It was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a decade. Finally, after six weeks or so of anticipation, the Thanksgiving break provided an opportunity to visit a movie theater to see Harriet, a biographical film about the life and work of Harriet Tubman. Though I’m not a movie critic by any stretch of the imagination, when I watch a historical drama such as this, it’s the content, the setting, context and story that captivates my interest.
I’ve read a couple of biographies about Harriet Tubman, so the story line was familiar. Of course, it’s a movie and the screen writing did indeed take some liberties with the creation of the character and the story, though I didn’t think the intention of doing it was to make the movie “more exciting” as much as it was to simply characterize the whole story by a more intense focus on possible events in order to give an accurate perception of the context within the limits and time constraints of a movie. From a historical perspective, the movie was impeccably accurate and did an excellent job in its portrayal of the characters, especially Tubman. As far as portraying the reality of slave life in America at the time, no movie that did an accurate job of that could achieve a PG rating.
Born Araminta Harriet Ross sometime between 1820 and 1825 in Dorchester County in the slave-owning area of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she was injured in an accident in which she was hit in the head by a weight thrown by a slave owner intended for someone else. It affected her for the rest of her life and made her prone to fainting spells. She connected these semi-conscious episodes to visions from God. Surprisingly, the movie story line does as well, not altering the perception she had that during the times when she was experiencing one of the episodes related to the injury, God would give her visions. I did not detect a hint of skepticism in the portrayal of Tubman’s character when it came to her faith in God or her belief that he spoke to her and gave her visions which alerted her to danger or directed her during her expeditions as she helped slaves escape.
Her connection to God is seen early in the movie as she is found by the son of her master in a place in the woods where she had gone to pray for God to take the master’s life because he refused to honor a family agreement made by his mother to set Harriet’s mother and children free at her death. She is overheard by the master’s son, who mocks her and her prayer, but shortly afterward, the master does indeed drop dead, leaving the farm in the hands of his wife, Eliza Brodess, and their son. It is his death and the subsequent need of the Brodess family to raise money by selling off some of their slaves that prompts Harriet to plan her escape. The depth of her faith is seen in her remorse over the words of her previous prayer, but that whole episode does contribute to the perspective that she has a powerful connection to God. I was left feeling that her prayer was not wrong and that God executed his judgement on her behalf as well as that of her mother’s family for the master’s failure to honor his agreement.
It would be difficult to argue against the idea that God was with her and that the visions she had when she was having one of her fainting episodes was the way he chose to reveal himself to her. The connection is clear between her dependence on those visions and the fact that her initial escape was successful, as was every other escape she led. As the character of William Still, the Underground Railroad conductor and chairman of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Committee said, “You are a miracle.” Even with her disability Tubman, a young, female slave, managed to escape from the farm in Maryland where she was enslaved and made it to freedom in Philadelphia. She had the help of the “Underground Railroad” network that included freed blacks in Maryland and Delaware, the Quaker community and others committed to helping slaves escape to freedom and she followed their instructions implicitly. But during the times when she faced danger or was uncertain about which way to go, she relied on visions and directions from God and the movie affirms their accuracy. Not only was that true of her own escape route, almost 100 miles from Bucktown, Maryland to Philadelphia, but also of every trip she made back to the Eastern Shore to help slaves escape, more than 70 in all. None of those she led were ever captured while she was “conducting” their escape route, nor was she ever caught. I believe that is a clear sign that God’s hand was on her.
Within the portrayal of her role in the Underground Railroad and through the characters with whom she interacts, there is plenty of support for the thought that she was called by God to her life work. What she did was extraordinary and remarkable, requiring intellect, physical strength and emotional stability beyond the normal limits of human existence. In her case, she also had to endure the discrimination and disrespect that came with being African American in an age when there weren’t very many people even among the white “progressives” who didn’t see that as a disadvantage. She was also a woman in a time when that, too, presented a major disadvantage. Yet she accomplished more than most men of her day were able to do. In spite of all that she did, including her leadership during the Civil War, her fellow abolitionists continuously had to fight to secure a modest pension and benefits from a government she had helped far more than they could measure in dollars.
