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The Movie “Harriet”: Facts & Fiction

The Movie “Harriet”: Facts & Fiction

If you look at life through a lens of oppression, you will always be the victim. You will besmirch that which is meant to elevate you. You will criticize what you fail to understand. You will espouse the thoughts of others as your own. You will be quick to take offense and slow to take action.

Last night, I went to see “Harriet.” I didn’t go alone. I bought a row in a theater and filled it with mostly Black women and a few Black men; descendants of Harriet. I sat amongst a throng of other Black women in a sold- out theater, all waiting to see the legend we’ve heard griots SPEAK of all our lives; waiting to see a reflection of the best of who we desire to be. Brazen. Courageous. Audacious. Harriet.

I read the articles, posts, comments, and memes discrediting the historical accuracy of the film, pontificating of a White savior in its presentation, bemiring the name of the lead actress because of her vituperative remarks. But, I’ve never been more interested in the opinions of others more than my own, so none of these sentiments were enough to dissuade me from seeing the story of the woman called “Moses” in cinematic form. I already knew most of the facts of her life from actually reading of her throughout my life. I’d form my own opinion about their presentation. And, I have.

But, before I can delve into sharing my thoughts and feelings about the film, I feel compelled to address the dissension about seeing it in the first place. This is not to persuade anyone one way or the other, but it is to inform and offer a different perspective from what I’ve seen.

Reasons to not see “Harriet” dissected:

The lead actress is anti-Black Americans.” – I am not interested in the misguided spewings of one rooted in miseducation. Period. Cynthia Erivo’s words, though somewhat misguided, did not offend me because not one of them is greater than the importance of this story being told. I’m curious to know how many who echo the statement that she’s “anti-Black Americans” even read her words. I know we collectively have grounded ourselves in the cancel culture pasture for any offense, especially when it comes to Black women. Black women are unforgivable. We have cancelled Chrisette Michelle, Cynthia Erivo, and Stacey Dash, but we still have Kanyé, Kelly, and Cosby reruns on rotation. Somehow, we can’t separate the art from the artist when it comes to Black women. For those who have “cancelled” all of the aforementioned, to offer the same consequence to Erivo as rapists is inequitable. That’s that crack and powdered cocaine sentencing logic.

If you decided to allow someone’s posturing to control your decision about supporting a film that honors the legendary Harriet Tubman, then own your decision and move forward in the fullness of your life. As for me, I’m absorbing every drop of the beauty of my history.

“Eat the meat. Throw away the bone.”

-Ancient Proverb

Black Brits don’t have the right to play Black American roles.” – I do not subscribe to the division of Africa’s daughters and sons at all. I see Black people as my sisters and brothers, no matter their point of origin, until they prove otherwise. I do not hold Black Americans in a higher regard because we are African Descendants of the Enslaved in the Americas or ADOS. Obviously, I am more familiar with those with whom I share a current culture, but our collective Pan-African connection is not through the present-day or slavery. It is through our shared ancestry, our rich and diverse culture, and our triumphs. I hold all of us accountable for restoring and upholding the greatness of our people in every form.

If Nigerian, British-born Cynthia Erivo, as problematic as many feel her past statements are, can still allow herself to be used as a vessel to tell of the heroism of one of our greatest ancestors, then she is fulfilling her purpose. And, I support that. Once we start dividing ourselves and invoking a hierarchy of Blackness based on our proximity to different brands of Whiteness, (American Black people vs. British Black people vs Africans in America Black people vs Africans on the continent Black people), Black people, we are aiding in our own collective demise.

Yes, Black American culture is unique and impactful and powerful. Yes, there are stories specific to Black American history that must be told. And, yes, any Black person in the Diaspora has the right to tell them as long as they SPEAK with truth and reverence when they do because we are all connected. There is no scarcity of opportunities when you create them yourself. Our belief that Hollywood and “the Man” are showing some sort of bias towards a part of our collective (actors from the UK) should be channelled into owning and telling our own stories, and recognizing that the stories belong to us all. Are we not all descendants of griots after all?

