The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Television

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Recently, the WGN Network began airing a new series about a group of Georgia slaves who plan and conduct a daring 600 miles escape to freedom in the Northern states called “UNDERGROUND”. However, it is not the first television production about American slaves making a bid for freedom. Below is a list of previous productions that I have seen over the years:

 

 

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN TELEVISION

“A WOMAN CALLED MOSES” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Marcy Heidish’s 1974 novel about the life of escaped slave-turned Underground Railroad conductor/activist Harriet Tubman during the years before the Civil War. The miniseries’ first half focused on Tubman’s years as a Maryland slave and her escape to freedom in December 1849. The second half focused on her years as a conductor with the Underground Railroad. Paul Wendkos directed.

 

 

“THE LIBERATORS” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott portrayed Virginia-born abolitionist John Fairfield and Bill, the escaped slave of the former’s uncle; who become conductors for the Underground Railroad. After the former helps the latter escape from Virginia, the pair reunite nearly a year later to rescue the relatives of African-American freedmen living in the North. Kenneth Johnson directed.

 

 

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) – Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred in this cable television movie about a group of slaves who risk their lives to escape from their master’s North Carolina plantation to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Look for the surprise twist at the end. The movie co-starred Glynn Turman, Dawnn Lewis, Michael Riley, Falconer Abraham, and Ron White. Don McBrearty directed.

 

 

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“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century farmer in North Carolina, who finds himself helping a runaway slave, while on his way home from the market. Co-starring Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, the movie was directed by John Duigan.

 

 

“CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” (1996) – Lou Gossett Jr. and Kate Nelligan portrayed a Canadian mixed race couple who sought a husband for their only daughter, Mary. The latter ends up marrying a Northern American. Upon their arrival in the United States, he sells her to a Virginian slave dealer and she ends up as a slave in that slave. After Mary manages to send word to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mink set out for Virginia to organize a rescue of their daughter with the help of the Underground Railroad. Bruce Pittman directed.

 

 

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Four of the productions on this list – “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”, and “CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” can be found on DVD. Only “THE LIBERATORS” has not been released on DVD. In fact, I do not know if it has ever been released on VHS.

 

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“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.

List of Favorite Movies and Television Miniseries About Slavery

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With the recent releases of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “LINCOLN” and Quentin Tarrantino’s latest film, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I found myself thinking about movies I have seen about slavery – especially slavery practiced in the United States. Below is a list of my favorite movies on the subject in chronological order: 

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION MINISERIES ABOUT SLAVERY

13-Skin Game

“Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. co-starred in this unusual comedy about two antebellum drifter who pull the “skin game” – a con that involves one of them selling the other as a slave for money before the pair can escape and pull the same con in another town. Paul Bogart directed.

 

9-Mandingo

“Mandingo” (1975) – Reviled by many critics as melodramatic sleaze, this 1975 adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel revealed one of the most uncompromising peeks into slave breeding in the American South, two decades before the Civil War. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie starred James Mason, Perry King, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ken Norton.

 

2-Roots

“Roots” (1977) – David Wolper produced this television miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 about his mother’s family history as American slaves during a century long period between the mid-18th century and the end of the Civil War. LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Georg Sanford Brown and Lou Gossett Jr. starred.

 

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“A Woman Called Moses” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries about the life and career of Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, who was the most successful conductor of the Underground Railroad during the last decade before the Civil War. Based on Marcy Heidish’s book, the miniseries was directed by Paul Wendkos.

 

3-Half Slave Half Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

“Half-Slave, Half-Free: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this television adaptation of free born Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about his twelve years as a slave in antebellum Louisiana. Gordon Parks directed.

 

4-North and South

“North and South” (1985) – David Wolper produced this television adaptation of John Jakes’ 1982 novel about the experiences of two American families and the growing discord over slavery during the twenty years before the American Civil War. Patrick Swayze and James Read starred.

 

6-Race to Freedom - The Underground Railroad

“Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad” (1994) – Actor Tim Reid produced this television movie about four North Carolina slaves’ escape to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred.

 

10-The Journey of August King

“The Journey of August King” (1996) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century North Carolina farmer who finds himself helping a female slave escape from her master and slave catchers. John Duigan directed.

