Friday, November 1st saw the release of director Kassi Lemmons’ Harriet biopic and as expected, a storm of controversy has dominated the public discourse on the film and its representation of Tubman’s legacy. It became clear early on in the film’s development that it would not escape backlash in its opening week. The intense negative reaction it received in response to Lemmons’ decision to cast Nigerian-British actress Cynthia Erivo in the role of Harriet Tubman foretold trouble from the start; a decision which may not have been as divisive were it not for Erivo's 'Ghetto American Accent' comments and ensuing backlash on twitter. While there is much to be said on the subject of cultural misrepresentation within the diaspora, I will not be focusing on that in this article. I will instead be focusing on the subject of Harriet’s legacy, and how America chooses to represent the lives of black radicals.
The new biopic takes more than a few liberties with Harriet’s story, and is described as a mix of fact and fiction by some reviewers. It is true that the existing documentation on the formerly enslaved and their descendants is not always reliable – sometimes our only recourse is to guess at what their lives may have looked like. However, I am not convinced that, in 2019, anyone believes that the material used to fill in the blanks for movies such as these is not representative of a specific choice on the part of the films' producers, writers, and directors. If we look at the history of films about black life released by major studios, whether helmed by black or white directors the general consensus is that no one involved is about to rock the boat. The individuals in charge of the nations’ major media outlets are of wealthy, predominately white backgrounds, and have a vested interest in portraying slavery as a past mistake that the nation has since corrected, and that no current leaders need be held accountable for. It is for this reason that the few widely released films attempting to retell the history of Black American slavery approach the subject through an oddly unreal, dreamlike lens. We do not feel in movies like this one, or in films like The Help, like Green Book, or even 12 Years a Slave, the severity of the great cosmic rip in reality that began with the Trans Atlantic Slave trade. There is no regard for the omnipresence of this terrible event, for the fact that it reverberates throughout space-time, affecting our past, present, and future. In these films, slavery is an event that occurs in the faraway, almost mythical past, to be recited as if from a storybook to a people that are assumed to know nothing of their own history, or how they got to this country.
I am not suggesting that everything in the film was invented for the purpose of affirming the national narrative, nor am I arguing against the incredible nature of her life. In truth there is much about the lives of our enslaved ancestors that cannot be made legible to a mainstream audience, that cannot be directly translated even to their present day descendants. The film’s real crime rather, is its decision to continue in the American film industry's long tradition of revising history into a fairy-tale drama about a just and righteous nation that made a few "mistakes" along the way, but ultimately learned its lesson and became a shining beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It creates a narrative of good guys vs. bad guys, in which the good guys (and rest assured these movies always make room for at least one white person to play the “good guy” role), prevail through logic, kindness, and non-violent means of resistance. It is notable that Harriet chooses not to shoot her former slavemaster when given the chance: what is it that stops her exactly - her conscious or the director’s fear of alienating white audiences? Either way, whether the film is celebrated despite its flaws as an example of positive “representation” (who or what is being represented here?) or critiqued for its lack of artistic merit, its inaccuracies, or other failings, we are left in a state of national amnesia regardless, blind to Harriet’s true vision, and to what her vision requires. This film is an unfortunate example of the nationalist propaganda we have become all too accustomed to. Truthfully, the film is not really worth critiquing at all, however we still have a responsibility to teach the history of radical black women to current and future generations, and foster a level of media literacy to aid them in reading films such as these with a critical eye.
Here are some of the facts of Harriet’s life that were either left out of the film or treated as secondary to the fictions created. Harriet traveled mostly during the winter, as her group would be less likely to be spotted in the colder months. In order to escape safely with the fugitives, she incorporated a wide array of strategies, including disguises, knowledge of how to read the stars and other natural indicators of place, and specific songs to alert the others of either danger or safety. Each campaign was carefully plotted and she did not go places where she did not know anyone or know the landscape. She sometimes bribed people. She carried a small pistol with her that she was not afraid to use either on slave catchers or on escaped slaves threatening to turn back. She attempted twice to free her husband John: he rebuked her both times. There is evidence to suggest John threatened to turn her in when informed of her first plan of escape. She retained a network of family members, free black agents, Quakers, and abolitionists who provided her access to safe houses and other resources she needed on her journey. Despite her support network, she often invested her own money into the escapes and was constantly working in order to sustain the cost of her trips. She refined her techniques over the course of eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War, and in those years, as slave catchers extended their reach into and across the American North, was constantly innovating within her role as a conductor of the Underground Railroad.
I use the word innovator here specifically because I do not want to disregard the planning and organizing involved in Harriet’s work. The dictionary defines innovator as “one who creates or introduces something new.” It is a word synonymous with descriptors such as “creator,” and “groundbreaker.” It is a word that implies action. Harriet held the dream of freedom in her mind for years before knowing what freedom looked like and discovered the path to that elusive dream when she finally freed herself. Her life’s work became the creation and re-creation of that path for others. Harriet Tubman did not, and could not, as an individual achieve full emancipation from state violence, from capitalism, and from global anti-blackness for every black person on her journeys. What she, and so many black radical women like her did, was provide us the tools with which we can turn our collective dream of freedom into a reality. It is now our responsibility to reclaim that radical imagination, and in doing so, reclaim our own futures.