The Catholic supporters of The Legionnaire will no doubt know what is the incredible media platform known as Formed. For those who do not, it is basically Catholic Netflix. Yet, whereas the latter focuses on movies, shows/series, and documentaries, the latter has all those and devotional material, all dedicated to helping to fill your Spiritual needs. As I was in the middle of the Triduum, the three days that encompass Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter (which technically begins with the Vigil on Saturday), I wanted to watch a film on Formed of my own choosing. I will get back to the list this week, I assure you. The movie I really wanted to watch was Risen (2016). It is about the story after Easter, and I thought I had seen it advertised on Formed. Either it was not there or I overlooked it, which is entirely possible. In any case, I saw Freedom (2014), and it was not bad.
In October of last year I review Amazing Grace (2006). I bring that film up because Freedom covers some of the same ground. In Amazing Grace, we see a biopic of the principle person behind the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd). One of Wilberforce’s inspirations and mentors in that film is John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave boat captain turned Anglican preacher. While Amazing Grace focuses far more on Wilberforce, the title song being an anthem for the abolition of slavery, Freedom delves a great deal more into the life of Newton (Bernhard Forcher) and the moment he first believed, as the song goes. This aspect of the movie, though, is told as backstory to more modern events, namely the escape in 1856 of a slave named Samuel (Cuba Gooding Jr.) from Jefferson Munroe’s (David Rasche) plantation. These events take place over 100 years apart, with Newton’s story beginning in 1748. What is the connection? As Samuel’s aging mother reveals throughout their escape, one of his ancestors was on the last shipment of human cargo Newton guided across the Atlantic. One of the young boys on that voyage lost his mother and became ill himself. Newton sees his suffering and takes pity, nursing him back to health. It is in seeing the awful condition of his fellow man that convinces Newton of the wrongness of slavery. It is a conversion experience. After the future slaves are offloaded in Charleston, South Carolina, Newton gives the boy his personal Bible, sails home, and begins preaching against the horrors of slavery. This is what Samuel’s mother carries with them as they flee from bondage. For Samuel, Faith is yet another thing not to be trusted, particularly because it is something that comes from white people in his eyes. Yet, their absconding is aided by so-called “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. They are all white, and the first two are members of the Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers, a protestant Christian sect. In spite of Samuel’s hesitancy, at every turn they prove to be upright and dependable, even though they risk being arrested for their activities. They continue to do so despite being hunted by renowned escaped slave catcher Plimpton (William Sadler). Plimpton continues to chase Samuel and his family, even after they cross over into free states, which they were legally able to do thanks to the reprehensible Fugitive Slave Act. Plimpton finally catches up with Samuel’s family just as they were about to cross over into Canada, the goal of all escaped slaves after the passage of the act. One of Plimpton’s associates is about to begin killing the escapees when Plimpton intervenes, shooting the would-be assailant and being mortally wounded in the process. As Plimpton lays dying in Samuel’s arms, they each have their own Newton-esque conversion experience. It is true grace.
The lyrics to the song “Amazing Grace” were penned by Newton, and they capture the moment seen in Freedom where he comes to understand that slavery is wrong. Slavery comes in many different forms. It is not simply a lack of freedom of the body, as with Samuel and his family before they made it to Canada. There is also bondage of the mind and spirit. All too often we shackle ourselves to ideas or the external distractions so prevalent in our culture today. Invariably, they are things that lead us away from God. Christianity, despite the errors of some supposed Christians who used Scripture erroneously to justify the institution, has been against keeping people in chains from the start. And that is not simply physical slavery, but rather anything to which we allow ourselves to be tied. The Bible is full of accounts of people stubbornly sticking to their various prejudices and the Spiritual and emotional blindness that causes. The lack of sight brings me back to the song, because one of its more famous lines is “was blind, but now I see.” To go along with that, as the old saying goes, seeing is believing. Here is another example of the many connections between things we take for granted in our culture and Faith. At base, though, is the fact that true freedom, no matter where you are in life, comes from God. I can speak to that in my own life, and the film shows another moment like it in history.
One of the things you sometimes have to be careful with, unfortunately, with Christian films is a level of cheesiness. Thankfully, this is not really the case with Freedom. The shipboard scenes are not the greatest in terms of set design, and some of the facial hair on the actors looks glued on. These minor quibbles aside, the film tells an important story that should not be ignored. If you have Formed, check it out. I am blessed to be a part of a parish that offers the service free to its parishioners. If you are not so lucky, I believe there are personal subscription options. Get it not only for the movies, but for the great Spiritual content as well.