The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Television

Recently, the WGN Network began airing a new series about a group of Georgia slaves who plan and conduct a daring 600 miles escape to freedom in the Northern states called “UNDERGROUND”. However, it is not the first television production about American slaves making a bid for freedom. Below is a list of previous productions that I have seen over the years:

 

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN TELEVISION

“A WOMAN CALLED MOSES” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Marcy Heidish’s 1974 novel about the life of escaped slave-turned Underground Railroad conductor/activist Harriet Tubman during the years before the Civil War. The miniseries’ first half focused on Tubman’s years as a Maryland slave and her escape to freedom in December 1849. The second half focused on her years as a conductor with the Underground Railroad. Paul Wendkos directed.

“THE LIBERATORS” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott portrayed Virginia-born abolitionist John Fairfield and Bill, the escaped slave of the former’s uncle; who become conductors for the Underground Railroad. After the former helps the latter escape from Virginia, the pair reunite nearly a year later to rescue the relatives of African-American freedmen living in the North. Kenneth Johnson directed.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) – Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred in this cable television movie about a group of slaves who risk their lives to escape from their master’s North Carolina plantation to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Look for the surprise twist at the end. The movie co-starred Glynn Turman, Dawnn Lewis, Michael Riley, Falconer Abraham, and Ron White. Don McBrearty directed.

august and annalees

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century farmer in North Carolina, who finds himself helping a runaway slave, while on his way home from the market. Co-starring Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, the movie was directed by John Duigan.

“CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” (1996) – Lou Gossett Jr. and Kate Nelligan portrayed a Canadian mixed race couple who sought a husband for their only daughter, Mary. The latter ends up marrying a Northern American. Upon their arrival in the United States, he sells her to a Virginian slave dealer and she ends up as a slave in that slave. After Mary manages to send word to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mink set out for Virginia to organize a rescue of their daughter with the help of the Underground Railroad. Bruce Pittman directed.

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Four of the productions on this list – “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”, and “CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” can be found on DVD. Only “THE LIBERATORS” has not been released on DVD. In fact, I do not know if it has ever been released on VHS.

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“BEULAH LAND” (1980) Review

 

 

“BEULAH LAND” (1980) Review

In the fall of 1980, NBC Television had aired a three-part miniseries called, ”BEULAH LAND”. Starring Lesley-Ann Warren, Michael Sarrazin, Dorian Harewood and Paul Rudd, the miniseries told the story of an 19th century Savannah-born woman named Sarah Pennington and her impact upon the Kendrick family and their cotton plantation in Georgia between the years 1827 and 1872.

The miniseries was based upon two novels by Lonnie Coleman – ”Beulah Land”and ”Look Away, Beulah Land” It featured a cast that included television and movie stars Lesley-Ann Warren, Eddie Albert, Hope Lange, Michael Sarrazin, Dorian Harewood, Meredith Baxter, James Eachin, Paul Rudd, Don Johnson, Jonathan Frakes, Jenny Agutter, Franklyn Seales and Madeline Stowe.

Recently, I had just finished watching “Beulah Land”. To my surprise, I still found it enjoyable. Unlike other antebellum and Civil War sagas like ”NORTH AND SOUTH”and ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, the setting for Beulah Land seemed to be restricted to southeast Georgia, with brief forays to Charleston, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. It has its usual stock of family melodrama – sometimes portrayed in an over-the-top manner by some of the cast members. It also gave an interesting look at the ambiguous relationships between slaves and slave owners; whites and blacks – regardless of whether they were free or slave; and between wealthy and poor whites in the antebellum South. There had been accusations by some that ”BEULAH LAND”had skimmed the darker aspects of American slavery or indulged in a negative and clichéd portrayal of the African-American characters. All I can say is that whoever made these accusations had not seen the miniseries. Here are more observations I had made:

1. The period in which Lauretta Pennington (Meredith Baxter) and her son-in-law, Adam Davis (Jonathan Frakes) experienced The Siege of Atlanta, is erroneous. According to the miniseries, the actual siege took place during mid-November 1864. William Sherman’s siege of Atlanta occurred between late July and early September of the same year. Lauretta and Adam left Atlanta around the same time Sherman began his march through Georgia.

2. I have noticed that Lauretta and other citizens fleeing Atlanta hardly seemed to be expressing any signs of panic, while dodging Union shells. Very odd.

3. Jonathan Frakes is a first-class actor, but his Southern accent was not very good in this miniseries. It was a good thing that he had portrayed a Northerner in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy.

4. Unlike most of the actresses in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, the ones in ”BEULAH LAND” must have avoided wigs. Which would account for their loose and natural hairstyles.

5. The first fifteen minutes of ”BEULAH LAND” was set in 1827. Yet the female costumes had resembled fashions of the 1840s. As the miniseries progressed, the costumes became more accurate. But not completely.

6. For me, the following actors and actresses gave the best performances – Lesley Ann Warren (Sarah Pennington Kendrick), Dorian Harewood (Floyd), Eddie Albert (Felix Kendrick), Paul Rudd (Leon Kendrick), Paul Shenar (Roscoe Coltray), James McEachin (Ezra), Jean Foster (Pauline), Don Johnson (Bonnard Davis), Hope Lange (Deborah Kendrick),Franklyn Seales (Roman Kendrick), Allyn Ann McLerie (Edna Davis) and Jenny Agutter (Lizzie Coltray).

7. Meredith Baxter would have made the list, if it were not for her occasional bouts of hammy acting. However, I have noticed a good number of other performers like Illene Graff (Annabel Davis), Clarice Taylor (Lovey), Laurie Prange (Rachel Kendrick Davis), K.C. Martel (Young Benjamin Davis), and especially Bibi Osterwald (Nell Kendrick) really tend to chew the scenery. Along with a good number of performers in minor roles.

8. Below is a list of what I consider to be the best scenes:

*Selma (Madeleine Stowe) and Bonnard’s wedding night
*Slaves’ talk in the kitchen during Sarah and Leon’s wedding reception
*Sarah and Floyd become aware of their attraction toward one another
*Lauretta’s revelation of her affair with Leon
*Rachel and Edna Davis’s deaths
*Death of corrupt Union sergeant
*Floyd’s death

”BEULAH LAND” is not what I would call a work of art. And to be frank, I can say the same about the novels in which it is based upon. As for this belief that the African-American characters were portrayed in an embarrassing and clichéd manner as ”docile and happy” slaves – it is not true. The only times the slaves appeared ”happy and docile” over their situation, occurred when they were faking this attitude toward their white owners. Although ”BEULAH LAND” is not great television, I have to give it kudos for its accurate portrayal of the surprisingly complex and ambiguous society of the antebellum South. I say . . . give it a shot.