I don’t believe there’s a Caucasian person in this country who has any idea, when they encounter any part of their history that involves slavery, of how to handle that. There is no way that any of us who are not African American have any point of reference to understand the depth of feelings that go with being a member of a minority race that was once enslaved because those who enslaved them believed themselves superior to them racially, intellectually and socially. Even lacking that depth of understanding, there were scenes in this movie that had my blood boiling. The widowed slave owner and her son calculating the monetary value of each of their remaining slaves and basing their decisions to split families, including children, because they needed money to save their farm, was a particularly nasty scene. That particular aspect of this film showed a very ugly side of American history. If that’s the way it was, and more than likely it was far worse, it’s no wonder the country wasn’t prospering. What in the world was it that prompted Congress to allow this disgusting mess to invade the North under the Fugitive Slave Act? What a shameful chapter of this country’s history, a stain that won’t go away.
The historical elements of this film are accurate. There is a little bit of “Hollywood license” in some of the scenes that are not part of the biography, including her jump off the bridge into the river and her encounter with a slave catcher, who happens to be a free black man, and the son of her former master on her return trip to lead her own parents to freedom. Tubman has a premonition sensing danger, sends the group on the riverboat to safety and stays behind to distract the slave catcher. There are several intense dialogues between Tubman and the son of her former master which, from my perspective at least, are used to illustrate a “good vs. evil” conflict in a very subtle way. He represents the whole constituency of slave-owners whose financial stability is completely dependent on the work done by their slaves. He struggles with the idea of being more merciful and humane but weighs his own benefits against it and always retreats into selfishness. She is strengthened and motivated by her ability to out-wit him by her repeated success in returning to Maryland and leading slaves off his farm to freedom, directly confronting him with the idea that God is, indeed, on her side and does, indeed listen to her, a fact that he reluctantly acknowledges. During their confrontation in the woods, the slave catcher is killed, Harriet reloads her pistol and directly confronts her former master’s son, forcing him to drop his rifle. She shoots him in the hand, forcing him off his horse and down to his knees where she lets him know, in no uncertain terms, exactly how evil she thinks he is. She finishes the conversation, picks up his rifle, climbs on his horse and leaves him there in the woods.
That particular scene is likely not historical, though it is an accurate representation of what it was like for slaves to escape. But it is probably the most powerful illustration in the entire movie of the belief that good, and by extension God, was on the side of Harriet Tubman and the idea of abolition of slavery and not on the side of the slave owners.
Slavery was evil. Engaging in it requires the complete abandonment of God’s order of creation and straight up denial of the truth of his word. If you still believe that Confederate monuments and the flag are “just part of our history” then you need to watch more movies like this and get familiar with the ugliness and wretchedness of the sin that was slavery and see why the Confederacy had to be defeated. There was no honor or glory in it. The Confederacy stood for a society and culture that weighed the value of one race over another and calculated its value in terms of the labor it produced and the value that it added to the bank accounts of the other. It’s constitution and most of its leaders claimed a belief in the superiority of the white race over African Americans and treated the latter worse than their own cattle or other animals. It proclaimed this twisted, evil racial philosophy in its constitution and it was preached by its leaders. It was also preached by many of the ministers who stood in its pulpits.
Rather than commemorating its existence, the things we see should remind us of how warped and twisted it was, leading us to a commitment to be better. The Confederacy shouldn’t be memorialized, it should be remembered for the evil for which it stood. And we shouldn’t have monuments to its leaders, but memorials to those who suffered from its evil, along with those who continued to suffer in its long wake.
I believe that people are called by God and equipped for whatever he calls them to do. Harriet Tubman is an example of that kind of calling. She was a minister of the gospel in every sense of the word and his presence was with her. This movie should be part of an entire unit of study in every American history class in this country.