- Kelly Rundle
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 25 minutes
- Not Rated
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.”
Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are helpless.
Director Kelly Rundle’s film about the students’ debates in 1834 over slavery at Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary is based on the play by Earlene Hawley and Curtiss Heeter. I knew I would like this film at its very beginning when right before the front titles abolitionist Frederick Douglas (played by Mark Winn) is shown delivering his famous July 4th speech at Rochester NY in 1852. Best known as “What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” the long oration* is a polite but scathing indictment of what today we call systemic racism. This Jeremiad bookends the film, a slightly longer portion concluding it.
Also, as an alumnus of McCormick Theological Seminary and recipient of a Lane Scholarship, I was keenly interested in the film’s setting, the newly established Lane Seminary in the river boat town. When Lane went out of existence, the Chicago-based McCormick received most of its assets. The earlier seminary never recovered from the student rebellion and ceased operations in 1932.
Our fact-based story takes place 18 years prior to Douglas’s famous speech. It unfolds as a series of flashbacks, the film beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 writing a letter to abolitionist Theodore Weld as she recalls their distant time together back in Cincinnati. Dr. Lyman Beecher (Janos Horvath), a Congregationalist pastor had come to the frontier city with his two daughters to head the new school for preachers. While he is out bird hunting his 23-year-old daughter, then just Harriet Beecher (Jessica Denney), comes upon Theodore Weld (Thomas Alan Taylor) nailing up a flyer advertising a debate over slavery at the seminary. She is well aware that pro-slavery feelings run high in pro-slavery Cincinnati and that her father is not in favor of any debate of the subject, lest it incite mob violence. Weld complains that feelings are so high that “the chief conspiracy of slavery is that it must not be talked about.” Her older sister Catharine (Kimberly Kurtenbach ) joins them, expressing her disapproval as they argue. As Harriet had done, she too attempts to snatch and keep the roll of small posters. Weld takes them back a couple of times, but Catharine manages to make off with them.
Dr. Beecher talks with Weld and later convenes an assembly of the students, to which he invites his daughters, somewhat to Harriet’s surprise. At the school assembly he states that the times are changing, a new millennium begining in the West, that the nation’s soul is at stake, and that they must be cautious. One of the students interrupts him, and Weld also speaks up, stating that he and many of the students want to talk openly about emancipation. Prof. Henry Biggs (Tom Walljasper) is strongly against this, having already warned Dr. Beecher to avoid this subject. He and the trustees, especially Judge Wright (Michael Kennedy), Chairman of Lane’s trustees, insist that the students not be allowed to discuss the issue. Earlier Weld had argued with Dr. Beecher that the trustees were businessmen concerned with their commercial ties with the South, and thus afraid to even discuss the volatile issue.
Dr. Beecher agrees to submit to the trustees’ order that he not attend the students’ meeting, but he does not forbid the gathering. At the first meeting Catharine speaks for her absent father, putting forth his view for colonization of freed slaves, a widely held view that would have the freed slaves sent to Africa or a Caribbean or Latin American nation—Lincoln himself believed this for some time. One of the professors speaks derisively of Blacks, declaring that they cannot be social equals. Led by Weld, colonization is rejected, the students arguing for immediate emancipation. Students from the South speak of how Theodore had persuaded them of the wrongness of slavery and of colonization.
There are scenes of Weld meeting with Harriett that might lead the uninitiated to expect a romance to blossom between them. Of course, the man who actually married her, faculty member Prof. Calvin Stowe (Daniel Rairdin-Hale), is present in several scenes, but he is depicted as a rather mundane person obviously attracted to Dr. Lyman’s daughter—like Dr. Beecher, he was a colonizationist, though two years later, when he had married Harriett, the two of them reportedly participated in the Underground Railroad.
Various students and professors speak at the 18 meetings, including the lone Black student James Bradley (Jaylen Marks). The latter movingly describes how he was stolen from Africa, transported across the ocean, and how he labored at night for 8 1/2 years to earn enough money to buy his freedom.
There is a lot of back and forth arguing, with Prof. Biggs and several others maintaining that Blacks are inferior, proven so by “science,” one of them claims. Poor Augustus Wattles (Justin Marxen) tries to keep order as moderator, with Weld frequently rising to make a telling point. the latter asks and then answers his own question, “What is a slave? A human being whose wages are taken from him by force!” At another session he brings a satchel, which he later opens to bring out stacks of posters giving the details of large rewards being offered for runaway “coloreds.” He strews them around so that members of the audience can pick them up and read the details.
