Film / TVRevolutionary

harriet tubman, american hero

November 5, 2019
670 Picks

When I go to the movies I sit down with my popcorn and immerse myself in the story and I never, ever say to myself, “I wonder what white folks will think of this?” I do not put on my white-gaze glasses and try to see the film as white people would. I feel like most of my sisters and brothers do the same, but some of us still go to the movies overly worried about what white folks will think and what impact the story will have on what white folks think of us. A head full of loud, unruly, ignorant white people looking to use a film to prove their biases, will surely ruin your cinematic experience. 

When I watched Harriet, the new biopic about Harriet Tubman, I was filled with pride and awe at the story of this amazing woman who risked her life over and over to liberate enslaved people. We all know the basic story of Tubman’s life. Yet when we see her work come into bloom, in a montage where Tubman walks in through the doors of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society over and over, leading group after group of people to freedom, people whose lives she has changed forever, while Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” is playing in the background, I felt heavy tears of joy welling up in my eyes. Who among us has done something as meaningful by risking so much to help so many? 

Harriet Tubman is a true revolutionary. She fought against an evil institution by putting her ideas into action, subverting slavery not by philosophizing against it, but by snatching people right off plantations. She was the original, “Just Do It.” She loved her people so much —and hated slavery so much — that she selflessly risked everything to free them. Tubman was an extraordinary American who was determined to force America to live up to its humane ideals, even when most of the people around her were performing mental gymnastics to justify the peculiar institution, because they were drunk on the money and the power derived from racism and slavery. 

Harriet writer/director Kasi Lemmons, and its star Cynthia Erivo, bring home Tubman’s steely resolve, her unbreakable determination, her endless self-belief, her inspiring courage. At a time when so many Americans were spiritually and intellectually lost, she was putting her life on the line to turn her ideals into reality. As the film goes on, we see Tubman develop from hopeful to powerful, and by its midpoint, she can seemingly make the 100-mile journey to freedom through sheer force of will, overcoming white supremacy in a single bound. The film shows her as an expert spy, able to evade detection no matter how closely white folks are watching, an Olympic-level athlete escaping men on horses, and a brilliant orator who dominates a group discussion that includes Frederick Douglass. If you didn’t know that she was real, you would assume Harriet Tubman was a superhero.

Harriet is a powerful film that takes her life seriously. That does not mean that the film is beyond critique. In fact, there are some who are angry about the film and chirping loudly on Twitter. I have thoughts about their critique. 

One of the loudest complaints is that the film gives Tubman a white savior. Were it true, this would be disappointing, because Tubman herself is a savior, and to go to the movies to see this amazing Black woman require a white savior would reinforce the idea that we need white people to get things done, and that films about us need to have white people in heroic roles to get made. But this criticism is one place where I feel like we’re talking about viewing Harriet with a white gaze. Or perhaps it’s the voice of the chip on the collective African-American shoulder that’s bitter about the white-ification of Black history in so many past movies. 

Let me be clear: the idea that Harriet presents Tubman as having a white savior is one of the most misguided, reactionary readings of a filmed moment I have ever heard. It makes me ask, “Did y’all daydream during reading comprehension class back in school?” (Here comes a spoiler—if you haven’t seen Harriet you may want to skip to the next graph.) At a critical moment in the film, Tubman is running away from two captors, one a Black bounty hunter, the other the white slave master whose plantation she escaped. The Black bounty hunter has an opportunity to shoot and kill her — at that moment, the white slave master shoots and kills the Black bounty hunter, saving Tubman in the most literal sense of the word but his clearly-stated motivation is to capture her alive so he can give her a fate worse than death. The man may be white, and saved her from death, but in no imaginable way is he her savior. If you’re hoping to torture someone, you are not their savior. 

