As filmmaker Jared A. Brock has toured the country with his documentary “Josiah,” he’s found that even most audience members who’ve come out to see his film were previously unaware of Josiah Henson, a man who was enslaved for 41 years in Maryland and Kentucky before escaping to Canada and eventually helping 118 other people escape slavery.
During his lifetime, Henson became something of an international celebrity, visiting the court of Queen Victoria of England and serving as a primary inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
But since his death in 1883, Henson’s story has somehow fallen from public awareness.
“We have another hero of the abolitionist era, and it is really exciting to reintroduce him to the pantheon,” said Brock, who will be at a screening of “Josiah” on Thursday, May 31, at the Carnegie Center in New Albany. “Audiences have been really animated when they learn Josiah’s story — it gives them a sense of hope.”
Seating for the 6:30 p.m. screening is limited, so registration is required by calling 812-944-7336.
Brock’s 40-minute film consists primarily of interviews with various historians, and even a distant relative of Henson, overlaying archival photographs, art and occasional dramatic re-enactments. It’s accented by excellent readings by actor Danny Glover from Henson’s own autobiography.
Glover’s voice-work, in particular, humanizes a story that otherwise might be hard to process, both because of the brutality of what Henson endured and his implausible bravery and circumstances that enabled him to overcome it.
The film begins with the story of how Henson’s father, after beating an overseer who had raped Henson’s mother, was whipped within moments of his life, then had his ear brutally cut off as further punishment. Henson would later recount this incident as among his first memories of growing up on a plantation in Maryland.
“I think it definitely is going to be a pretty big shock for most people,” Brock said. “The cruelty of slavery — I don’t try to hide it at all … I try to not shy away from it, because Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t shy away from it. She talked about the stark brutality of slavery. There’s a romanticization of that era. The reality of what people actually endured was so counter to that, we felt we needed to show it. We don’t shy away from showing that his dad was whipped to the whites of his bones. That his mom is raped.”
Henson’s father was sold off by slaveholders “down South” to Louisiana, into the brutal life of a sugar cane plantation. Eventually, the owner of the plantation in Maryland died, and as was often the case, Henson’s family was set to be separated by a sale of enslaved people as part of the estate settlement. A sickly youth, Henson was valued at $30.
Eventually, however, Henson grew into a strong young man, and through an unlikely turn of events, he himself became an overseerer on the Maryland farm. He also did some buying and selling of the farm’s goods and had the odd job of rescuing his drunken owner from bar fights, a role that ultimately resulted in him being seriously injured in an attack by four men.
Under the law of the day, Henson’s owner unsuccessfully sued for destruction of property for the injuries that would plague Henson the rest of his life.
The rest of Henson’s story plays out as a hero’s tale that would seem almost too fanciful, if it weren’t historically documented. Facing financial ruin, Henson’s owner tasked him with transporting 18 other enslaved people to his brother’s farm in Kentucky, where they could be sheltered as assets from creditors.
During a layover in Cincinnati, Henson had the chance to allow his fellow slaves to escape, but he decided to keep to oath of loyalty to his owners, who still had control of Henson’s mother back in Maryland. It’s a decision Henson later said he came to regret deeply.
Henson later became a traveling Methodist preacher to earn extra cash on his commodity buying and selling trips, in hopes of purchasing his freedom from his owners. But the slaveholders cheated him in the deal, leading Henson to understand that they would never allow him to be free.
On a boat trip south, Henson almost killed his slaveholder’s son, but ultimately decided that he did not want murder on his conscience.
Faced with the realization that his owners planned to sell him off, Henson escaped with his family — a rare circumstance at the time — and headed up through Ohio toward Canada. Along the way, the family was befriended by Native Americans and a working boat captain who ultimately helped them make their way to Buffalo, and then freedom across the border.
Henson remained active in the abolitionist movement the rest of his life, helping many other flee slavery and ultimately writing his autobiography. Beecher Stowe cited him as a primary inspiration for her book, the publication of which was largely responsible for the growing abolitionist sentiment in the United States.
(Brock’s film notes that much of the negative connotations associated today with the phrase “Uncle Tom” stem from stage plays and other dramatizations of the wildly popular novel, not the book itself. In Henson’s own autobiography, he wrote, “I believe her book was the beginning of the glorious end.”)
Brock became fascinated with Henson’s story more than three years ago, after buying a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for his wife and being startled to discover an “offhanded comment” that the novel was inspired by an actual life story.
He spent over two years completing his film and a companion book, “The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War,” which he will be signing at the Carnegie Center on Thursday. His stop in New Albany is part of a 10,000-mile national tour in support of the project.
Doors will open at 6 p.m. for the general public. A members-only reception with Brock will run from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The film screens at 6:30 and will be followed by a Q&A. Again, call 812-944-7336 for a seating reservation.
The Carnegie Center is located at 201 E. Spring St. in downtown New Albany.