The older Harriet writes that for her this was the turning point, that the end of slavery began at that moment when the horrid details were revealed. We see her picking up one of the handbills and reading it with a look of pain on her face. (The film does not deal with her trip into the slave state of Kentucky where she saw first hand the degradation of “the peculiar institution.”) Thus, she sets aside sister Catharine’s claim that Weld was exaggerating the evils of slavery. Later, during one of their last encounters Weld asks Harriet, “What do you most like to do? She replies simply, “Write,” and he urges her, “Then write the truth.” Did she ever, though it would be 18 years later!
Wattles, as the debates go on and tempers reach the boiling point, loses control of the proceedings. A fight breaks out. Professor John Morgan (Patrick Flaherty), won over to emancipation, receives a black eye—and later when the trustees meet in secret without telling Dr. Beecher, the professor is fired. All this leads to the kind of student upheaval that would rival that of the tumultuous 60s, the vast majority of the student body leaving the school.
This is an earnest and rewarding docudrama shedding light on the origins of one of the most influential novels in American history. I presume that the writers of the original stage play based much of the public discourse and communications by the Lane board of trustee communications on the papers stored at the Harriet Beecher House in Cincinnati. (See the note below as to how they can be accessed.) I am sure that the complex history has been simplified out of necessity—there were eighteen debates–and I suspect some dramatic license has been taken, such as having Catharine Beecher speak at the first session. This was just “not acceptable” in those days, even at many abolitionists’ meetings where only men could take the stage. (Except those gatherings connected with William Lloyd Garrison, who was always a champion of women’s rights). According to the footnote in a chapter on the Lane Debates in History of Oberlin College, Beecher’s daughter drafted the speech “but did not present this statement in person.”
I do wish the film could have shown more of Harriet’s life during those 18 tumultuous Cincinnati years before moving back east. She was far more than the naive ingénue depicted in this film—there was her frequent contact with runaway slaves and victims of the earlier race riot, her participation in the local literary society where she met many future famous men, her publishing her first articles and stories, her meetings with famous abolitionists and the important Underground Railroad agent John Rankin, her romance with and marriage to Calvin Stowe, and hers and Calvin’s participation in the Underground Railroad. What a wonderful limited cable series the above would make!
All the above constitute a minor quibble, by no means diminishing the value of this film. It is easy to see why the decision was made to focus on the Lane Debates. Little known today, they were an important milestone in the uphill battle to bring the horrors of slavery to the public. In a society where the slave autocracy reigned supreme—Congress itself had passed a gag order forbidding its members to discuss slavery or to accept any of the multitude of petitions brought forth by abolitionists—the students’ insistence on debating the issues took a great amount of courage and effort. Weld’s demand for free and open debate of a subject, and the attempt of the trustees to stifle that speech are as relevant today as in 1834. The fear of mob violence against the seminary also sounds all too modern. Add to this Weld’s observation that fear is being used to prevent free speech.
As of this writing the film is only available on DVD (see information below) or at a few special screenings. I saw it myself in my capacity as a member of one of the juries at Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine Film Festival, where it sold out its two screenings—no doubt due to its local connections, and that a few scenes were filmed at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, now a museum and the only building associated with Lane Seminary still standing.
The film has no chases and just the briefest of fights, but I still believe it would be good for youth as well as adult groups to watch and discuss. It provides a good view of the mood of a not so bygone an era, reminding us of how fear often has been used by those in authority, leading to make anti-democratic decisions. In one way this is a cautionary film. At a time when many would prohibit the inclusion of Black history in our school curricula, a film espousing the freedom of discussion and debate is much needed.
* If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading the eloquent speech of Douglas, you can find it here:
Original documents of Lane Seminary can be seen and read at “A Cause for Freedom” sponsored by the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati. These were compiled and digitalized by HBSH member and volunteer, Maddie Smith. It contains a photo of the statue of African American student James Bradley.
The film is available on DVD for home use, and special licenses are available for colleges and organizations for classroom and public showings. For a wealth of information and photos check out their home page here. I also just have learned that you can stream it on Vimeo for $6.99.
This review is in the October issue of VP along with a set of 12 questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.
Good source informat ion for you history buffs: