The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
And interviews from such noted conservative figures as Glenn Beck, Herman Cain, Star Parker, and the late Andrew Breitbart help the film draw clear ideological lines in the sand. Fans of 2016: Obama’s America, another controversial conservative documentary released this year, will find much here to “amen” to as well.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.