It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
On the surface, the new slavery drama "Freedom" may look like an exceptionally blatant attempt to cash in on the critical and commercial success of "12 Years a Slave" but the actual film turns out to be a whole lot stranger than that. In fact, not only does it juggle two distinct story lines that follow a family of escaped slaves trying to get to freedom and how a slave ship captain went on to write one of the key songs of the abolitionist movement nearly a century earlier, it tries to do it in the form of a near-musical in which the characters are often found singing the notable hymns and spirituals of the time. It sounds interesting in theory, I concede, but it is much less so in practice because this is one of those movies that is as dull as it is well-meaning and man, is it ever well-meaning.
The main story begins in Virginia in 1856 as Samuel Woodward (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his family escape from the dreaded Monroe Plantation in the hopes of connecting with the Underground Railroad and making their way to ultimate freedom in Canada with the help of Quaker activist Thomas Garrett (Michael Goodwin). For their owner, Jefferson Monroe (David Rasche), this will not stand ("No slave has ever escaped from my plantation!") and he calls in notorious slave hunter Plimpton (William Sadler) to bring them back alive, especially Samuel's wife, Vanessa (Sharon Leal). Plimpton has long since left the business out of certain moral trepidations but agrees to go in pursuit of them.
Understandably embittered from a life of unimaginable hardship, Samuel cannot even bring himself to sing with the others in his group but his mother (Phyllis Bash) informs him that "one day, you will sing 'Amazing Grace'" and recounts the story of the song's composer, John Newton (Bernard Forcher), in a series of flashbacks. Newton was a ship's captain and amateur songwriter who was put in charge of the first slave shipment from Africa to Charleston, among them a young boy who would grow up to be Samuel's great-grandfather. During the rough passage, Newton's eyes became opened to the cruelties of the trade and before long, he would undergo a religious conversion, become a devout abolitionist and write the song that would prove to be his most lasting legacy.
By attempting to weave these two disparate narrative threads together, "Freedom" does demonstrate some ambition but ambition can only take a movie so far if the filmmakers are unable to make them pay off in a satisfying way and that is the problem here. The screenplay by Timothy A. Chey is kind of a mess in the way that the natural tension of the story involving Samuel's family and their flight to freedom is constantly being interrupted by the Newton narrative. Perhaps even more troubling is his insistence on stressing the religious faith of the more noble characters and the suggestion that the slaves be open to the notion of forgiving their tormentors—the former conveniently overlooks the fact that plenty of slave owners back then were of a devout nature as well and the latter notion requires far more exploration and debate than it is given here.