Friday, July 7, 2017

Leigh Fought's "Women in the World of Frederick Douglass"

Leigh Fought is Assistant Professor of History at LeMoyne College. She is the author of Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa S. McCord and an editor of The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Three: Correspondence, Volume 1: 1842-1852.

Here she dreamcasts an adaptation of her latest book, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass:
Women in the World of Frederick Douglass follows the life of nineteenth century black civil rights activist through the eyes of the women who made him. These are only a few, and don’t include Douglass’s mother, Harriet Bailey; his slave mistress, Lucretia Auld; his sisters; abolitionists Abby Kelly, Isabel Jennings, Maria Weston Chapman, Ellen and Anna Richardson, and Amy Post; German-language journalist Ottilie Assing; and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, all of whom played significant roles in his life and the book.

Betsey Bailey, Douglass’s grandmother: Angela Bassett. In other roles, Bassett has consistently captured the elements of strength, grit, wit, calculation, and compassion necessary for a woman like Betsey Bailey, who navigated her large family through the fateful turns of life under capricious master.

Sophia Auld, Douglass’s mistress: Jennifer Lawrence. Sophia Auld first treated little Frederick with dignity and taught him to read, but at the threat of her husband turned against him and became cold. I imagine the earlier scenes much like those of Katniss and Rue in The Hunger Games and later ones requiring the edge that Lawrence showed in Winter’s Bone.

Anna Murray: Viola Davis. Frederick’s biographers have depicted Anna, Douglass’s wife of forty-four years, in unflattering ways because they cannot fathom that Frederick could love a dark-skinned woman who did not read. Viola Davis has similar features as Anna, but a person would have to be a fool to consider her anything but beautiful and intelligent. She would therefore shift perceptions of Anna, animating her with greater justice than any written words have.

Julia Griffiths: For the Englishwoman who saved Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star, and revitalized antislavery in Western New York, earning her the animosity of abolitionists in Boston -- one of the central dramas in the early part of the book -- but Douglass’s undying friendship, cast actress Olivia Colman. She would respect the role, bringing no-nonsense intelligence to the part, and giving Griffiths her due as a serious actor in Douglass’s life.

Rosetta Douglass Sprague, Douglass’s daughter: Kerry Washington could capture the innocence, steel, and frustration of Rosetta’s struggles to be independent, to please to very different parents (but mostly her father), and to play the mediator in a family of very strong personalities, despite having one herself (a bit like Olivia Pope).

Helen Pitts: Laura Linney. The white woman who became Frederick Douglass’s second wife, faced criticism and ostracism along with her husband from both black, white, family, friend, and stranger alike, bearing all with poise and dignity. This is Laura Linney’s métier.

Frederick Douglass: An inevitably controversial casting choice, the actor would have to convey the type of charisma that Douglass still projects across 150 years. At the same time, the actor must resemble Douglass enough not to distract the audience.

Dennis Haysbert, most famous for Allstate commercials, has the height, resonant voice, resemblance, and relaxed quality of the older Lion of Anacostia. You can imagine him sitting on the porch of Cedar Hill or standing on the deck of a ship in the Mediterranean and marveling at how far he had risen in life. At the same time, you can see him marshal the kind of controlled fury necessary for his frustration with the rollback of the Civil Rights Act or the rise of lynching in the South.

Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow Moon on American Gods, bears enough of a resemblance to the younger Douglass to melt into the character in the same way that Helen Mirren did with Elizabeth I. Whittle also has the physicality and background in modeling allow him to project the electricity apparent in all of the younger Douglass’s photos.
Learn more about Women in the World of Frederick Douglass at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue