No records were kept, but historians believe more than 100,000 slaves tried to escape their bondage before the Emancipation Proclamation. Most of those who made it to the relative safety of the north--or the wilderness, when slavery still reigned in the north--had help in the form of the Underground Railroad. Whites, free blacks, and Native Americans offered aid and shelter, though the notion of the Railroad as a kind of conspiracy of freedom, organized from north to south, is deeply flawed. Alfre Woodard links together interviews with historians, contemporary photographs, drawings, and dramatic reenactments to show the terrors of slavery and the travails of escape, exploding many of our myths along the way. The economic and political motivations behind many white abolitionists' feelings are explored, and while ultimately it didn't matter to a slave reaching out for liberty why it was offered, we are forced to reevaluate the selfless image of many "conductors." Still, freedom is freedom, and the History Channel's Underground Railroad tells its story well, inspiring respect for the generations of men and women who fought silently for it. --Rob Lightner
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The documentary gives us great interviews with historians from fine universities including Princeton and Howard University. Together these historians tell stories that enlighten us about what it was like to use the Underground Railroad to escape to freedom. We see that the routes to safety didn't always work--some slaves were caught and either killed on the spot or returned to their masters for brutal treatment. There were bounty hunters everywhere and even if a runaway slave was successful just crossing the Ohio River proved to be a whopping challenge--after all, many people didn't know how to swim at the time.
We also learn of the pivotal roles played by white and black abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman during the decades before the civil war; and the re-enactments have acting that simulates rather well what a runaway slave looked like as they made their daring escape to freedom.
There's so much more about the Underground Railroad that is discussed in this fantastic documentary; but I must leave some things out to whet your appetite to watch or buy this awesome film.
The DVD comes with a few extras. The most notable extra is a Biography Channel's episode on the life and times of Frederick Douglass; this 45 minute extra tells us a lot about Frederick Douglass although there are times when the subject matter gets a little too tangential in my opinion.
Overall, this fine documentary about the Underground Railroad can teach many people what it was really like on the risky path to freedom; and we see still photos to add even more of a human touch to the interviews we get with the historians from universities. I highly recommend this for history buffs and for anyone who wishes to study the Underground Railroad, slavery in America and the events leading up to the American Civil War.
Stories that they tell include some of the more well known one's, like "boxcar Brown" and they also told some stories that I had not heard (despite going over this period of history 4 times during college, one of which the class was dedicated to the subject of slavery). They also talk a lot about some of the abolitionists and the sentiment of the North and how they aided the escape of numerous slaves.
All in all I really enjoyed the DVD, more than I had anticipated that would. The one criticism that I would make is the glowing portrayal of John Brown. IMO the man was a half-baked nut job and his attack on Harpers Ferry was is not something that should be counted as a positive moment in the anit-slavery movement. They failed to mention that the first man killed in Brown's assault was a black man, a freed slave...
Aside from the John Brown stuff however, it was a great DVD that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in slavery, the Civil War, or just American hitory in general.
This presentation, complete with the `talking head' commentators that inevitably accompany such efforts, goes back to the early days of slavery and demonstrates that there was always an element of the struggle for freedom by black slaves from the earliest days of European settlement in North America. Moreover, a cadre of freed blacks who were the catalyst for the freedom struggle developed from early on as well. However, the black anti-slavery movement (and for that matter the white part of the anti-slavery movement) did not get energized until the early 19th century in response to the increasing use of slaves to cultivate the expanding cotton crop on Southern plantations. From then on the propaganda fight for emancipation took many forms but basically continued unabated until the Civil War militarily resolved the issue against slavery.
One of the benefits of this production is a well though out exposition of the role that blacks played in this anti-slavery process. Not just the now well-known names like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman but the little known Henry Garnet, John Stills and John Parker. Moreover, whatever social distinctions could be drawn, even by those within the anti-slavery movement, between blacks and whites it represented the first serious integrated social movement in this country. Needless to say such efforts have been far and few in the history of this country. It is clear that there would be no underground railroad stretching, at it needed to at times, all the way to Canada without such integrated efforts. Aiding that clarity is mention of the Midwest, especially the Ohio River towns, as routes to freedom as well as the more well known eastern coastal routes.
A major highlight here was a serious exposition of the role of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in curtaining the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad, causing the first seeds of irreconcilable conflict between North and South and contributing to the overweening and disproportionate role that the South played in national politics. Some worthwhile time was spent detailing the effects that such legislation had on ordinary citizens who wished not to be complicit with the slaveholders. The various efforts by Northerners, and not just hard core abolitionists, to resist the slave catchers as they headed north is dramatically presented. The well-known Boston case of Anthony Brooks is the focal point for this section.
If there is one criticism that I have of this presentation though it goes back to that first sentence of this entry. If we now know that blacks themselves, as ultimately demonstrated by the enlistment of 200, 000 black Union soldiers in the Civil War, were not mere passive victims of slavery there was a tendency of this presentation to over play the quest for freedom by blacks. One of the hard facts of human history is that oppression oppresses. That little truism conceals this truth- not everyone, and maybe not even many of those oppressed, in the great scheme of things, can break out of the struggle to merely exist to rise out and rebel. Or even flee. This was the vanguard, a precious vanguard, but a vanguard nevertheless. That vanguard expressed that suppressed urge for freedom that we assume beats in every human heart. That is the value of this docu-drama. Watch it and learn a few things about our common history.
- Important and fascinating subject matter.
- Necessary historic context is provided.
- Length of this film (95 minutes) strikes the right balance between education and audience patience.
- Personal stories of individuals and families are used effectively to bring the viewer an intimate understanding of the evil of slavery.
- Presentation is very polished.
- Narration is enthusiastic, without smothering the historical review of an important part of America's past.
- Acting in re-enactments was sometimes on the weak side.
In short, this is an excellent DVD which I found both informative and emotional.
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