“Freedom” – United by Amazing Grace

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von Buseck6 Minutes

Throughout time, music has connected and inspired generations to endure through hardship. This was certainly the case for slaves in the United States prior to the Civil War. One song that inspired millions was “Amazing Grace,” written by a former slave-ship captain, John Newton. The movie “Freedom” tells the story of three generations of slaves who held on to the message of this great hymn to give them strength on their journey out of bondage.

The movie follows this family of slaves who have escaped from a plantation near Richmond, Virginia, and are helped by members of the Underground Railroad. The main character, Samuel, played by Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., is an angry young slave who cannot see how a loving God could allow the suffering that he and his family have endured. Relying on his own cunning to guide his family to freedom, he does not feel the need to call on God for help.

His grandmother, Adira, played by Phyllis Bash, carries with her the Bible handed down from their ancestor, Fassena (Travaris Spears), who came to America as a slave on one of John Newton’s ships. In an effort to guide Samuel back to faith, Adira recounts the story of how John Newton gave this Bible to Fassena just before he penned the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

She reminds him that in life’s journey, no matter what the obstacles, we all need the same amazing grace that saved John Newton.

Slavery in America

Slavery in America began in 1619 when the first ship landed in Jamestown, Virginia, and it lasted for nearly 250 years. Slaves were kidnapped in Africa and brought in chains to what became the United States. While slavery could be found throughout the colonies, it was primarily an institution of the agricultural South. Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong slave owner, said of the so-called ‘peculiar institution’: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

Then in 1793, a northerner named Eli Whitney invented a machine to remove seed from cotton. Whitney’s “engine” – soon dubbed the “cotton gin” – made the crop hugely profitable for planters in the south. With the boom in cotton planting came the need for even more slaves to work the fields.

By 1804, all the northern states had abolished slavery, but it was thriving in the South. Following the example of the British, the United States banned the African slave trade in 1808. At the same time, however, the domestic slave trade was flourishing. The slave population in the U.S. nearly tripled over the next 50 years. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the South had nearly 4 million slaves.

Chasing Fugitive Slaves

The movie “Freedom” is set in 1856, just prior to the Civil War, when the infamous Fugitive Slave Law allowed bounty hunters to pursue runaway slaves all the way to the Canadian border. After Samuel escapes with his mother, his wife, Vanessa (Sharon Leal), and his son, Jim (Aaron Bantum), the family endures the harrowing flight to freedom in Canada, all the while pursued by slave catchers.

The family is guided along their journey by various members of the Underground Railroad, including Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett (Michael Goodwin) and the great African-American leader and orator, Frederick Douglass (Byron Utley). In a moment of levity, the runaways encounter a colorful group of abolitionist actors led by Broadway veteran Terrence Mann (Les Miserables), who help them escape through an ingenious theatrical ruse.

Pursuing the family is the veteran slave hunter Plimpton, played by the always impressive William Sadler (Shawshank Redemption). Plimpton does not want the job, insisting that he is “retired.” He is finally persuaded by a bag of gold and reluctantly leads two bloodthirsty slave catchers in pursuit of the runaways.

Beyond Samuel’s story, the movie depicts his great-grandfather’s journey to the colonies on a slave ship in 1748. John Newton (Bernhard Forcher), the slaver’s captain, sees the light with the help of his interpreter, Ozias, played brilliantly by the talented singer Jubilant Sykes. After denouncing slavery and repenting of his sins, Newton pens the famous song that we still embrace today.

“Freedom” is the story of the search for truth and liberty, separated by one hundred years, but ultimately united by God’s “Amazing Grace.”