"Mismanaged and theatrical."
It is tasteless when a movie delivers differently from what it promises. No matter how noble the intentions are, there is a question of decency and credibility when a story has certain hidden agenda. It is with this logic that Peter Cousens’ Freedom is utterly foul and disappointing.
The movie connects two stories which are approximately 100 years apart – the first happens in 1856 when a small group of black slaves escape from a plantation in Richmond, Virginia. With the aid of the Underground Railroad network, Samuel Woodward (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his Christian family are headed north to Canada and to freedom. But the journey is not easy as slave hunter (William Sadler) and his pack are in hot pursuits against them.
The second part happens in 1748, telling the story about Samuel’s great-grandfather and his sea voyage on a slave trader ship under Captain John Newton’s (Bernhard Forcher) management. Though the expedition from Guinea to Carolina turns out to be stormy and difficult, the experience proves to be transformative for Newton as he embraces Christian faith in the process. Sympathizing with the abolitionists, Newton later writes the song “Amazing Grace.” Before they separate, Newton presents the boy (Sam’s ancestor) with a gift – the Holy Bible – which shall become the family heritage through all ages.
Freedom opens with some forewords about the black slavery in America. It is one of the most horrible events of the past and the movie gives a historical drama impression. Unfortunately, as the film progresses quite lazily, it appears to be more spiritual in nature. Jesus has been mentioned countless times and the idea of Christian conversion has been very prominent. The slavery and the characters’ struggles to survive being smuggled out of their master’s land become secondary as spirituality rises to be the main central point.
The movie also tries to convey that not all white people in the slave trade are cruel and evil. This is evident with Newton’s transformation and Samuel’s pursuer’s change of hearts. With the latter’s scene, Samuel is torn between the choice of extracting revenge and forgiveness. With this, Freedom becomes demanding and even subtly brutal as it uses Christian values to insist on the idea of forgiveness and redemption for the white traders. It may be the righteous thing to do but a hundred years of inflicting pain and inequality is not that easily erased by a single journey or voyage.
Other than banking on spirituality, the movie also turns out to be theatrical as music becomes an integral part of it. At some parts, the sanctimonious songs bring some kind of uplift and divine high, but mostly, they are annoying. They turn the drama into heartless cheesiness. In fact, the songs take most of the one-and-a-half-hour duration of the movie. Cutting off the music and the religious babble will reduce the film to substantially almost nothing.
Technically, Freedom has that movie-made-for-television texture, giving a claustrophobic and dismal feeling. Too much musicality also gives the actor so little to work on. Gooding, with his natural wits and talents, does not shine in the movie. He appears to be so generic and forgettable.
Freedom, compared to other movies with several themes, is less violent as spirituality is its dominating voice. Sharing the message about reading the Bible and living the Christian values are admirable actions. But doing so in the guise of another thing may not be the rightful way to do it.