“I’m not watching another slave movie! We’ve had enough!” – I hear so many making definitive declarations that they “will not see or support another slave narrative,” as though their lack of support of our stories will somehow erase the stain of slavery from the sheets of history’s annals. I hear celebrities bold enough to state that we’ve had enough movies about the centuries our ancestors survived the attempts of their genocide, but none of them complain of the dozens more told of our counterparts.

We, people who are only here because those before us were brave enough to live long enough to bring forth more life, are ashamed of them. We are ashamed of our enslaved ancestors. That’s the ugly truth we won’t admit. We lie and tell ourselves that we don’t want to see “slave stories” because it “furthers the narrative” that we are slaves. But, to whom? Whose opinion vexes us so much that we cannot stand to see ourselves living, collectively surviving, in a resistance to a system designed to kill us? White folks perhaps?

We are so ashamed of our enslavement that the only way we can digest it is to hear and see harrowing stories of our very direct and distinct heroism and their vile violence against us. It has to be that clear line of delineation. We only want to see ourselves in active retaliation, and even in that, we find fault. (Like we did with this movie, “Harriet.”) But, to live, to stay and survive is also an act of heroism and revolution. We would not be here otherwise. Everyone could not run. Yet, we want to bury the memory of their heroism under the looming cloak of White supremacy. That’s what we see when we see ourselves depicted in the tales of slavery. Not their defiance in seeing their own humanity through loving, singing, praying, dancing, weeping. Not their miraculous survival of the Maafa. Not the traditions they carried and created in the seams of their welted backs. No. We do not see ourselves as victors in those stories, so we shun or silence them. But, the shame of slavery is not ours as I stated before on this site. We did not display the depravity required to profit from the horrific and peculiar bondage and destruction of human beings for profit en masse. That is a shame for others to face, acknowledge and rectify. We need to see more of our stories because we have not begun to touch the surface of the breadth of our fortitude. The greatest deception of oppression is to cast the shame of the oppressor on the oppressed. It keeps us in such a state.

“They showed her in love with her White master.” I try not to allow my eyes to scroll upwards and over when I hear us SPEAK, but this misinterpretation left me a bit taken aback. If you didn’t and don’t plan on seeing the movie, you really shouldn’t repeat this fallacy because, as the African proverb goes, “it is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” The ONLY love interest shown in the movie was her first husband, John Tubman. To perceive the relationship between Harriet and Gideon akin to anything other than a demented sociopath and a woman who refused to be his prey is unsagacious. There was no love between them. He was mystified by his inability to control her and stupefied by her audacity to own herself in his presence.

“The villain was a Black bounty hunter and she was saved by her White master. It furthers the White savior narrative.” Let me catch my eyes again. There were no White saviors. There were White allies, but their roles were nominal, and the White man that foolishly believed he was her master was not one of them. She made that clear. She made it very clear that no one owned her ever and she didn’t need saving or permission to live as she chose. Without spoiling the movie completely, I’ll leave it at that for now.

Oh, and also, the Black bounty hunter was also enslaved. He had no freedom of thought, action, or expression without consequence. That’s slavery. His freedom was contingent upon his usage to capture others. When he was no longer subservient or of usage, he was no longer of value and eliminated. This was not an act of heroism, but of control and power. He was not the primary villain, but a tool of the antagonist. There’s no room for characters like the Black bounty hunter in our reception of slave narratives though, so we completely miss their complexity. We missed that he was not killed out of heroism, but because he too forgot he was enslaved. But, this SPEAKS to our inability to see Black men as the antagonist because we are still healing from their misrepresentations as such in White media for centuries.

Slavery was and is the antagonist. [Some] White men and women were and are its agents. That was displayed in the movie as vividly as it is displayed in present day. Black people did play a role in our own enslavement. That was displayed in the movie as vividly as it is displayed in present day. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it is the truth. But, even in that, we are not free. See Black bounty hunter paragraph above.

“They made her a lesbian.” – I swear y’all are going to make my eyes get “stuck like that.” There is a moment, a beautiful and endearing moment, when one Black woman reminds another Black woman that her power and purpose is not defined by her role with a man or anyone else for that matter. It was poignant and powerful and asexual. That’s it. Your bigotry is showing if you’re making this claim.

