Film

Underground Railroad Drama Freedom Is More Interested in Jesus Than Slavery

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Using a slavery narrative to advance an unrelated agenda is pretty tasteless, bordering on offensive. The product of an “inspirational” production house, a white director, and an Asian-American screenwriter who once wrote a film that was actually called Fakin’ Da Funk, Freedom expunges the real histories of millions of people by elevating the consolation of religion above the actual experience of enslavement.

But more broadly, any kind of didacticism just kills art, like product placements on TV shows. A narrative of the Underground Railroad, the film is practically a musical — the characters frequently burst into hymns from a variety of early American religious traditions, in styles refined and rural. It seems unlikely that during secret smuggling journeys through Northeastern forests, under threat of execution for their actions, abolitionists would burst into clamorous banjo gospel songs.

Without all the music, Freedom would be about 30 minutes long. Further chop out all the conversations about Jesus (please), and it would be nothing but credits. In the tale of Samuel Woodward (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his flight from thralldom with his family, every scene and conversation eventually pivots on faith, the lack of faith, the reacquisition of faith, faith’s awesomeness, and very occasionally addresses the costs and cruelty of slavery.

A parallel story set a hundred years earlier relates the narrative of a heroic white slave-ship captain (Bernhard Forcher) who is redeemed by the faith of his slave translator. For a religious musical, that’s pretty damn tone-deaf.

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