"This story, although set in the past, is about the future, where I know freedom is. In the smallest things, I see the flicker of hope."
Those words play in the opening voiceover of Freedom, the new film about the Underground Railroad, in theaters on June 5. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Samuel Woodward, the film follows one man’s flight from slavery one hundred years after John Newton’s (Bernhard Forcher) own experience of freedom led him to fight for the freedom of slaves. Pursued by the slave hunter Plimpton (William Sadler), the Woodwards traverse the Underground Railroad, relying on the kindness of whites they had not previously experienced at the hands of slavers in Richmond, Va. Will there be a place for faith and peace in their lives, or will they fall back into a life of slavery and anger?
The separate timelines deepen the power of Woodward’s story, as we see Newton himself struggle. Newton, a singer himself, finds himself ministered to by the black man Ozias (Jubliant Sykes), who translates the words of the African slaves for Newton. Their relationship highlights the power of music in the story itself - whether it’s hymns you’ve heard like “Amazing Grace” or the powerful, haunting melody Sykes sings, “City Called Heaven,” while walking the slave ship deck. Music is a major component of the film, an important attribute that Director Peter Cousens sought to highlight.
“In terms of the script, it called for songs in various bits and pieces,” said Cousens. “I had to kind of work out organically where they would come out and play to emotionally support what was going on. With my background, I was used to the rules of musical theater. The film is not a musical, and it doesn’t push the narrative, but it supports the emotional life of the characters. It was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle at first, to make sure the songs we chose made sense.”
“Some are a bit anachronistic, but it evolved as all films do. We wanted to make a film with a large range of music in it including bluegrass and gospel, with as much modern hymn as we could put it into it.”
Thanks to Ozias primarily, we see Newton’s struggle with the impact of slavery. He is a man who was once flogged himself and treated like a slave, which causes Newton to struggle with any belief that he might have in a good God. That’s an issue I discussed with Cousens: how one former slave could stand to be a slavemaster over others. “Newton, who was traded by others, became a slave trader well after he became a Christian,” Cousens said. “He turned back to Christianity for real after he had been trading slaves for quite some time. It’s fascinating because there weren’t too many Christians who thought slavery was wrong, because it was the nature of the time. But he was formed by that notion of Christianity and equality – I think he was haunted by what he’d done, the twenty-thousand faces he carted across the ocean, even more than being a slave himself.”
Newton’s struggle in the film mirrors Woodward’s own battle as anger and a desire for revenge collide with a Christian understanding of forgiveness. Woodward’s circumstance drives him to ask the question, How could there be a good God when there is so much suffering? We may find ourselves asking that question when we watch other people suffer, but it is taken to another level when we are the ones struggling ourselves. Woodward is suffering, beaten, on the run, and pursued by men who would as soon kill him as look at him. He’s faced with decisions about how he’ll respond when violence finds his family, and what he’ll do if it means staying free.
Cousens said, “I think Woodward is challenged by his story and the notion of discovering that freedom is bound up with letting go. It’s tied up in the politics of that period of the time, and especially for the African American politics. The passing on of those stories from the Bible are what allow him to be able to forgive and move on.”
Written by Tim Chey (David & Goliath), the film works in some Christian theology and methodology without serving up a sermon. Certainly, many of the people who assisted on the Underground Railroad were people of faith (several Quakers are notable participants in the escape here) and there are Christian slaves and non-Christian slaves who experience some of the same troubles together. But Chey’s script isn’t just a historical rendering of what it means to be a slave. Instead, like 12 Years a Slave, there is a conscious acknowledgment that many are still enslaved today - for being of the wrong race, gender, or religious belief.
The audience may want to cringe periodically, or even close their eyes. But the power of the two timelines demands that we care, that we have a response, that we recognize that we can make a difference. Our votes, our auctions, our voice - all of them matter if we want to see the kingdom of God come on the earth and if we recognize that there are still slaves in our world today. While your life or my life may be reasonably peaceful, we must acknowledge that “the future is where freedom is.” Freedom, that is, from the bondages of imprisonment and captivity, from the chain of sin and death.
Thanks be to God, real freedom is possible.
Check out Freedom in theaters on Friday, June 5, or on DVD here!