The subtitle of Underground
Railroad is, in hindsight, rather a tip-off to its flaws. It's "A new
documentary that unveils the history, heroes, and villains of the Abolitionist
movement." Heroes and villains are all very well in fiction, but it's been
my experience that any historical piece that focuses on "good guys"
and "bad guys" usually ends up oversimplifying the messy gray areas
that occupy most of real history.
Underground Railroad suffers
from two major flaws: the lack of content, and the lack of organization. The
latter flaw obscures the former to a certain extent, but by the end of the
program, both are quite apparent.
The program's organizational
problems show up most clearly in an attempt to define what the documentary is
actually about. Is it about the history of the abolitionist movement, or just
of the slaves' flight to freedom along the "underground railroad"? Is
it a collection of mini-biographies of various people who were involved, or is
it trying to give a larger picture? Well, in truth, it's never particularly
clear what it's about. The documentary is divided into a number of sections,
but there's no clear connection between them or any overall structure; the
program jumps around and never draws its assorted bits of facts into a coherent
picture. Many people are interviewed, but most have only a sentence or two to
contribute; the ones we hear the least of are the historians, while the ones we
hear the most of are people reminiscing about their long-dead ancestors who
fled to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Which brings us to the
program's lack of content. It appears that somewhere along the line in the
creation of the program "detail" was mistaken for
"information." Indeed, we are told the name of countless individuals involved
in the Underground Railroad, often along with specific dates of actions that
they took or events in their lives, and nitty-gritty details about their lives
and families. But all this has no particular relevance in the big picture; it's
just an avalanche of minor detail poured on the viewer, but leaving no insight
in its path. Time and again the narrator or an interviewee strives to highlight
the pathos in the life story of a particular person, but it dulls on
repetition, especially when no meaningful context is given for that person's
life or actions.
Conspicuously lacking from Underground
Railroad are discussions (or acknowledgement) of larger, more meaningful
issues. How did slavery work as an economic system? What made slavery of
Africans in the Americas different from classical slavery? How did contemporary
ideas about race and biology influence the persistence of slavery? In an
apparent effort to keep Underground Railroad as light on content as
possible, no ideas like this are even mentioned, much less delved into.
I was also disappointed at the
one-note representation of southern slaveholders as sadistic tyrants who
brutally abused their slaves. One of the reasons that it was difficult for the
abolitionist movement to take hold at first was the counter-example of southern
slaveholders who were convinced of the moral correctness of slavery, and who
treated their slaves with consideration, even perhaps freeing them in their
wills. These slaveholders offered an example that proponents of slavery could
point to as an ideal, whereas the brutal, abusive slaveholder could be decried
as betraying his duty toward the "lesser" race. Similarly, not all
Africans in the south were pro-abolition; some felt that it was their destined
place, while others had managed to come up relatively "on top" in the
system and didn't want to give it all up for an uncertain future of freedom.
But Underground Railroad
doesn't bother to examine the shades of gray, instead painting a clear and
inaccurate picture of uniformly evil slaveholders and heroically resisting
slaves. It's a shame, because it's in the slow gain of the abolitionist
movement against real opposition, and its steady wearing away of the
pro-slavery arguments, that we see its real impressiveness. And it's in the
stickier issues of slavery and U.S. culture in the 1800s that the most
interesting and most meaningful issues lie; if we persist in thinking of events
in our past as clear-cut good and evil, then it will be all the more difficult
to deal with current events appropriately. Heroes and villains are for the
movies; real life deserves a more complex treatment. However, we don't get that
in Underground Railroad.
Rather oddly, the running time
for this DVD is listed on the case as 150 minutes plus extras, but it's nowhere
near that long: the program itself is about an hour and a half long; even if
the extras are included, the non-text special features only add another 42
This History Channel production
appears in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. All in all, the image is
satisfactory. It's not as sharp as it could be, due in part to the moderate
level of edge enhancement, and contrast suffers occasionally, but the overall
picture is fairly clean, with good colors.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack
is about average for a decent television program; though it's fairly flat, the
sound is clean and free of background noise or distortion. At times, the
voiceover narration isn't as clear as it should be, but on the whole it's
I was impressed to find that
the main special feature on Underground Railroad is a full 42-minute
episode from A&E's Biography series, profiling Frederick Douglass.
For those who want to know more about his role in the abolitionist movement,
this special feature will be of definite interest.
The other bonus features are
fairly ordinary text-based material: the Emancipation Proclamation, background
information on a court case involving the slave or free status of Dred Scott, a
biography of Harriet Tubman, and a historical timeline.
might be passable as a very basic introduction to the abolitionist movement in
the United States... except for its utter lack of organization and its skimpy
amount of content. Viewers who saw it on television and enjoyed it might want
to pick it up, though I don't feel that it has much replay value; at least the
special features add value, with a full Biography episode on Frederick