An intriguing package is about to be shopped for a series commitment — an hourlong drama on the contradictions that were part of the first term of George Washington. Antoine Fuqua is aboard to direct a pilot and be executive producer with series creators Blue Bloods EP/writer Brian Burns and William N. Collage.
The latter wrote the runaway-slave script Emancipation, which Fuqua is directing with Will Smith starring for Apple Studios. That film is about to begin production in Louisiana.
The President has a pilot script and an eight-episode bible for a series that tells the complex story of America’s first elected leader and the contradictions behind the man who, after leading the country to victory in the Revolutionary War, made an indelible mark on setting up a democratic government as its first president. In his first 153 days, Washington unified the warring factions of the country; organized the State, Treasury and what was then called the War Department; set up the Supreme Court; and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in 1791.
There is hypocrisy: Washington and wife Martha owned 300 enslaved people who toiled on their Virginia plantation. He ripped nine of them away from their families to join him when he set up the government in New York, where slavery was not outlawed until 1807.
The shape of the series is important history, but the stories of the enslaved are a big part of the narrative in a drama that plays out like The Crown and Downton Abbey. The contradictions loom heavily, as when Washington’s enslaved staff serves Founding Fathers like James Madison as they worked out the Bill of Rights, with none of the amendments extending to the servants.
Burns brought the idea to Collage, who’d spent much time researching Emancipation. They wrote it together, and Collage showed it to Emancipation helmer Fuqua. They will all be executive producers along with Emancipation‘s Cliff Roberts. History Studio is acting in a consultant capacity.
The series begins with the defeat of the British, when many expected Washington to become a Julius Caesar figure. Instead, he stepped down from the military and went home but heeded the country’s call when he won a landslide election, much to the ire of his wife, Martha, who refused to attend his New York inauguration. He instituted many of the bedrocks of democracy, including the tradition of a two-term stay that didn’t become law until after FDR.
Washington was urged to emancipate the enslaved people by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, a former slave owner-turned-abolitionist, though they feared that Washington doing that would have created an irreparable rupture with the South before the government was fully formed. But Washington prevented the nine who came with him from leaving. The capital was moved to Philadelphia, a progressive city that had a law on the books that if the enslaved resided there 150 days, they would be emancipated. So Washington and his wife sent them back to Mount Vernon under the guise of visiting relatives, knowing that the clock would start over when they returned. When three of the staff fled, Washington used federal resources to track them.
Most of the enslaved people on the farm had been willed to Martha Washington by her first husband, and when Washington left deathbed instructions that he wished them all to be emancipated after her death, she was initially reluctant. Faced with the prospect of everyone there wishing for her death, she set them free.
This certainly seems a fresh way to cover the formation of America. They are looking for a series commitment, and the hope is to go after Emancipation wraps. Stay tuned.