African-Americans tell own story eloquently in 'Race to Freedom'

February 19, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's not going to win Olympics-style mega-ratings, or create a Tonya-and-Nancy front-page buzz. But "Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad" is going to be seen by some viewers as one of the more important productions of the TV season.

The made-for-cable film, which airs at 8 tonight on Black Entertainment Television and the Family Channel, marks the first time that African-Americans have had the chance to dramatize a slice of their history on prime-time TV.

The result is an engaging film that differs in several key ways from previous made-for-TV versions of African-American history, which were controlled by whites.

It should be noted that "Race to Freedom" is not totally a black production. In terms of money, it's a joint effort by BET and evangelist Pat Robertson's Family Channel. (The program repeats on the Family Channel at 6 p.m. tomorrow and again on Feb. 27.)

But Tim Reid, probably best known for his work in "Frank's Place," produced this story, set in 1850, about four slaves and their attempt to escape from North Carolina to Canada on the Underground Railroad. In a producer's medium, Reid's voice is the one that's heard.

The tone and style of "Race to Freedom" is firmly established in the opening. Intercut with pictures and words of Frederick Douglass (played by Reid) delivering a lecture about what slaves faced in trying to escape their Southern masters, are pictures and sounds of a slave being run down by dogs.

As a result, viewers get historical information from the lecture, but it's potential preachiness is avoided because of the moving scene of a man being hunted like an animal. History comes alive through characters for whom you come to care.

The two you care about most are Sarah (Janet Bailey) and Thomas (Courtney Vance), a blacksmith and house servant who love each other. Their journey to freedom is the stuff of the Hero Quest.

Perhaps the best thing about them is they're not one-dimensional, the way the characters were in David Wolper's TV version of Alex Haley's "Roots." Sarah, for example, starts out somewhat timid, servile, weak and selfish compared to another female slave, Minnie (Dawnn Lewis), who makes a run for freedom.

As well as being multidimensional, all the black characters are not good -- nor are all the whites bad. In fact, the biggest plot twist plays on the miscalculation some viewers are likely to make about one black character.

Another big difference is that the brutality of the slave owners is communicated without indulging in the kind of S&M, white-and-black, bullwhip sexuality seen in "Roots."

Is it a great film? No. The actors are solid, but you'll see their limitations in the one brief scene lit up by Alfre Woodard, in a cameo as Harriet Tubman. None of the stars is the caliber of Woodard, and ultimately it hurts the film.

This is not landmark TV. "Race to Freedom" is too small in terms of scope, talent and impact for that. But it's a good story told for the most part by African-American voices. And that is a step in the right direction for prime-time TV.

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