. “Enslaved people in Maryland knew that was a death sentence,” says Tubman biographer Dr. Kate Clifford Larson. “The average lifespan for an enslaved person who was purchased in the Chesapeake and brought to Mississippi or Louisiana was about seven years.” Tubman witnessed the horror firsthand, watching as her older sisters were dragged away in chains — a memory that would haunt her for the rest of her life.

Around age 13, Tubman suffered a blow that would forever change her life. When an overseer threw a heavy weight at an enslaved boy, the weight instead hit Tubman. Her skull was fractured, and from that day forward, she suffered from seizures and horrific headaches. During these episodes, she would have visions, which she understood as signposts from her God.

“Becoming Frederick Douglass” explores the inspiring story of how a man born into slavery transformed himself into one of the most prominent statesmen and influential voices for democracy in American history.

Using his writings, images and words to follow his rise to prominence against all odds, the film is rooted in the singular truth of Douglass’s life: his insistence on controlling his own narrative and his lifelong determined pursuit of the right to freedom and complete equality for African Americans.

The documentary features actor Wendell Pierce as the voice of Douglass

Born in 1818 in Maryland, Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and went on to become many things: abolitionist, autobiographer, essayist, diplomat, orator, editor, philosopher, political theorist, newspaper publisher and social reformer. And considering his trajectory — from enslaved to elder statesman — he was arguably the most accomplished man of his time.

For decades, Douglass was the most famous Black person in the world. More Americans heard him speak than any other contemporary, with the possible exception of Mark Twain. His lectures and speeches were so eloquent and persuasive that some called him a fraud, finding it difficult to believe he had ever been enslaved. To prove his claims, Douglass wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Published in 1845, it made its author a celebrity. But fame brought with it the threat of capture, so Douglass embarked on a lecture tour throughout the United Kingdom in 1845. His devoted English supporters warmly welcomed him, ultimately negotiating and purchasing his freedom in 1846. Douglass was able to return to the United States a free man.

London says one of the challenges was keeping the documentaries to under an hour.

“We didn’t want to be too sweeping and drilled down. We wanted to put them into context of their time,” she says. “With Harriet Tubman, there was less material. We wanted to focus on her story in the context of her being an enslaved child. With Frederick Douglass, we knew that slavery took you from birth to the grave. But there was a moment where he was truly enslaved. Slavery was a billion dollar industry at that time. Being sold away from your family was a form of domestic terrorism. All these aspects that we wanted to touch on.”

A co-production of Firelight Films and Maryland Public Television (MPT), the film is executive produced by Stanley Nelson and Lynne Robinson and produced and directed by Nelson and Nicole London.

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