AKA: The Innerground Railroad: Freeing Your Mind
Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2017
Running Time: 74 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: The X Factor [Neset Kamene documentary], What Would Fannie Lou Do?, Harriet Tubman: They Called Her Moses, Harriet Tubman: Soldier of Freedom, Breaking Free
-The Innerground Railroad is available to purchase at Gumroad.
-The Innerground Railroad is the debut film from Heru “Neset” Kamene. This would also kick off his other documentaries with similar questions with The X Factor and The Innerground Railroad.
-Harriet Tubman’s House for the Aged and the Visitation Center are both based in Auburn, New York. It’s a town with just over 27,000 people based in Upstate New York in Cayuga County and the nearest major city to it is Syracuse. Other notable people associated with Auburn include former senator William H. Seward (who would offer his home as an Underground Railroad stop), Jerome H. Holland who was the first Black board member of the American Stock Exchange, former NFL player Stanley Shakespeare, metal band Manowar, and Birdsill Holly who is the inventor of the fire hydrant.
-Harriet Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1822 and lived to be either 90 or 91 years old during her time on earth. She was alleged to be of Ashanti descent and if true would make her Ghanaian-American. Tubman would be put in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. Some other entries in the former include Jane Adams, Lucille Ball, and Zora Neale Hurston to name a few.
I have completed another goal on Iridium Eye for 2021. One of my goals involved completing the filmographies of three different directors. First, it was re-completing Makoto Shinkai’s catalog when I finally got to review Weathering With You. Next was completing the directorial work of Hiromasa Yonebayashi with his debut film The Secret World of Arriety. Unlike the other two examples involving Japanese animators, this one involves documentary filmmaker/musician Heru “Neset” Kamene. Hotep, Neset! Not only that, but his father Prof. Kaba Hiawatha Kamene just achieved a blogging record for physically appearing in more documentaries I’ve reviewed than anyone else. The person who previously held that record was the indie New Zealander pro wrestler TK Cooper of all people. I’m still asking myself how that happened with the former record holder as I never expected that to occur, but congrats, Prof. Kamene!
Okay, now it’s time to get serious here now that all the congratulations are done. I’ve been on a huge historical documentary kick even going back a year or so. It’s so important to know about heroes and certain events that happened. There have been so many things I realized I didn’t learn from school and some documentaries I’ve seen prove that with people or events I’ve heard of or didn’t even know about. This time I get to learn about Harriet Tubman. I certainly learned a bit about her in school at different points in my life, but I wanted to know a lot more.
How will this father/son team of the Kamenes bring to light of this (s)hero with Neset’s first film?
The Innerground Railroad is a documentary detailing the life of Harriet Tubman. The “conductor” Prof. Kaba Hiawatha Kamene talks about the history of this legendary woman, goes to different locales associated with her, and poses questions on what she might have done if she existed in modern times. Prof. Kamene visits parts of New York City and Auburn with Underground Railroad stops, monuments, and museums that involved houses Harriet Tubman built in her time to highlight her legacy.
