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Produced by Daphne Ballon and Brian Parker; directed by Don McBrearly
Atlantis Films, 1993. VHS cassette, 94 min., $90.00. Distributed by Magic Lantern Communications.

Subject Headings:
Underground railroad.
Slavery-United States.
Fugitive slaves-United States.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up

Reviewed by Kathleen L. Kellett-Betsos

Volume 22 Number 6
1994 November/December

Inspired by Barbara Smucker's historical novel for children Underground to Canada (Clarke, Irwin, 1977), this film depicts the journey of fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad, aided by the Canadian abolitionist Dr. Alexander Ross. In the opening scene, the great reformer Frederick Douglas announces the consequences of the Fugitive Act of 1850 allowing the recapture of escaped slaves anywhere in the United States.

The film then focusses on the escape of the slaves Sarah, Thomas, Minnie and Walter, who are convinced by Dr. Ross, ostensibly visiting North Carolina on a bird-watching expedition, to accept the assistance of the Underground Railroad. Suspense builds as the fugitives are pursued by a bounty-hunter and his slave Solomon, working toward his own freedom by hunting down runaway slaves. The two lovers Sarah and Thomas are separated and must make their own way to freedom; their companions die in the escape attempt.

An important aspect of this film is the education of Dr. Ross by Thomas, first on the psychology of the relationship between slaveowner and slave and then on his own paternalism in assuming that Thomas is his personal responsibility. Together, they meet the renowned Harriet Tubman, determined to keep the Railroad running despite increased surveillance by the authorities.

Reunited in Canada, Thomas and Sarah are aided in their final escape from the bounty-hunter by Solomon. Finally, they join in celebrating the gift of the Liberty Bell given to the town of Buxton, Ontario, by the Black community of Pittsburgh. Unlike Smucker's, which stressed the exclusion of Black students from white Canadian schools of the time, this film barely acknowledges racism in Canada.

Suspenseful and quite well acted, this film gives a glimpse into the dynamics of power, although the historical context, especially the identity of the non-fictional characters, requires explanation beyond the short historical blurb at the end of the film. Melba Moore's rendition of "Oh Freedom" underscores the poignancy of the to freedom.

The quality of the film justifies its price.

Kathleen L. Kellett-Betsos is an assistant professor at Ryerson Polytechnical University in Toronto, ON

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