 

8-A Respectable Trade

“A Respectable Trade” (1998) – Emma Fielding, Ariyon Bakare and Warren Clarke starred in this television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 1992 novel about the forbidden love affair between an African born slave and the wife of his English master in 18th century Bristol. Suri Krishnamma directed.

 

11-Mansfield Park 1999

“Mansfield Park” (1999) – Slavery is heavily emphasized in Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young English woman’s stay with her rich relatives during the first decade of the 19th century. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

 

7-Human Trafficking

“Human Trafficking” (2005) – Mira Sorvino starred in this miniseries about the experiences of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent investigating the modern day sex slave trafficking business. Donald Sutherland and Robert Caryle co-starred.

 

5-Amazing Grace

“Amazing Grace” (2007) – Michael Apted directed this account of William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade throughout the British Empire in Parliament. Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney starred.

 

12-Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012) – History and the supernatural merged in this interesting adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel about the 16th president’s activities as a vampire hunter. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starred.

 

1-Lincoln

“Lincoln” (2012) – Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s fascinating account of Lincoln’s efforts to end U.S. slavery, by having Congress pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones co-starred.

 

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“Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this take on Spaghetti Westerns about a slave-turned-bounty hunter and his mentor, who sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

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“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

Over ten years ago, the BBC aired “”, a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by David Yates, the miniseries starred David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” told the story of a Central European financier’s impact upon upper-crust British society during the Victorian era. Augustus Melmotte arrives in London with his second wife and his daughter, Marie in the 1870s. Not long after his arrival, Melmotte announces a new scheme to finance a railroad project from Salt Lake City in Utah to the Gulf of Mexico. And he promises instant fortune to those who would invest in his scheme. The Melmotte family is also surrounded by a circle of decadent aristocrats and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. One of the investors is Sir Felix Carbury, a young and dissolute baronet who is quickly running through his widowed mother’s savings. In an attempt to restore their fortunes, his mother, Lady Matilda Carbury writes historical potboilers – a 19th century predecessor to 20th century romance novels. She also plans to have Felix marry Marie, who is an heiress in her own right; and marry daughter Henrietta (Hetta) to their wealthy cousin, Roger Carbury. Although Marie falls in love with Felix, Melmotte has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a penniless aristocrat. And Hetta shows no interest in Roger, since she has fallen in love with his young ward, an engineer named . However, Montague also proves to be a thorn in Melmotte’s side, due to his suspicions about the legitimacy over the railroad scheme.

As one can see, the story lines that stream from Trollope’s novel seemed to be plenty. In a way, the plot reminds me of the numerous story arcs that permeated 2004’s “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. Although some of the story arcs have nothing to do with Augustus Melmotte, nearly everyone seemed to have some connection to the financier. The exceptions to this rule proved to be the characters of American-born Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury and Ruby Ruggles, a young farm girl who lives on Roger’s estate. Mrs. Hurtle’s story was strictly limited to her efforts to regain the affections of former lover and help Ruby deal with the licentious Sir Felix. Roger’s story arc was limited to his unsuccessful efforts to win Henrietta’s heart and deal with his knowledge of Paul and Mrs. Hurtle’s relationship. Fortunately, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” seemed to possess a tighter story than “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. To a certain degree.

But I cannot deny that “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” was one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Trollope novel I have ever seen. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it more than I did “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” or 1982’s “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was due to its portrayal of society’s greed and opportunism. I have heard that Trollope had written the novel in protest against the greed and corruption of the 1870s, which resulted in the Long Depression that lasted between 1873 and 1879. The ironic thing is that the economic situation that Trollope believed had permeated British society during the 1870s had been around for a long time and would continue to permeate the world’s economic markets time again – including the recent downturn that has cast a shadow on today’s economies. Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte is today’s Bernie Madoff or Robert Maxwell.

Another aspect of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is that it revealed the darker aspects of Victorian society on a more personal level. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted by the manner in which young British scions such as Sir Felix Carbury scrambled to win the affections of Marie Melmotte and get their hands on her money; or desperate debutantes like Georgiana Longestaffe willing to marry Jewish banker Mr. Brehgert, despite her contempt for his religious beliefs and social position. I doubt that the likes of Georgiana would never contemplate becoming an author of cheesy novels, like Lady Carbury or marrying a man with no funds – like .

