Oluwaseun Babalola

I met Oluwaseun, also known as ‘Seun, a couple years ago when I interviewed her about her series “SOJU”. Each episode zeroes in on a different niche of the African community around the world. What ‘Seun is doing for African culture is so important, and equally important and exciting is what she is doing for the history of Fredrick Douglass. ‘Seun produced “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” that premieres on HBO on 2/23. Her ways of flipping the documentary script and lens is brilliant, along with bringing on women like actress Nicole Behrie, artist Bisa Butler, and poet Nzadi Keita onto this project. As an American History geek I was in love with this doc, and I’m so excited for everyone to see it and to share this interview with you.

How did you come to this project?

It came through a referral from the director I worked with on “Picture A Scientist.” She referred me to filmmaker Julia Marchesi who directed this project. What was told to me was that this was going to be a new way of telling his story. I’m all about remaking the documentary. People always think that documentaries can only be talking heads and that it’s boring. But I’ve always been about making something that is entertaining to watch and also informative. So that’s how I jumped on it and said, ‘Yes, I’m interested.’

André Holland, Courtesy of HBO

How did you bring the talent into this film?

Julia already knew of the speeches that she wanted to incorporate into the documentary because she had been reading and researching the whole summer before production. She wanted to get my input on things. There are always the typical actors that are asked to do these things, but I wanted to present my favorite actors who can really hold the screen. My thought process was it would be really impactful to have someone who has that talent. You can just watch them and hear what Douglass is trying to say. I didn’t have to think about it too hard. 

I love Nicole Beharie. She is one of the first people who I wanted to do this project. I’ve loved her since “Shame”. She has an arresting presence. From there, I just presented the names and told them that  these are the people I feel that should do the speeches. I don’t know if everyone was sold on it in the beginning, but I said, “trust me, I think it’ll work out.” That was kind of nerve-wracking for me because if the actors bombed, it’s going to fall on me. It worked out really well. Getting the actors to come out of their houses during the pandemic, pre-vaccines, had a lot of its own challenges as well. So I had to tell them, ‘Please, believe in me, it’s going to be alright.’ Eventually they did, I’m really really happy that they did. I can’t even believe that they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be in it!’

What did André Holland think about being the narrator throughout the film?

At first he was like, “oh wow, that’s a lot,” in the sense of, “I’m going to do the voice of Douglass, that’s a lot of pressure to not mess it up.” We gave him the book to look into, and asked him to read it. He was just as excited as we were. 

I love how you were transported to that place and to Frederick Douglass through their performances. The actor fades into the character, and it’s amazing. It feels kind of like you’re at a stage play. You should take it to the stage.

Having those warehouse backgrounds helped! It’s really two-fold: one, we could be spread out because of the pandemic. And two, it’s just these actors doing their monologues, and there’s no need to focus on anything else. 

Nzadi Keita, Courtesy of HBO

Can you talk about the experts you brought on? I was so impressed to see Bisa Butler, an artist who’s passionate about Black history and of course Henry Louis Gates Jr. 

The book is based on David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Prophet of Freedom. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is friends with David Blight and was working on it being made into a film from the jump. That’s how it kicked off. In regards to the experts, I feel there are multiple parts to the approach. The way I was thinking of it, so I won’t speak for Julie, but often in these historical documentaries, you have these people who you can’t really relate to when they are talking. I really thought it was important to find those experts that have that expertise, but who can also relate the work in a more approachable way that’s more familiar. A lot of the scholars we approached have some sort of connection to Frederick Douglass, whether it be studying his work, following his activism or studying his image.

We used multiple artists for this documentary. Before focusing on his speeches, we were focusing on Black artists today using his image to mean something within a new context. Douglass is known to be the most photographed person in the 19th century. So what does that image mean? People see Douglass plastered everywhere. We know it means something, but what does that image say to people today? We reached out to Bisa Butler, Nikkolas Smith, Nzadi Keita, people who are reinterpreting his life in various ways. He is still very much present in our day to day, whether we know it or not. Nikkolas Smith used his image to speak of #BLM and the pandemic. Bisa Butler interpreted his image using her amazing textiles. Nzadi Keita wrote a book based on her research of Anna Murray Douglass, who was the wife of Frederick Douglass. She wrote a book of poems from Anna’s perspective. It didn’t make it into the film, but that was another aspect that we wanted to use as well.

I like that, I appreciated telling her story because I knew nothing about her, like how she was always there but not even acknowledged. Out of all of the speeches I was drawn the most was the one performed by Nicole Beharie, the 4th of July speech. I loved how Frederick Douglass was buttering up the crowd, and then he went in for the kill for what the real message was. That was the longest speech right?

Yes, and it’s funny because that speech we definitely cut down tremendously. The actual speech is pages and pages long. Nicole did her part of the speech from memory, and she did it multiple times. She is phenomenal to watch. 

Nicole Beharie, Courtesy of HBO

I loved Nicole’s speech because of the gender balance. A woman saying a man’s words seemed to speak to all of us. Can you talk more about that particular speech and working with Nicole?

That speech is the famous 4th of July speech. Whenever I work on a film, I try to both incorporate as many Black people as I can in front of and behind the scenes, and to incorporate as many women as I can. I knew that I wanted at least one woman to do a Douglass speech. As I was saying before, I love Nicole Beharie, and I just really thought she could carry it. I thought she could deliver on all of the different tones, and the deliveries that he would do in a speech like this one. It was just that this was the right person to do it. I wanted to make sure that Black women were not erased from this story. 

Can you talk about bringing the animation element into the film?

The animation was done by Cut it Out Studios, and they are a UK based animated team. They do really cool archival cut out animations, mixed media collage type art. We thought that seeing the work that they did before brought a new element to his story. We have so much archival footage on Douglass, it was like, ‘what can we do with these?’ We are not just going to just plaster them on the screen. They did such an awesome job because they brought color and life to it. And then we also used another animation studio, Northern Light. They did the parts when you saw Douglass speaking to a crowd and moving– that was such dynamic art. They actually had a stand-in, a Douglass look-alike. They did an awesome job to not make it cheesy. They made him look so wonderful and so fresh and new. 

Courtesy of HBO

What do you hope people see in this film?

I hope people actually learn about Douglass. He is an American icon that shouldn’t just be contained in February for Black History Month. He was a real human being, which is why we included the parts about his family, his wife, and his depression. We tend to put icons up on a pedestal and think they are flawless. When we are inspired by them, we think we have to be perfect as well in order to create change. I’m hoping in showing him as a dynamic human being, people can see that you can actually accomplish something too, even with life setbacks. He used his voice from his circumstance, and his words were so ahead of his time and are still relevant. You can do the exact same thing, you can get energized about Fredrick Douglass. I really hope people get that, because words are so powerful, they really are. Many people are very hesitant to speak up for many reasons. They fear for their lives. What would happen, what would topple? Many things in this world would be different if people would just say what’s on their mind. I hope audiences walk away with that sense of, “wow, maybe I actually can.” 

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