November 11 marks the 100th birthday of the late Howard Fast. What better way to mark the centennial anniversary of this prolific writer’s birth than by making a feature film based on Fast’s Freedom Road, the seventh of his sixty-five novels, which deals with Reconstruction after the Civil War? And what better time, too, now that American movie audiences, though marked by lingering racism, appear to be mature enough to appreciate and be moved by recent motion pictures such as the truth-telling and Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave?
Freedom Road centers on Gideon Jackson, a large and powerful ex-slave and Union soldier, who returned after the Civil War accompanied by many other blacks to live with their families on the abandoned land of Jackson’s former master.The fictional Gideon learned much from a half-black, half-Jewish educator (based on the historical figure Francis Cardozo) and went on to become a member of Congress in a South occupied by the Union Army. But the novel ends darkly. The plantation’s entire experiment in black self-determination, and in a much smaller way, black-white cooperation in day-to-day living and working, is wiped out by an army of Ku Klux Klan nightriders in the 1870s.
By the end of the twentieth century, Freedom Road sold over 30 million copies and was translated into 82 languages. Yet, despite its exciting, compelling, and cinematic story, the book never became a feature film. It was optioned in 1944, 1947, and 1948, and five times more, but never went into production. Fast became a member of the Communist Party in 1943, and by 1946, after having been convicted of Contempt of Congress for refusing to “name names,” was considered unattractive “property” in the film industry, and indeed, to most publishers.
The politics of the Cold War, especially after the emergence of McCarthyism in the early 1950s, and the persistence of racism in the United States kept Freedom Road from the big screen. By 1960, however, Kirk Douglas had broken the “blacklist” with his block-buster film Spartacus, based directly on Fast’s 1951 book of the same name. And so more options for Freedom Road were forthcoming. But it was not until 1979, twenty-five years after the novel was published, that a screenplay based on Freedom Road was produced—not for the movies, but for a two-part four-hour TV mini-series.
Fast, who had as early as 1944 pictured Paul Robeson, dead since 1976, as the emancipated slave Gideon Jackson, now hoped that his hero would be played by James Earl Jones. Evidently believing that Jones was not a sufficient enough draw, the producers wanted the “sensational” Muhammad Ali, boxing’s heavy weight world champion, and a recent convert to Islam. Indeed, Ali in the starring role was the “essence of the deal,” and NBC, according to the producers, “wouldn’t have made the picture without him.”
But years in the making at the cost of $7.5 million, and despite direction by Jan Kadar and narration by Ossie Davis, the TV adaptation of Fast’s novel had the glaring distinction of making Ali, one of the twentieth century’s more vibrant personalities, dull. This was a great shame for it also made a terribly vital story tiresome and forgettable. Fast’s novel, based partly on Black Reconstruction, the groundbreaking historical and sociological work of W.E.B. DuBois, had turned on its head what was once the standard and grossly distorted history of Reconstruction—as depicted for example, in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1913). Impressionable white audiences in racist America in the second decade of the twentieth century could hardly come away from Griffith’s technologically dazzling, but morally flawed film, without a twisted picture of a post-Civil War South overrun by ignorant ant rapacious blacks and the opportunistic Northern carpetbaggers who exploited them.
Freedom Road remains part of the radical revision of black history in Civil War America, and was in part a response to Birth of a Nation, and to Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, upon which Griffith’s film was based, as well as to the ahistorical, cloying romance of Gone With the Wind. Fast’s novel deserves something so much grander than an artistically, devastatingly disappointing, 35-year-old TV mini-series. Forrest Whitaker, John Singleton, Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, and John Ridley, alone or together, please make a 100th birthday party for Howard Fast this month, and bring his memory and us the gift of brilliant ideas for a truly great new film based on Freedom Road—one as horrible, painful, and necessary as 12 Years a Slave.
Gerald Sorin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American and Jewish Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz and author of Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane.