HARRIET: A Cinematic Tribute to an American Icon

November 26th, 2019

Harriet Tubman is one of the most heroic and revolutionary figures in United States history. Her legendary story is taught, albeit too briefly, to virtually every American schoolchild. Yet despite her historical stature, she has remained an elusive figure in our shared history with her actual life story-both as a slave and subsequently as a liberator with the Underground Railroad-nearly lost to posterity; more often she reduced to a mere footnote in most grade school history textbooks. Thanks to the rousing new film HARRIET, she remains a mystery no more with the film carefully depicting the events that forced her to escape from her life in bondage after learning that she is to be sold to a farm, thus ripping her away from her sole remaining family with whom she shares close bonds.

This  significant film deserves praise for its bold portrayal of the cruelty of slavery, sans sugarcoating or romanticizing it, the way Hollywood has so often been known to in the past (cough, GONE WITH THE WIND, cough, cough). Yet it nearly failed to see the light of day. The story of Harriet Tubman has never before been rendered in film, which is the result of studio executives not believing in the commercial viability of a film which stars an African American woman who escaped slavery and then proceeded to alter the course of American history. In an interview with VOX, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard discusses the nearly insurmountable struggles the production faced to get the film made, explaining, “I can’t emphasize this enough—the whole industry had to change. It had to. And I’m glad it did, because I wasn’t advocating changing the industry. Other people were, and that needed to happen before Harriet got made.” Howard thought the  the screenplay of Harriet Tubman should not be written as a historical drama, but rather he saw her life as an action-adventure story. Hey, whatever it takes to get the job done, and the movie produced.

While the film lays bare the ugly, barbaric racism that comprises much of American history, it doesn’t linger on the violence integral to slavery. The African-American female director, Kasi Lemmons, explained in a REUTERS interview, “I really felt that I wanted to speak about a different kind of violence, which was family separation, which I hadn’t seen as much of but is very much the Harriet Tubman story and what she was motivated by.” Family separation was a common practice of that era and perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of slavery. Lemmons does an effective job of conveying the terror that this horrific practice instilled in its victims. The threat of being sent to new owners and separated from her husband and family is what motivated Tubman to flee to the north.  In one thrilling chase scene Tubman runs to a bridge where she must make a life or death decision: surrender to capture or risk her life by jumping over in pursuit of freedom. It’s imposssble to watch the scenes depicting the separation of Tubman’s family and not think of the humanitarian crisis on the border of the United States and the cruelty of this government sanctioned practice that is now being waged against families fleeing into the United States. Shudder. Watching these scenes, we can’t help but reflect on how quickly our government has reverted to such a horrible policy.

In the Hollywood studio system, there appears to be a growing awareness of the importance of diversity in storytelling with cinema. African-American filmmakers and screenwriters are finally, albeit gradually, being given an opportunity to tell their unique stories from fresh perspectives. African-American women are often at the forefront of these seismic social changes, both in film and in our larger American society. From Rosa Parks to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, African-American women have been leading the charge. Harriet Tubman is only one example of the heroism of African-American women who have stood up to injustice often placing themselves in great peril for the greater good.

Now we see filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes leading the way in the entertainment field, creating original films and television series that demand gender and racial parity within a studio structure previously reluctant to social change. In the cited interview, Howard notes, “I was asking the industry to change, and it wasn’t ready to change. It wasn’t ready to be diverse. It wasn’t ready to open itself up to other voices. But I didn’t know that at the time. I thought we were all on equal footing. But we weren’t.”

Here’s hoping no one will have to ask the industry to change anymore. They may have finally gotten the message. Films such as HARRIET, TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, and GET OUT are recent examples of excellent, groundbreaking films directed by African-Americans that have connected with worldwide audiences and  performed extraordinarily well at the box office. These films have also been recognized by the Academy and other professional honorary film organizations during their annual awards season. The major film studios have no excuse to ignore films that offer viewers some semblance of racial and gender diversity that accurately reflect the world at large.




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