THE LAST WORD: ‘Harriet’ was real-life hero, but too many critics find fault with film’s depiction
Harriet Tubman was a real-life female superhero.
I’ve always been a fan of women in such roles in the movies — Ellen Ridley in “Alien,” Sarah Connor in “Terminator,” Rey, Princess Leia and Padme in “Star Wars,” Batgirl, Wonder Woman. Those were all fiction.
But seeing the current film “Harriet” was acknowledging the real thing — a historical figure who rose above all obstacles to accomplish incredible feats of selfless courage and heroism.
The petite, 5-foot-tall Tubman is played by Cynthia Erivo, who was born to Nigerian parents in London. She won a Tony award in 2016 for her lead role in the revival of the Broadway musical “The Color Purple.”
This was the first major motion picture about Tubman, who was born a slave in Maryland in approximately 1822. She escaped on her own to Philadelphia in 1849, 100 miles away, but immediately returned on the first of 13 missions to rescue about 70 other slaves in total — many of them family and friends — through a network of anti-slavery activists and the Underground Railroad. She traveled in extreme secrecy by night in her rescues, never losing a single person.
After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by Congress, those Tubman (also called “Moses”) had brought out of slavery became prey for owners to track down, even in the free states. So Tubman helped guide fugitives farther north into British North America to find work.
Tubman met John Brown in 1858 and helped him plan his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. She worked for the Union Army as an armed scout and spy in the Civil War, becoming the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the conflict. She led the raid at Combahee Ferry, freeing more than 700 slaves in the process.
After retiring following the war, she became active in the woman’s suffrage movement, and became an icon of courage and freedom following her death in 1913.
How many of us really knew the full story of this remarkable woman?
My reaction, and that of others I talked to who saw the film on its opening night in Fort Wayne, was that it was moving, gripping, inspirational.
And yet, as I read reviews and reactions on various websites, I found an odd mix of responses, including disgust. And I wondered how that could be.
The story was powerful to me. It depicted the brutality and heartlessness endured by slaves. It showed the heart-rending agony of families being torn apart. And it captured the fervor in Tubman’s undaunted mission to march into hell, if need be, to carry out what she determined was her calling. And she committed her every step to God’s leading along the way, sometimes falling into a faint before deciding what God wanted her to do next.
Some attributed those “spells” to an injury she suffered as a young slave when her head was split open by an angry slave owner who threw a heavy metal weight at another slave, but hit Tubman instead. She suffered dizziness, pain and spells of hypersomnia throughout her life.
So I am puzzled by the criticisms, many coming from the black community. Armond White wrote in National Review: “That the film grossed $12 million (a small yet surprising sum) on its opening weekend suggests some moviegoers seem as ready to enjoy this travesty as slaves were ready for liberation.”
Another critic said the movie perpetuates the “white savior” concept, calling Tubman’s white slave owner the film’s unexpected hero for shooting the black bounty hunter he employed who was about to kill Tubman. That owner was in no way a hero, only wanting to bring back Tubman alive to have his own vengeance upon her.
Another claimed the fictional black bounty hunter was the antagonist in the story, which, they claimed, failed to give focus to the horrific wrongdoings of the slave owners. Well, again, the white slave owner, to me, was the true, evil antagonist, who employed the vicious bounty hunter to do his dirty work.
The fact Harriet showed mercy by not killing the white slave owner, while he had killed the black bounty hunter, was somehow interpreted by another critic as saying “forgive the white man but hate and never forgive the black man — most anti-black movie ever made in 2019.”
And then there was a criticism that the whole point of the movie (called “an abomination”) is to restart the “black men ain’t never cared about black women” narrative rather than tell Harriet’s story.”
No righteous person can abide the inhumanity to man that was slavery. And I can’t see how any unjaded heart would not empathize with the movie’s dramatic depiction of Harriet and the slaves she heroically rescued.
It wasn’t all criticism though. A review in the New York Post also quoted Brittney Cooper, a professor of Africana and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, who, like me, insists there is no “white savior” in the film.
“For there to be a white savior, y’all, the white person would have to had saved her,” she wrote on Twitter. “He was hunting her. He didn’t want to save her. And she escapes. She saves herself.”
But don’t take my word for it. Go see the movie for yourself.
Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.