Thanks to Davies’ screenplay and David Yates’ direction, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” permeated with a richly dark and comic style that beautifully suited Trollope’s tale. Hardly anyone – aside from a few such as Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury and Mr. Brehgert – was spared from the pair’s biting portrayal of Trollope’s characters. Two of my favorite scenes featured a ball held by the Melmottes in Episode One and a banquet in honor of the Chinese Emperor in Episode Three. The banquet scene especially had me on the floor laughing at the sight of British high society members gorging themselves on the dishes prepared by Melmotte’s cook.

Although “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is my favorite Trollope adaptation – so far – I must admit that I had a few problems with it. One, Andrew Davies’ portrayal of the Paul Montague character struck me as slightly boring. Like his literary counterpart, Paul found himself torn between his love for Hetta and his sexual past with Mrs. Hurtle. But Davies’ Paul seemed so . . . noble and stalwart that I found it hard to believe this is the same gutless wonder from Trollope’s novel. And if I must be brutally honest, I found his relationship with Hetta Carbury to be another example of a boring romance between two boring young lovers that seemed to permeate Victorian literature. A part of me longed for Paul to end up with Winifred Hurtle. At least he would have found himself in a more interesting romance. I have one more quibble. In a scene featuring a major quarrel between Melmotte and his daughter Marie, there was a point where both were in each other’s faces . . . growling like animals. Growling? Really? Was that necessary? Because I do not think it was.

One would think I have a problem with Cillian Murphy and Paloma Baeza’s performances as Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury. Trust me, I did not. I thought both gave solid and competent performances. I feel they were sabotaged by Trollope’s portrayal of their characters as “the young lovers” and Davies’ unwillingness to put some zing into their romance. Miranda Otto made a very interesting Mrs. Hurtle, despite her bad attempt at a Southern accent. And Allan Corduner and Fenella Woolgar both gave solid performances that I did not find particularly memorable. On the other hand, I felt more than impressed by Cheryl Campbell as the charming and somewhat manipulative Lady Carbury; Douglas Hodge as the love-sick Roger Carbury; Oliver Ford-Davies as the grasping, yet bigoted Mr. Longestaffe; Helen Schlesinger’s funny performance as the clueless Madame Melmotte; a poignant performance from Jim Carter, who portrayed Mr. Brehgert; and Anne-Marie Duff, who managed to create a balance between Georgiana Longstaffe’s strong-willed willingness to marry a man of another faith and her self-absorption and bigotry.

However, the three performances that stood head above the others came from David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. Suchet could have easily portrayed the scheming and gregarious Augustus Melmotte as a cartoonish character. And there were times when it seemed he was in danger of doing so. But Suchet balanced Melmotte’s over-the-top personality with a shrewdness and cynicism that I found appealing – especially when those traits mocked the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society. Shirley Henderson proved to be the perfect person to portray Melmotte’s only daughter, Marie. Superficially, she seemed like a chip off the old block. But Henderson injected a great deal of compassion and poignancy into Marie’s character, making it very easy for me to sympathize toward her unrequited love for Sir Felix Carbury and the heartache she felt upon discovering his lack of love for her. Matthew Macfadyen must have finally made a name for himself in his memorable portrayal of the dissolute Sir Felix Carbury. I cannot deny that Macfadyen revealed a good deal of Sir Felix’s charm. But the actor made it pretty obvious that his character’s charm was at best, superficial. Considering some of the roles he has portrayed over the decade that followed “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, I believe Macfadyen’s Sir Felix must have been one of the most self-absorbed characters in his repertoire. And he did a superb job with the role. It is a pity that he never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

One cannot talk about “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” without pointing out the sumptuous production designs created by Gerry Scott. They were superb. With contributions from Diane Dancklefsen and Mark Kebby’s art direction, Caroline Smith’s set decorations, Chris Seager’s photography and Andrea Galer’s costume designs; Scott and his team did a wonderful job in re-creating Victorian society in the 1870s. I was especially impressed at how Galer’s costumes captured the early years of that decade. I would never call Nicholas Hooper’s score particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it suited both the story’s theme and setting.

Although I found a few aspects of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” to complain about – notably the Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury characters. I cannot deny that it is a first-rate production, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation, David Yates’ direction and a fine cast led by David Suchet. More importantly, the story’s theme of greed and corruption leading to economic chaos was not only relevant to the mid-to-late Victorian era, but also for today’s society. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” strike me as a story for all times.