First off, the most interesting thing about this epic-length historical telefilm is the man playing the leading role. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali didn’t act often, and he usually played himself, so Freedom Road represents his only proper dramatic performance. To get the bad news out of the way, he’s not impressive, delivering lines in a listless, mush-mouthed style that makes him seem drunk or tired in most scenes. Ali completely fails to channel his signature physical grace and verbal dexterity into a vivid performance, so even though he has a few sincere moments when the context of intense scenes creates meaning, Ali demonstrates the wisdom of his choice to step away from acting for 20 years following this project. Happily, there’s good news. The novelty of seeing Ali act remains strong even as Freedom Road sprawls across four hours; the storyline about freed slaves trying to enter American political life in the post-Civil War South is interesting; and the folks surrounding Ali, both in front of and behind the camera, deliver smoothly professional work. Therefore, while there’s something inherently false about Freedom Road—which is based upon a novel rather than historical facts—worthy themes prevail.
Ali plays Gideon Jackson, a slave who left his North Carolina plantation to fight for the Union Army. Emancipation happens while Jackson is still in service, so after the war, he returns home to his wife and children, hopeful that life after slavery will be better. It is, barely. Later, when politicians decree that black citizens should have roles in state government, Jackson gets tapped for a position. He bonds with a new friend, educated Northern black politician Francis Cardoza (Ron O’Neal), and he clashes with a new enemy, dogged racist Stephen Holms (Edward Herrmann), who sizes up Jackson as a potentially formidable enemy and eventually rallies the KKK to combat Jackson’s nascent political movement. Over the course of the eventful story, Jackson forms an unlikely friendship with a white farmer, Abner Lait (Kris Kristofferson), and navigates a fraught relationship with President Ulysses S. Grant (John McLiam) upon becoming a U.S. Senator. Informing Jackson’s journey is his achievement of literacy and his gradual shift from innate cunning to political sophistication.
Given that Freedom Road began its life as a novel by Howard Fast, who also wrote the book that became Spartacus (1960), it’s no surprise that the story evolves into a full-blown war, with freed slaves under siege by ruthless Southerners. Yet even though Freedom Road would have infinitely more meaning if the story had really happened, the film’s progressive politics feel genuine and heartfelt, and the drama works more often than it doesn’t. Helping the story along is narration spoken by the great Ossie Davis. Still, there are many reasons why Freedom Road failed to make a big splash when it was originally broadcast. Ali disappoints, the story is fake history, and the archetypal rebel-hero structure feels convenient and familiar. Within those diminished parameters, Freedom Road has many exciting, insightful, and thought-provoking moments.
Freedom Road: FUNKY