Pressed by her quasi-free co-workers to see the play “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Tubman forthrightly refused. She declared, “No, I haint got no heart to go and see the sufferings of my people played out on de stage. I’ve heard ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ read, and I tell you Mrs. Stowe’s pen hasn’t begun to paint slavery as I have see it at the far South. I’ve seen de real ting, and I don’t want to see it on stage or teater.”
Tubman’s refusal derives from multiple concerns. First, as a recently self-emancipated person, the pain of enslavement is still too raw for her. Second, Tubman abhors the presentation of her people’s travails as entertainment. Third, she knows the novel inaccurately depicted slavery, so she’s convinced the play does, too. Given this, I wondered how she would react to the new movie, “Harriet.”
In addition to my curiosity about Tubman’s response to the film, I also worried about its historicity or faithfulness to historical fact. Much like Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” “Harriet” arrived shrouded in controversy. Months before its release, Black Twitter and African American websites were afire with criticism of the film and denunciations of star Cynthia Erivo.
Antonio Moore and Yette Carnell, leaders of American Descendants of Slavery, rendered a meandering but withering critique and called for a boycott. Duke University economist and African American reparations activist William Darity linked “Harriet” to a long tradition of movies that promote “false, sanitized version(s) of history.”
In contrast, several Black public intellectuals defended the film and urged support of it. Michael Eric Dyson praised Erivo’s performance and described the film as a “dope, amazing, soulful piece of entertainment that educates & thrills.” Brittney Cooper hinted at Erivo’s anti-African American ethnocentrism. Nonetheless, she endorsed the film because the director (Kasi Lemmons) is an African American woman “in a world where Black women directors rarely get to make feature-length films.”
Young organizers and graduate students I know trashed the film. Two denounced it as an “ahistorical superhero movie.” And another angrily recited Erivo’s long list of microinsults toward African Americans. All, however, urged me to see it, which I did.
I feel a responsibility to see serious films about the lives, culture and history of Black people. Often, it’s torture, and I end up wasting two hours watching a spectacle of re-purposed stereotypes. Now and then, however, I see a visually stunning film that presents an insightful, thought-provoking and entertaining vision of Black folks’ lives. “Harriet” isn’t such a film.
I decided to write about it. But given my predisposition toward the film, I thought it best to get an unbiased opinion. So, I took a 15-year-old Black male whom I mentor. In addition to regularly taking him to the movies, I generally watch Black-oriented and classic films with him on Sundays.
About 45 minutes in, I noticed he was quite anxious. After an hour or so, he asked me how Tubman died. His question revealed that he had been taught very little about her. When we discussed the film afterward, he observed it was good at building tension. In fact, he said, “the only thing” he felt “was tension.”
I normally experience a variety of emotions when watching films in which Black people suffer, yet strangely, I was unmoved by “Harriet.”
After some probing, my teenage mentee further commented that he thought most of the characters were “flat,” uncomplicated figures. A lack of depth, he claimed, particularly characterized Omar Dorsey’s fictional Black slave catcher, Bigger Long (Really?). He described Long as the meanest character in the film.
I found “Harriet” irresponsibly historically inaccurate. Most of the central characters are invented and quite a few are caricatures. Gideon Brodess (John Alwyn), who inherits Tubman after his father dies, is a composite character who never dedicated his life to her capture and execution. As the main antagonist, Brodess has some murky relationship with Tubman, which the film fails to clarify. The two Black slave catchers, Walter (Harry Hunter Hall, Lemmons’ son) and Omar Dorsey’s Bigger Long, are completely made up. So is Marie Buchanon, played by Janelle Monáe. The magnitude of the created characters tilts this cinematic interpretation of Tubman’s life toward fantasy.
Long, the expert Black slave catcher, is the most problematic of the invented characters. He’s a caricature. Long embodies an old stereotype, the myth of the “hyper-violent, hypersexual Black brute.” Black slave catchers existed. But as Manisha Sinha, author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition” states, they “were few and far between.” Given their rarity, why did Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard (co-writer with Lemmons) make a Black slave catcher the film’s penultimate antagonist and its most inhumane character?
Unlike some, I wasn’t bothered by the film’s Christian mysticism. Slave rebels like Tubman, Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser considered themselves instruments of divine justice. “Harriet” surveyed the familiar and uncontroversial aspects of Tubman’s life. Why not explore her role in John Brown’s plan to ignite slave revolts and create a free Black state?
I think Tubman would boycott “Harriet.” Maybe I should have. I usually love Lemmons’ films. Erivo was unconvincing; I miss Cicely Tyson.
After 26 years, “Sankofa,” which Haile Gerima made for $1 million in 1993, remains the most realistic, challenging, disturbing and empowering depiction of U.S. chattel slavery.