“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) Review

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) Review

Many television viewers and moviegoers might be surprised to learn that Hollywood had aired a good number of television movies that featured the topic of U.S. slavery. One of those movies proved to be an offshoot of the 1977 miniseries,“ROOTS”. However, another was the 1994 television movie called “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”.

The 1994 television movie is a story about the Underground Railroad, a loose network of secret routes and safe houses occasionally used by willing 19th-century slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with occasional aid of abolitionists and allies sympathetic to their cause. Before one assumes this movie is about the history of the actual network . . . it is not. Instead, “RACE TO FREEDOM” told the story of four fugitive slaves from North Carolina, who made the journey north to freedom during the fall of 1850. Since their journey took place not long after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, the four fugitives were forced to journey to Canada, instead of a Northern state above the Mason-Dixon Line.

The story began with two events – the capture of a slave named Joe, who is owned by a North Carolina planter named Colonel Fairling; and the arrival of a guest of Farley’s, a Canadian ornithologist (studies birds) named Dr. Alexander Ross. Fairling is an amateur bird watcher who had invited Ross to observe the migration of certain bird in the area. Unbeknownst to the planter, Dr. Ross is also an abolitionist and newly-recruited member of the Underground Railroad. He has also arrived at the Fairling plantation to offer help to any slaves willing to escape. In the end, four slaves take up his offer – a blacksmith named Thomas; two field slaves named Minnie and Walter; and a house slave named Sarah, who is also Thomas’ love and Joe’s younger sister. After his men’s failure to capture the four runaways, Fairling hires a professional slave catcher named Wort and his slave/tracker Solomon to find and capture them.

Unlike some people, I believe that stories (in novels, movies, television, stage plays) about slavery (in any country) can be told in a variety of ways – as a family saga, a historical biopic, or even as a comedy satire on the sanctity of American history. “RACE TO FREEDOM” turned out to be an adventure tale in the form of a road trip, with history, action and romance for good measure. It is not the first movie about the Underground Railroad I have seen. But it is one of my two favorite productions on the topic.

One of the reasons why “RACE TO FREEDOM” became such a favorite with me is that . . . well, screenwriters Peter Mohan and Nancy Trites-Botkin created a first-rate, solid screenplay. The pair did an excellent job of setting up the narrative with the two events mentioned – Joe’s capture and Dr. Ross’ arrival at the Farley plantation. The screenplay also allowed viewers to become acquainted with the movie’s four protagonists, as they debate over whether or not to make the bid for freedom. It did the same for the two antagonists – the slave catching duo of Wort and Solomon. Mohan and Trites-Botkin’s screenplay also did a solid job of presenting obstacles for the protagonists to overcome, as they made their way north from western North Carolina to Canada. And the screenplay also presented a northbound route that did not come off as implausible. I still shake my head in disbelief over the California-bound route that author George MacDonald Fraser plotted in one of his FLASHMAN novels. But more importantly, “RACE TO FREEDOM” proved to be a first-rate adventure filled with a well-written narrative, solid action, strong characterization, nail-biting suspense, a strong, if not perfect, grasp of history, and a surprising twist in the end.

As I had earlier stated, “RACE TO FREEDOM” featured some strong characterizations. And this would not have been possible without a first-rate cast. The movie included some solid performances from Falconer Abraham, Jennifer Phipps, Peter Boretski and James Blendick. Dawnn Lewis gave a funny and sardonic performance as the pragmatic Minnie. Also, Tim Reid, Nigel Bennett and Alfre Woodward all made solid cameo appearances as abolitionists Frederick Douglass andLevi Coffin, and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. However, in my opinion, the movie featured five performances that really impressed me. Both Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance gave superb and subtle performances as the two of the four slaves who attempt the journey for freedom. Not only was I impressed by how they conveyed the complex aspects of their respective personalities, I was also impressed by their strong, screen chemistry. Michael Riley gave a very interesting performance as the Canadian ornithologist, Dr. Alexander Ross, who heart seemed to be in the right place, despite his obvious lack of experience with the Underground Railroad. I especially enjoyed his interactions with Vance’s character, Thomas. However, I feel that the two most interesting performances in the movie came from Glynn Turman and Ron White, who portrayed the two slave catchers, Solomon and Wort. The two actors did a superb job in conveying one of the most interesting and complex slave/master relationship I have ever seen on screen. Turman and White really made it easy for me to understand how emotionally complex that relationship can be.

There is a lot to admire about “RACE TO FREEDOM”. However, I did managed to spot certain aspects that I found questionable. The performances of the actors who portrayed Colonel Fairling’s neighbors struck me as wooden and bad clichés of the typical Southern planter found in antebellum South movie and television productions of the last forty years. Two, actor Tim Reid was too old to be portraying abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the time. I guess I should not be surprised. “RACE TO FREEDOM” marked the third time this has happened. Reid was almost fifty when this movie was in production. And the abolitionist was 32 years old during the movie’s setting of 1850. Finally, although I found Alfre Woodward’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman rather entertaining, I found myself wondering why the historical figure was in this movie. Tubman usually operated as an Underground Railroad conductor between the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Canada – which meant she never went anywhere near Cinncinati, Ohio. Yet, this movie had her escorting runaways from Cinncinati. Worse, Trites-Botkin’s screenplay strongly hinted that Tubman was a veteran conductor for the Underground Railroad. This is not true. Tubman had ran away from Maryland in December 1849. She did not begin her activities as a conductor until the late fall or early spring of 1850. During this movie’s time setting, she was as much of a newbie as Dr. Ross.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” may not be easy to find. The television movie first aired on a cable network (unbeknownst to me) some twenty years ago. And I would have never found out about it, if it were not for the channel guide I had received from my cable company on a weekly basis. And thank goodness I managed to stumble across it. The production became one of my all time movies – television or otherwise – about U.S. slavery. If you can find it in a store, on Netflix or even on the Internet, I highly suggest that you watch it.

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