Race to Freedom” is a powerful two-hour cablefilm that breaks from the Black History Month staples of documentaries and repeats, by exploring the lives of the men and women, blacks and whites, who risked all for freedom.
The story is set in 1850. The recently enacted Fugitive Slave Act allows slaves who have run away to the Northern “free states” to be recaptured and returned to their owners — meaning that runaways had to force their way even further north, into Canada.
Joe (Roy Lewis) and his 18-year-old sister Sarah (Janet Bailey) are owned by Col. Fairling (James Blendick). Sarah’s intended, Thomas (Courtney Vance), plans to run away and wants Sarah to join him, but she believes the risk is too great.
Col. Fairling plays host to Alexander Ross (Michael Riley), who is actually a “conductor” sent to seek out slaves willing to make the journey on the Underground Railroad.
At her brother’s urging, Sarah decides to join the others in Ross’ group. When they are discovered missing, Col. Fairling hires slave-bounty hunter Hort (Ron White) and his accomplice-slave Solomon (Glynn Turman), who hopes to buy his freedom with each recapture.
The hunt begins. Not only must the fugitives escape the bounty hunters, they must also face the inherent dangers of the uncharted wilderness.
“Race to Freedom,” being simulcast on the Family Channel and BET, personalizes one of the most horrendous periods in American history. It is heroic without sentimentality, clear-sighted, and well-executed. Most important, it is a simply told story without bombast and puffery. Direction by Don McBrearty is subtle and even-handed.
Scripters Diana Braithwaite, Nancy Trites Botkin and Peter Mohan and the producers have created a poignant, unsentimental work that provides insight into what compelled ordinary people to take extraordinary risks.
Of particular note is the cinematography, courtesy of talented Rene Ohashi. The lighting is muted and earthy in tone.
Acting is compelling and realistic. Tim Reid and Alfre Woodard, in brief cameos portraying Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, respectively, provide additional dramatic weight to the story.