Inside an art installation with many large screens all displaying an actor portraying Frederick Douglass, wearing a bright blue jacket. Each screen shows a different view of the person.

Issue 003 Fall 2021 Essays

Shaping Time

On Isaac Julien's Lessons of the Hour

by Leila Weefur

Isaac Julien. Lessons of the Hour, 2019, ten-screen installation. 35mm film and 4k digital, color, 7.1 surround sound. 28 min, 46 sec. Installation view, McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco (October 14, 2020 - April 24, 2020). Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; Metro Pictures, New York, Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Photo: Henrik Kam Photography.


The whole soul of man is a sort of picture gallery, a grand panorama, in which all the great facts of the universe, in tracing things of time and things of eternity, are painted.

—Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress,” 1861


Through language, image, and sound, the masters of cinema have become some of the greatest sculptors of time. Ezra Pound, the great twentieth-century American poet, spoke of an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”1 Though this was primarily attributed to imagism and the poetics of language, cinema and the poetics of moving image emphasize this truth. To shape time in cinema is to use the visual image as material for which to build a story—just as the poet uses word and the musician uses sound, the cinematographer combines the corners of reality to shape an experience in twenty-four frames per second.

Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour (2019), a spatial cinematic narrative presented across ten channels, draws a map that not only embodies “an instant of time” but—in language, image, and sound—shapes a temporal experience of the life of Frederick Douglass, who shaped time for descendants of the enslaved, in perpetuity, through his own mastery of language and poetics. It is in spatializing the moving image where the exercise of mapping time becomes a sensorial experience, further emphasizing the poetry in image and language. Think of the ways we experience cinema. In its most accessible formats, many of us watch on our personal devices, which facilitates the most practical viewing, but when we substitute access for experience, we lose the opportunity for immersive cinema. The most full-bodied experience most of the world has with film exists in the movie theater, but in a multichannel installation like Lessons of the Hour, image and sound can swallow us whole. When cinema expands beyond the traditional two-dimensional formats and into architecture, space becomes immaterial, and the ability to measure the passing of time dissolves in the hands of the filmmaker.


A Black person in a blue overcoat stands next to a horse in the middle of a large open field, with a mountain in the distance.
Isaac Julien. Lessons of the Hour (Lessons of the Hour), 2019. Framed photograph on matt archival paper, mounted on aluminum. 160 x 213.39 cm. 63 x 84 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Julien and his visual practice are situated at the very center of this cinematic swallow. However, where a movie theatre requires a stagnant, seated stare, an installation facilitates movement. Where traditional viewing calls for singularity, the visual surfaces in Julien’s multichannel installations Playtime (2014), A Marvellous Entanglement (2019), and Lessons of the Hour create a narrative multiplicity that invites the body to travel and begs the eye to navigate this visual map of time. 

Lessons of the Hour masters the presentation of time in its ability to create a nonlinear historical narrative and unfold it across the architecture of a single room. The instant the first of the ten screens is illuminated, you feel the simultaneity of time—the past, present, and future are all present as we follow the footsteps, the poetry, and the voice of Douglass. 

Greeted by the idyllic, we locate Douglass, portrayed by actor Ray Fearon, in a heavy maroon overcoat, ambling through an unmarked forest. We hear his footsteps before his complete figure is revealed, introducing the rhythm; the tempo makes present all of the surrounding elements that escort you through time. It is the subtle details in the sound where Lessons of the Hour ignites a host of sensorial responses. In this forest, Douglass passes a monumental tree with thick brambling branches colored with autumn leaves, an image that might conjure a feeling of nostalgia through memories of weather and smell, but the sound is enough to make muscles tighten. What we hear sounds like the tension of a thick, weighted rope pulling the girth of a tree branch, a sound that might conjure an image of a lynching. Pictured, though, is a pensive Douglass trailing through the tall grass. We are confronted with the simultaneous instances of time—seeing him while hearing our way through a dark past and the shadow of a lynching. It is this scene that leads you into ten simultaneous iterations of a single moment and of many moments to follow.

Colonization is no solution of the race problem. It is an evasion. It is not repenting of wrong but putting out of sight the people upon whom wrong has been inflicted. Its reiteration and agitation only serve to fan the flame of popular prejudice and encourage the hope that in some way or other, in time or in eternity, those who hate the Negro will get rid of him. If the American people could endure the Negro’s presence while a slave, they certainly can and ought to endure his presence as a free man. If they could tolerate him when he was a heathen, they might bear with him when he is a Christian, a gentleman, and a scholar.