I know that’s a brief summary, but I swear there’s a lot more than what was said in the previous paragraph. Talking about Prof. Kamene dropping knowledge and historical facts can be a bit boring like how talking about the animation quality of a Ghibli or Makoto Shinkai can be boring because in both cases, you know it’s going to be good. I certainly learned more about Harriet Tubman from The Innerground Railroad than in all my years of schooling, that’s for sure. There were so many aspects of her life that were so fascinating like how she took care of the elderly even when she was already elderly herself, built houses, and was even an astronomer of sorts. The last example makes perfect sense because she had to find Polaris in order to bring so many former slaves Northbound to Nova Scotia. Seeing the different stops on the Underground Railroad was a great touch in seeing where they were all being stationed as they walked towards freedom. Think about it, they didn’t have cars or GPS, so this would be a journey that would take weeks or even months to be free from their captors. The Kamenes certainly had to drive a long way from NYC to Auburn (4.5-5 hours depending on traffic), but Prof. Kamene couldn’t imagine how long it would take to walk all the way to that town. This educator in addition to dropping facts makes some very insightful commentary like how she was demonized for freeing the slaves with her face on wanted posters, how people could be mentally enslaved despite never being chained up, or what she might have done if she were alive in present times. I’m glad he admitted that those were just guesses, but some of his theories were plausible like how she wouldn’t have tolerated people using misogynistic language (especially given her women’s suffrage works) and would be “rapping” about freedom instead which I could believe. Prof. Kamene even has moments of vulnerability by saying that he’s had bad days and was unsure at times instead of looking like some know-it-all. In addition to the things tied to the history of Harriet Tubman, there were a few insights that really hit me. His talk about being Black and dealing with the double standards of the law is a lot more powerful in hindsight with what happened on January 6th when the Capitol was stormed (if those insurrectionists were Black or even Arab or Latinx, they’d be gunned down without a second thought). He also talked about entertainment and how it could be misconstrued when it comes to priorities. Entertainment wasn’t a bad thing as even Prof. Kamene argued Harriet Tubman would’ve had some kind of fun outside of her life’s work, but people can really over-prioritize it which really hit me. He talks about owning shirts with the likenesses of Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, and the only entertainers that are featured on clothes that he owns are Motown singers while admitting he doesn’t own any sports-themed outfits. I felt so shallow since I own band shirts, movie-related shirts, and even I own something sports-related with clothing with an official Saitama Seibu Lions baseball jersey I found on eBay (my readers know exactly why I would own a jersey involving that Japanese baseball team). It really made me think about things and wonder if I’m a shallow human being. In addition to the knowledge and history, Neset delivers with music production with a mix of hip-hop and jazz. He even did some creative things with black and white and aged filters at different points of the documentary. For a debut work, it certainly delivers and one can see ways he’s improved in Neset’s later films.
The Innerground Railroad does get diverted at different times. Much like the other films, there are a ton of long takes used. There are multiple locations shown which are great, but there were long stationary interview shots, especially at the Harriet Tubman Visitors Center. Prof. Kamene does eventually walk around the museum to show some of the pictures and things on display, but I think it would’ve been more fascinating to do that earlier on during the Auburn scenes. I would’ve also liked to have seen the Home for the Aged and Harriet’s home assuming they were allowed access inside those homes instead of just showing the exteriors. One aspect that did affect the production was the outdoor scenes where some of the street noise from cars, subways, and sirens overpowered Prof. Kamene at times. That’s not a knock against him as a speaker or Neset as a filmmaker, but it would’ve been better if the former had a mic with him during the outdoor interview scenes. I’m not sure if The Innerground Railroad was released in other ways besides in a film form because I was confused why this was addressed as a “docuseries” multiple times in this film. Was this originally released in episodes or little segments before being compiled? Was this a reference to a recurring motif of “What would so and so do in modern times?” with other Black historical figures after the fact like Malcolm X was to The X Factor or Fannie Lou Hamer in What Would Fannie Lou Do? That wasn’t clear, so I wondered why the wording was there.
This is a very informative documentary about an important part of African-American History as to be expected from the Kamenes. The history on display was impeccable and some of the theories presented what Harriet Tubman might have done if she lived in the 21st century. The soundtrack was great and there were some creative production elements. However, I can see some people getting lost with the long fixed shots or some natural sounds getting in the way. I would still recommend this documentary if anyone wants to learn more about American history that isn’t talked about that much or to be inspired. Asante, Kamenes!
Adjustable Point Scores:
-Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of Movementism documentaries.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you’re not a fan of too many fixed shots.
-Subtract 1 point if you don’t feel comfortable with the darker sides of American history.
-Top-notch historical facts
-Exceptional soundtrack and sound effects
-Nice usage of landmarks in two different cities
-There is an overabundance of fixed interview shots
-Outside sounds overpower Prof. Kamene’s voice at times
-Unsure presentation of it being a documentary or docuseries
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Advisory: The Innerground Railroad isn’t an offensive watch, but there are some hard truths mentioned. Slavery is certainly something discussed for obvious reasons. Violence is mentioned like how Harriet Tubman was abused so much by her former slaver to the point where she permanently had epilepsy and brain trauma. There’s a discussion of death and racial violence then and even now.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Innerground Railroad is property of Heru Kamene. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of Heru Kamene.