Editor’s Notes: Freedom is currently out limited theatrical release.
It’s 1856 and Samuel Woodward (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his family, all escaped slaves, are travelling the Underground Railroad, on their way to Canada and freedom. Samuel is distrusting and embittered from his life as a slave, so as they travel, his grandmother tells him the story of John Newton (Bernhard Forcher), a white slave ship captain who brought their ancestor to the United States a century prior. Newton would go on to write “Amazing Grace,” and his story of faith and redemption is told to Samuel in order to help him reignite his faith.
Freedom might be a song-heavy melodrama, or it might be a low-budget musical; it can’t make up its mind, and we certainly have no way to tell.
Freedom, the directorial debut of Australian musical theater actor Peter Cousens, is an absolute disaster from start to finish. The film is both theologically and philosophically questionable, given its premise that a man whose family has spent a full century being enslaved is wrong to be wary of the very people who are responsible. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but very little in Freedom does. Samuel and his family somehow have a lot of downtime as they’re running for their lives, for example, and spend most days wallowing in a suspiciously 21st century style of ennui, which conveniently allows the film to pause for flashbacks to Newton in the 1750s.
Freedom might be a song-heavy melodrama, or it might be a low-budget musical; it can’t make up its mind, and we certainly have no way to tell. The character of Ozias, played by the fantastic Jubilant Sykes, is pure musical theater, and it’s in his scenes and his scenes alone where the film begins to take shape. Unfortunately, not only do the twin narratives of Woodward and Newton feel arbitrarily linked, the musical numbers feel completely disconnected from the dramatic scenes that surround them.
The dialogue is simply unbearable, full of cornball earnestness and the kind of clichés that are best left on coffee mugs and bumper stickers. Nearly every moment is overstuffed with poorly executed schmaltz. Take the use of an old half dollar filmed in close-up with focus on the word “Liberty,” to remind us all that we’re watching a movie about freedom. Too bad the film used a coin that didn’t exist until 60 years after the events on screen took place, and was filmed with a thumb so obviously placed over the date that it’s obvious the filmmakers knew they were making a mistake, they just didn’t care.
Freedom simply does not care about the plight of slaves in the United States, it just wants to use slavery as an excuse for a fluffy little film.
There are plenty of these mistakes, too, errors of omission and the dates of historical events off by over a century. These aren’t the kind of errors inherent to low-budget filmmaking, but rather examples of how the film, at its core, has nothing to say about slavery. Freedom simply does not care about the plight of slaves in the United States, it just wants to use slavery as an excuse for a fluffy little film about how one song makes buying, selling, torturing and murdering human beings just because of the color of their skin mostly tolerable, even to those who are being enslaved.
Freedom means to say that Samuel’s loss of faith is the issue at hand, and this issue manifests in the film as a distrust of white Americans. To this end, Freedom repeatedly states that Newton, who spent over a year being tortured by a slave trader, has suffered exactly as much as the African slaves brought to the Americas. Equally concerning is the film’s studied determination to remind us all that not every white person is evil, which it does with the subtlety of a teenager on a Twitter bender.
Samuel’s trust issues make all the sense in the world, not just historically, but within the context of the film, especially after an interminable musical number where a troupe of white actors appear to frankly relish the institution of slavery, because the suffering of others gives them a great excuse to break into song. When the film cuts to Samuel’s astonished reaction, you can’t help but laugh, because we in the audience are as aghast as he is. Freedom doesn’t realize that, however, and to its final frames paints Samuel’s very logical reactions as ethically and spiritually wrong, and does so with a determination that seems both disrespectful and intentionally hostile.
An absolute disaster from start to finish. The dialogue is simply unbearable, full of cornball earnestness and the kind of clichés that are best left on coffee mugs and bumper stickers.