“Harriet” the movie is a portrayal, based on the life of the legendary African American heroine. It is not, nor is it intended to be a documentary of her remarkable life. At times during the movie historical facts are noted on the screen. Harriet Tubman lived for 91 years, this movie covers about 8 to 10 years of her life. So we know there is much more to her life that we don’t see in the movie. I pray the movie raises interest in Harriet Tubman, particularly among young people, many of whom had unfortunately never heard of Harriet Tubman.
Regrettably, the movie has raised controversy within the African American community. From its historical accuracy to the fact that the lead actor was British. I think we have to be careful that we don’t let “The Perfect Become the Enemy of The Good.” We can find issues with anyone and anything. “Harriet” is not perfect, but if it inspires young people to learn more about, the real Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad and the African Holocaust that is the true history of this country, I’m satisfied and hope it wins the “Academy Award” for best picture! If “Harriet” provides a context for the current movement for reparations, that’s a bonus!
I want to provide my critique of the movie and another perspective to some of the criticisms of “Harriet.” First, I thought it was most important that the movie captured the spirituality of Ms. Tubman. I believe Ms. Tubman was anointed by God to do what she did. Just as God chose “little” David to fight Goliath, he choose little five foot Araminta Ross (Her name at birth) to be the Moses (Who Had a Speech Impediment Exodus 4:11) of her people. Harriet Tubman viewed herself as an instrument of God. The movie does an exceptional job of capturing her strong faith in God and made clear her strength and accomplishments were God inspired. “Harriet” is not a documentary. There are several characters and scenes that are not historically accurate, so what. The producers never claimed “Harriet” this was a documentary, but a film based loosely on a period in the life of Harriet Tubman and these United States. While most of the movie is historically accurate, there are events described that are not chronologically or historically correct, again so what. The producers took some license to fit this story into a two hour movie. This means many parts of Harriet’s story didn’t make it into the final production. It was not a “Biopic” about Harriet Tubman.
I’ve seen the movie 3 times with audiences of young people, virtually all of whom came out with a deep respect for the challenges Ms. Tubman fought through. Many wanted to learn more about the life of Ms. Tubman. Sadly, many of them had not heard of Harriet Tubman or the Underground Railroad, this is a failure of our school system, and the parents who should see to it that our children learn their history, assuming the parents know it. I’ve heard much criticism and vitriol about the movie from well-intentioned people I respect. In some instances I believe we must have seen different movies. I don’t know anyone who came out of the movie without a newly found or increased respect and admiration for Ms. Tubman. Many have purchased books or went on line to learn more about the real Harriet Tubman, this is positive to me, much more important than some of the “nit-picking” I’ve heard. Baseball great Jackie Robinson once said, every time he took the field he carried the hopes and dreams of every little colored boy who ever dreamed of playing major league baseball. Let’s not put that kind of weight on the backs of our young film makers.
I applaud the efforts of the African American filmmakers. “Harriet” was written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, an African American woman filmmaker. It was produced by Debra Martin Chase, again, an African American woman. Gregory Allen Howard, an African American man was also a principal writer of the screenplay. Charles King, another African American man was an executive producer. Movie making is a business, people risk capital to make a profit. For a movie like this, the risk is great that mass audiences will retreat from slavery related issues. Still others won’t be satisfied that the issues of slavery weren’t addressed sufficiently. There are white folks who would like us to forget the role of their ancestors in the slave trade and African Holocaust in this country. Against these odds, “Harriet” has taken in over $30 million in the early receipts, more than double the studio projections. Had the studios allotted a proper promotional budget, it would have done even better. This suggests there is clearly a market for more stories about African American history in this country.
