Movie Review: Freedom 'Moving beyond the Christian Cringe'

Movie Review: Freedom ‘Moving beyond the Christian Cringe’

My first hint that the launch of the film Freedom was going to be something outside of the ordinary came from the invitation I received – or lack of it. The directions came to me rather randomly, via a Christian friend. I remember thinking, ‘Do they want the media to know about this?’ The second […]

By Mark HadleyFriday 18 Jul 2014MoviesReading Time: 4 minutes

My first hint that the launch of the film Freedom was going to be something outside of the ordinary came from the invitation I received – or lack of it.

Mark Hadley talks about faith on film.

The directions came to me rather randomly, via a Christian friend. I remember thinking, ‘Do they want the media to know about this?’ The second hint was the screening itself. Walking in, I realised The Sydney Morning Herald was missing, as was Empire Magazine, and Margaret and David were nowhere to be seen. Instead the seats were filled with people who looked more like churchgoers than film critics – which is exactly what they were. Freedom is a distinctly Christian story, and its makers are starting their campaign with those who should be the first to recognise its merits.

Freedom builds its tale around four slaves who escape from a Virginian plantation and their journey to the free North. Cuba Gooding Jnr. stars as Samuel, a father and husband determined to fight his way to liberty. However his mother Adira (Phyliss Bash) is a woman of faith who believes Samuel has to escape from a greater slavery than his chains. As their journey progresses it becomes clear her son is caught up in a very Christian tale. His grandfather came to America on the ship that saw John Newton converted, and the songs they sing, including Amazing Grace, are Samuel’s link to that heritage. Even the white men who risk their lives for him do so because of they believe in a higher judge than any the South has to offer. Hollywood has produced many films about this dark period of history – The Colour Purple, Amistad, 12 Years A Slave – but by its end Freedom has restored its faith-shaped context.

Which is exactly why Freedom’s producers might choose to begin its launch within ‘the family’ rather than trust it to the usual marketing methods. Hollywood doesn’t have a good track record for understanding faith.

The film industry woke up with a jolt to the potential of faith-based productions with the 2004 release of The Passion of the Christ. Its $30 million budget garnered a $604 million return worldwide, making it the most successful independent production of all time. The following year’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe confirmed that potential – $180 million production dollars returned $739 million at the box office. But try as it might, Hollywood has been unable to bottle that lightning. Faith-based stories like The Blind Side, apocalyptic action movies like The Book of Eli and re-tooled Bible stories like Noah all represent this desire to sell some aspect of Christianity to Christians. But the returns have never been spectacular, mainly because the movie-makers have misunderstand their audience.

Christian viewers look at faith-focused storylines differently to other demographics. For most films the goal is escapism; entertainment, pure and simple. But Christians see stories like these as opportunities to affirm what they believe. They sit in their cinema seats listening carefully, rather than letting go. And that, in part, explains why they can perversely be among the first to ridicule a faith-based production. It’s not enough for a story to convey the essence of a Christian life or a Bible story. This is not fantasy but real life to the ticket buyers, so scriptwriters have little margin for error. And so strong Christian franchises like The Narnia Chronicles falter because instalments like Voyage of the Dawn Treader are criticised for drifting too far from their literary roots. But are Christians audiences in danger of forgetting what films are for?

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The film Freedom has shortcomings that are hard to deny. It often surrenders its drama to poorly placed musical numbers. It’s also hard to deliver the thrill of a life-threatening storm at sea without million dollar effects to draw on. There’s even an occasional sense of unreality created by the need to spare family audiences the real degradations of the slave trade. But the film does achieve what should be considered its primary goal: it makes us feel differently about a life built on God.

The most impressive characters are not the film’s stars but its everyday Christians, like the Quaker who chooses to hide Negroes beneath his floorboards:

Tracker: “You’ve broken a federal law!”

Quaker: “I but follow the dictates of my conscience. We’re just God-fearing folk Mr Plympton.”

Tracker: “God-fearing folk are my biggest problem!”

Freedom corrects the idea that a general love of humanity was enough to bring about the end of the slave trade. It makes you respect the bravery of little men who put God first, even in the face of guns. Believers are no longer baffled do-gooders but bulldogs. And that, especially, is why Christians should be prepared to back Christian cinema.

The library is where go to find facts; the Bible, the ultimate source of our knowledge of God. Cinemas, though, are where we learn how to feel about a subject. We might cringe as actors strive to convey deeply personal convictions. But we forget that the unbelieving, postmodern world is still amazed that convictions exist. This is the question that should be levelled at every faith-based story: does it lead us to feel about God the way we should? Then that’s enough to be getting on with. One good conversation will fill in the rest.

Release Date: August 1