Slaves escape to freedom in Canada with the help of abolitionists. [ Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad credits: Dir: Don McBrearty/ Janet Bailey, Michael Riley, Ron White/ 90 min/ Action-Adventure/ Canada/ Anti-Slavery]
In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that diminished the relative safety of the North as a haven for escaped slaves by overriding state laws protecting them. As a result, fugitive slaves were pursued by bounty hunters all over the United States. Fortunately there was still Canada, and that’s the theme here in this Canadian made-for-TV movie.
At the center of this story is a young Canadian abolitionist who travels to the South on his first mission for the Underground iRailroad. Under the cover of doing ornithological field research, he secretly organizes an escape for four slaves. In the course of the telling of his adventure, we get a pretty complete lesson in the history of North American abolitionism. We hear the oratory of Frederick Douglass. We see Harriet Tubman running slaves north. We see a captured slave brutally punished, and witness the courage of abolitionists and runaway slaves alike as they endure perilous conditions and outwit bounty hunters to reach freedom and safety. That history lesson alone makes this film worth watching.
But Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad isn’t just an abolitionist-as-hero movie. The main point here is that much of the operation of the Underground Railroad would never have been possible without Canada. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, it was no longer enough for a slave to escape to the northern U.S. They had to get all the way out of the U.S. to be safe. And indeed, by 1861, forty thousand slaves had escaped to Canada. This is a significant point from a libertarian perspective, because it’s a reminder of the importance of independent states as a check on the occasional insanity of government. In the end, the final check on any injustice is escape, but that implies the need for some place to be able to escape to. It’s a lesson that naive believers in benevolent world government ought to bear in mind.
In terms of entertainment, this is pretty typical made-for-TV fare, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable and likely to be of special interest to Canadians. As the old slave song goes, “Farewell, old master, don’t come after me. I’m on my way to Canada, where colored men are free.”
“Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad 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.”