I came out of the movie with an even greater respect for the legend of Harriet Tubman, I learned things I didn’t know, which led me to purchase some books on Harriet Tubman to fill in other things I didn’t know. I even bought books for my grandchildren. I take exception to a number of critics of the movie who claimed it was poorly made. I found the movie well-made and acted. I appreciated the dialogue and the quality of the cinematography. Clearly, there were sad depictions of Black people, but these were largely historically accurate. Slaves and free Black People of that day had to give special deference to white people. Given the need for “Black Lives Matter” today some things haven’t changed! Due to extreme poverty many Black people of the day wore ill-fitting, hand-me-down clothing and were not always well groomed. I don’t know if I ever saw Ms. Tubman in the movie portrayed in a derogatory or degrading manner that was unrealistic.
Again, “Harriet” is not a biography or “BIOPIC” of Harriet Tubman. Ms. Tubman lived 91 years, this movie only covers about 8-10 years of her life. Obviously, since it begins with her as an adult, there is much of her early life we are not shown in the movie. For some parts of her early life we get as flash backs. The movie is centered in Maryland, she escapes to Philadelphia via the Underground Railroad, where she is helped by Black businessman, William Still, that’s a historical fact. She is assisted by various people on her way to Philadelphia via the Underground Railroad, again historical fact. She was assisted on her travels by free Black minister Samuel Green, historical fact. She fought for the United States in the Civil War and led the Combahee River Raid that is a historical fact.
In the Bible Book of John 21:25 “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written. This is a two hour movie, clearly there are events that didn’t make it into the movie. Similarly, we could debate issues of her personality and how she might have approached different things. Unfortunately, we don’t have any living witnesses to ask. The filmmakers did consult a historian and scholar on Harriet Tubman as to how she thought Harriet might have reacted in given situations. The important thing is that no material facts were embellished or denigrated.
I didn’t find the movie Harriet, weak, confused or lacking courage. In the movie Harriet, jumps off a bridge to freedom, (may not have happened) but hardly the act of someone lacking courage. She ran day and night from dogs and slave catchers. I saw a strong powerful woman in this movie. I didn’t see the lack of courage or confidence, some complained about. That little lady who addressed the regiment of men before leading them mission in the Civil War showed courage, confidence, and tactical skills.
Harriet Tubman suffered from what have been referred to as spells. This is again, a matter of historical fact. Some historians speculate she may have had narcolepsy, epilepsy or injuries from having her skull fractured as a teen, we don’t know. This makes her story all the more remarkable. I believe Ms. Tubman was chosen by God. All of the writings on her referred to her deep spirituality. Many critics of the movie make no reference to this important aspect of her life. Psalms 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The spells may have been God’s way of communicating with Ms. Tubman. In the historical writings and in the movie, Ms. Tubman said it was God who led her over the rough terrain and evading the slave trackers when asked how she made her many journeys. I appreciate the fact that her spirituality was a central part of the movie.
Psalms 23:4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.” This was the motivation for Ms. Tubman. While she couldn’t read, clearly she had a great memory and we know she was familiar with the Bible as she was close to Rev. Green as a child, again a historical fact.
I know some purists simply reject the movie because they feel it wasn’t scholarly enough. That every item in the life of Ms. Tubman was not done to their satisfaction. I go back to the Bible. In the book of Mark 9:38, “Teacher, said John, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” ”Do not stop him,” Jesus said. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”
The message of Jesus in this passage is don’t we have enough people challenging us, that we are fighting each other? If “Harriet” made light of the accomplishments of Harriet Tubman, if it claimed reprehensible things about her character, I would be in line with a picket sign in front of the theater. People complained about the British sister playing Harriet, this is just too silly for reasons too numerous to mention, but Julia Roberts in black face, oh Hell No! “Harriet” performed the miracle of making Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad come alive to many who had no idea. Could it have raised the other brutal aspects of slavery, of course? That’s the next movie!
In the words of my sister from Compton, “The Struggle Continues, To God Be the Glory.”
Roderick “Rod” Wright – Rod is a former California State Senator, and longtime community activist and businessman. He is also a Steward at Ward AME Church in Los Angeles.