— Frederick Douglass, “Lessons of the Hour,” 1894


Three Black people stand looking off screen in period attire. The middle person is wearing a blue coat and is presumably portraying Frederick Douglass.
Isaac Julien. Serenade (Lessons of the Hour), 2019. Photograph on matt archival paper face mounted on aluminum. 100 x 113 cm. 39 3/8 x 44 1/2 in. Courtesy the artist.

Present in the decupled narrative are the many manifestations of language, as material and as a haptic experience, invisibly grafted onto the Black body. This is manifested in his speech and the language of the land upon which Douglass walks, a pastoral landscape speaking in rhythm with his step, the rustle of trees, and the grass beneath his feet. It is manifested in the materiality and brilliant colors of the clothing worn by Douglass and his counterparts, underscored by the beat of a sewing machine. The train transporting him from one land to the next on his journey to freedom accentuates this language of movement with a percussive cadence. Movement as a language and percussive instrument originated from within the Black body and, as a sonic element in Lessons of the Hour, underscores the image as a historical cornerstone. Song and elocution are deeply embedded in this story. Various melodies are sung by secondary characters along the journey, adding layers of vocality to the time map of Douglass’s life as an orator. His speeches stretch across time and geographies, having never shied away from naming the influence of Shakespearean lyric; his poetical genius grows out of Black histories existing before him, before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and casts itself into historical infinitude. 

Lessons of the Hour takes a delicate thread, sewing together the great performances of Douglass’s life-long call to protect and defend the United States Constitution and its amendments. Across ten screens is a continuum of declamation, one of America’s great historical voices addressing a transnational audience; each screen is a portrait of a moment in alternating perspectives. One audience is visible on-screen sitting opposite the podium where Douglass stands clad in a royal blue wool coat, delivering his legendary “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech. From another vantage, his back is to us and his blue coat overwhelms the room, casting the faces in the gallery with a splash of blue light. And at last, we see the many faces of this audience, some outfitted for the late-1800s and others awkwardly resembling the people viewing the exhibit—the fourth wall has been refracted. This audience, in real time at Julien’s installation, is sitting atop cushions or laying across the plush red carpet placed almost as if it were extending from beneath Douglass’s feet. This scene expanded the cinematic world of Douglass into the architecture of the gallery at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, blending the boundaries of time.


Two Black people sit inside a carriage, dressed in period attire. They both look out the window on the left pensively, the person on the far left - who wears a bonnet and floral dress - has their left hand on the right hand of the person on the right, who is wearing a red overcoat and appears to be portraying Frederick Douglass.
Isaac Julien. The North Star (Lessons of the Hour), 2019. Framed photograph on gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum. 160 x 213.39 cm. 63 x 84 in. Courtesy the artist.

The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable—and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here today is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude. You will not, therefore, be surprised, if in what I have to say I evince no elaborate preparation, nor grace my speech with any high-sounding exordium. With little experience and with less learning, I have been able to throw my thoughts hastily and imperfectly together; and trusting to your patient and generous indulgence, I will proceed to lay them before you.

— Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” 1852

This is poetic cinema, created when time becomes a cinematic elastic material and the distilled elements of filmmaking—spatial, textual, visual, sonic—orchestrate the manipulation of time. Watching Lessons of the Hour is like holding a map of time, one that traces historical experiences from American slavery to the present. Even in its spatial grandiosity and luscious piano composition, the narrative feels close, so close we can lose sense of our own physical presence. Our sense of reality dissolves into the cinematic swallow and relinquishes real time to the shape of cinema time. 

There is a way that the true impossibility of knowing time fuels a human impulse to shape time through philosophical and creative attempts to give time a face, a name, and perhaps even a soul. Julien shapes an elastic temporal reality around the historical poetics of Frederick Douglass, and once all the screens fade to black, you’re catapulted back into the present. Our present, which now sits at the center of this unfolded historical map, doesn’t seem too far away from Douglass’s present. In the silence, there’s an echo of questions that linger in the punctuation of his words. What to the slave is the Fourth of July? What was it then? What is it now?


Footnotes:

1. Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Poetry Foundation.