It is a compelling, and little-known, tale from Canadian history. Captive Heart: The James Mink Story traces the saga of the son of a freed American slave (Louis Gossett Jr., in the title role) who in the 1850s established himself in Toronto as a prosperous livery owner and budding politician. As the movie portrays him, Mink is at once a shrewd, if slightly unscrupulous, businessman and a loving husband to his white wife (Kate Nelligan). The problem, however, is their headstrong daughter, Mary (Rachael Crawford), whom Mink fears is unmarriageable because she is of mixed race. Against her protests, he advertises a huge dowry and eventually finds her a suitable match in William Johnson (Peter Outerbridge), a white American horse dealer and charming suitor. Mary, apparently, grows to like him, too, and the two get married and head off to Niagara Falls. And then the bottom falls out of the Minks’ dreams for their daughter.
That, too, is where Captive Heart begins to falter. It is almost like two movies in one: the first a period piece about a remarkable Canadian, the other a stereotyperiddled melodrama about the horrors of slavery. And the transition is far from smooth. As soon as the honeymooners cross the border—about half-an-hour into the movie’s 120 minutes—the grinning Johnson reveals himself to be not a horse dealer, but a slave trader. After brutally raping Mary, he whisks her off to Richmond, Va., to put her on the auction block, where she is purchased by a randy plantation owner (Winston Rekert). Distraught, beaten and forced to work for the first time in her life, Mary manages to get word of her plight to her parents in Toronto. And then, with James Mink posing as his wife’s slave, the couple undertakes a daring rescue attempt. .
To be fair, Captive Heart is better than most of the serial-killer/deadbeat-dad/crazedhousewife nail-biters that comprise the bulk of the TV movie genre. The performances are all good—Gossett, the lone American among the principal performers, portrays
the slightly pompous Mink with aplomb, and Nelligan does her best to add subtlety to her doughty Irish mother. The sets—the movie was filmed entirely in Ontario last summer—look wistfully old and convincing. And Captive Heart touches on several socially relevant issues: the difficulty of interracial marriages, for one, and the sometimes-uneasy relations between well-to-do and lower-class blacks.
But the movie only hints at those themes, because there is only so much
A father goes all out to save his daughter
the actors can do to develop character when their efforts are overshadowed by stock plot elements and brazen sentimentality. The portrayal of plantation life is part Roots, part Mandingo— what would a movie about slavery be without at least one whipping, or without a lascivious plantation owner harassing a young black girl? Disappointing, too, is the portrayal of southern whites as (with few exceptions) leering perverts and maniacal sadists—which is not to say that slavery was anything but evil, but that the individual motivations for slavery were clearly more complex than the movie allows. As a whole, the movie too often sacrifices subtlety to made-for-TV melodrama. And despite its strengths, Captive Heart remains run-of the-mill fare.
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