The other big complaint about the film is the presence of the evil, racist Black bounty hunter, Bigger Long, a scene-stealing villain who roams the countryside searching for Tubman hoping he can use the money he’ll earn to buy more time with white prostitutes. At one point, he brutally murders a free Black woman with his fists. People have argued that a Black bounty hunter is ahistorical, they did not exist, so why is he in the film? A Slate essay about the historical accuracy of Harriet quotes Joshua Rothman, the chair of the University of Alabama History department, saying, “there were surely Black slave catchers.” So he’s not entirely ahistorical after all.

But the larger point in many critiques of this Black character is in the purpose he serves in Harriet: allowing modern white audiences to watch without feeling like their ancestors are the only villains onscreen. As I said at the top, I don’t watch films worried about what white people will think. Yes, Bigger Long is evil, but I suspect, from the filmmakers’ perspective he’s not there to absolve the slave owners,but to give Lemmons another angle from which to challenge Harriet, and to make her journey harder. To use a chess analogy, he’s a bishop diagonally chasing Tubman’s king, while the powerful slave master is the queen leading the assault from behind.   

I failed to see Bigger Long as absolving white slave masters in any way. Their evil is clear from the opening scene. At this point in history, a filmmaker doesn’t need to prove to audiences that a slave master is evil. Historical or realistic films build on an ongoing conversation with, and knowledge of, history. We can safely assume the audience has seen other films, know at least some of the history, and that each individual film doesn’t have to explain every detail. Surely, someone who chooses to see Harriet knows she’s a legendary liberator and doesn’t need to be shown how horrible slavery is. Some films choose to do so, and some assume that you know the deal; these are tonal choices by different filmmakers. Lemmons has chosen to take a relatively slavery-violence-light approach, and that will not fit everyone’s agenda; but it allowed the film to get a PG-13 rating, which allowed me and many others to take our children to see it.

Still, I was disappointed at certain moments. Violence is not bad in and of itself — and violence in the name of justice is moral. In a critical scene late in the film (Spoiler Alert), Tubman has a chance to kill Bigger Long and the white slave master who wants to return her into bondage. I wanted to see her kill them because she should be the cause of her antagonists’ end. When she has her old slave master on his knees, she shoots him in the hand when I wanted to see her execute him. It’s righteous for a slave to murder their master. It’s an act of spiritual self-defense. Even though Tubman had control of the situation and he posed her no physical threat at that moment, he’s one of the people who fought to keep slavery alive, so taking him out is akin to killing a leader of the opposing army. It would have also been a fitting end to the film-long interplay between them: seeing a self-liberated enslaved person murder her former master in cold blood would have been deeply cathartic. The audience would have cheered. Instead, she gallops off on his horse, leaving him on his knees, with part of his hand on the ground, following the Hollywood rule that heroic figures don’t kill, because they’re so good they even save the villains. 

I went into Harriet knowing mnore about her rescuing people from slavery but far less about her roles as a leader, advisor and spy for the Union Army in the Civil War. Sadly the film races over that part of her life story entirely. Since when does a Hollywood movie miss a chance to talk about spying, or the Civil War? Tubman was an integral part of the Combahee River Raid in which a Union Army battalion attacked, burned and looted a plantation, ultimately liberating 750 enslaved people who came running toward the Union boats carrying whatever they had been holding, sprinting to freedom. A biography of Tubman quotes her as saying, “I never saw such a sight.” This strikes me as a much more important, dramatic and valuable place to end the film. Tubman’s war heroism is less well-known and would have gone a long way to expanding America’s understanding of how amazing she was. 

No biopic can include everything but there are real scenes from Tubman’s life that are more powerful than the ones Lemmons invented — and critics of the film are right to say that hewing closer to Tubman’s life could have produced something even more powerful. Still, I left the film deeply moved and glad that I took my 11 year-old to see it. And, yes, completely unconcerned about the takeaways of the white people who sat in the back of the theater. I thought more about what Tubman would have thought if she could have seen a theater full of middle-class Black folks in Brooklyn watching a film about her life, written and directed by a Black woman, being served popcorn by young white people, and about how our comfort and our freedom is due to her.