“It’s not historically accurate.” – It never claimed to be a documentary. It’s a biopic film. There are certainly some creative licenses taken to fill unknown gaps. There are fictional characters added, but nothing detrimental to the accuracy of the pivotal parts of Harriet Tubman’s story. This happens in most biopic films. If you read actual books, and studied the history of that time period, it’s very clear which parts are accurate and which parts are made for entertainment. Yet, there is an uproar about the insertion of the “Black bounty hunter villain” and the historical inaccuracy of “Harriet” based on his inclusion alone. We cannot face the idea of there being ancestors who we find less appealing, and certainly not Black men who are attacking Black women. That imagery doesn’t sit well in our spirits, so we refute its possibility.

Interestingly enough though, no one, not one person in any of the angry memes and blogs I’ve read has voiced their disdain for the inclusion of “Marie Buchanan,” (or Gideon for that matter, who was also a fictional addition). She was an acceptable fallacy. We’ve always judged each other based on a barometer of acceptability. Both fictional characters, “Marie” and “Black bounty hunter ‘villain'” existed in some form in our history. Both were possible and even probable characters in the slavery storyline. But, one makes us the hero and the other a conflicted culprit. We can’t face any of our ails, real or fictional. That’s how so many real ones still find refuge in our circles. We’re not so ready to SPEAK on that though. I’ll wait. I’ll be in the popcorn line.

“She absolved and forgave her White master in the end.” That just didn’t happen. If you missed what really happened, then challenge yourself to watch the scene this references again because you left your lesson on the screen. She absolved him as much as Celie absolved Mister before riding into the sunset with Shug. There was absolutely no absolution. She ushered him into the death she divinely envisioned.

It also must be said that if you are not a spiritual person, spiritual as opposed to religious, you will not connect with this movie or Harriet Tubman for that matter. If you don’t believe that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience in life, and in the continuum of the spirit world that never ends… if you did not realize that Rev. Harriet Tubman truly did have divine visions and was one of the forebears who detangled African liberation theology from White supremacy Christianity, then you will completely miss this movie and you should not claim to admire Harriet Tubman either, because all of those characteristics were a part of her spiritual presence in the form of her humanity.

Most of us did not move when the credits began to scroll. We were still entranced and engaged. We were still relishing in the presence of ancestors whose spirits are omnipresent. We were still processing our thoughts and feelings. When we finally left, many of us lingered, striking up conversations with strangers that we left with embraces; each of us invigorated and feeling like victory was within our grasp. The movie was not without flaw, but it served a positive purpose and opened the door for more storytellers to SPEAK of our Queen Mother through their lens. That’s exactly what I expected, manifested, and received from this experience. You are free to create the opportunity to have the experience you desire as well. That’s what Harriet was about after all.

Black people Black people post viewing “Harriet” and feeling inspired to do and be more.

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This Post Has 8 Comments
    1. Thank you so much for reading and sharing it. I hope you are able to pull something inspiring from the film.

  1. Profound commentary, poetically said. I will see it this weekend and continue to give thanks daily for Sista Harriet (Araminta) and the countless, nameless ancestors whose “will to survive & thrive” DNA flows like a river thru me, rejuvenating my soul daily.

    1. We both know this story is long overdue, and we know it’s presentation is not going to be perfect. But, we honor Queen Mother Harriet regardless.

    1. I’d love to hear your feedback. I hope you enjoy it. It has flaws as any movie does, but they aren’t the ones critics are stating.

  2. Thank you for writing this critique of “Harriet” the movie. My friend and I are going to see Harriet this week. Having heard every one of the criticisms leveled against the movie, I appreciate your rebuttal because it allowed me the space to put all the criticism in perspective. Hollywood is going to do what Hollywood is going to do. I do not have to succumb to being manipulated by all the negative comments to the point where I cannot take in all the wisdom and strength inherent in a Black woman like Harriet Tubman while fully acknowledging and embracing that I am because she was. Thank you.

    1. Exactly Camilla! We don’t have to see ourselves the way we are projected in Hollywood. We can extract all of the good and uplifting content that empowers us and leave the excess by the wayside. I am not asserting that the movie is without fault, but it’s not what critics are suggesting either.

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