I was excited to get the opportunity to watch the movie “Harriet” for my Black History Month Project, it was released November 1, 2019, and was beautifully directed by Kasi Lemmons. The movie was shot in Richmond Virginia starring Cynthia Ervio as Harriet Tubman, Janelle Monáe ad Marie Buchanan, Joe Alwyn ad Gideon Brodess, and Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still. The movie itself shows Harriet Tubman’s life. According to our textbook “ Freedom on My Mind” by Deborah Gray White, Araminta “Minty” Ross, who later renamed herself as Harriet Tubman, was born in Dorchester County, Maryland 1820. She got in trouble stealing sugar and tried to flee her mistress. Since that day she was beaten mercilessly for minor things like if the baby, who she tended, cried she would get beat. One day she hid from her mistress to avoid a beating. This resulted in her hiding amongst the pigs for 5 days and competing with them for scraps of food. Two decades later she escaped permanently making her a truant slave. With her escape, she managed to help numerous enslaved individuals find their way to freedom, even a lot of her family members. This film reveals the Hollywood portrayal of the enslaved. Hollywood’s version of the enslaved is proven to have many inaccuracies which reflects the lack of sincerity if African American History. This negatively impacts our learning of African American History because we look to movies along with books and articles for education. The fact that movies are inaccurately telling the stories of the enslaved can affect people’s perception of Harriet Tubman’s Story which, in result, will cause different perceptions about Harriet Tubman’s experience and lifestyle. Although this invigorating movie kept me on my toes, there were several historical inaccuracies throughout the movie that did not pertain to Harriet Tubman’s realities.
The movie has several minor inaccuracies shown at the beginning of the movie. For the most part, the beginning is mostly true except for a few fictional scenes. The scene where John Tubman shows Mr. Brodess the proof of freedom for Minty’s Mom which also calls for the freedom of her children is historically inaccurate. According to USA Today, Minty and her siblings were to be set free when they turned 45, not at the same time as her mother. One controversial inaccuracy would be when Minty has her spells. Minty believes these visions to be a message from God but in reality, she just suffered from “narcolepsy” (Washington Post). Many people who are believers in God believe these visions to be a message from God; however, others believe that due to her head injury she suffered from Narcolepsy which caused her to have these “visions”. Although medical professionals claimed that she was battling Narcolepsy, according to Harriet Tubman, this was her pathway to God. Harriet Tubman herself has defined her spells as messages from God whereas medical professionals believe otherwise.
Toward the middle of the movie, you start to see major inaccuracies throughout the movie. I will start with the character Marie Buchanan. Marie is a fictional character in the movie and her role in helping out Harriet and William is not what happened in real life. Her character is an inaccuracy throughout the film but is shown in a positive aspect. Marie is a free black woman who owns her own property showing the positive outcomes of being a free black woman at the time. She was actively involved with helping the underground railroad by providing a place to stay for incoming slaves fleeing to freedom. Unfortunately, she died in the arms of Bigger Long trying to protect Harriet from getting found by her previous slave owner, Gideon. She played a vital role in the movie as she served as a mentor and friend to Harriet throughout her transition.
Abraham (also known as Bigger Long), the black slave catcher, is another fictional character in the movie. Unlike Marie Buchanan, Bigger Long can be seen as a negative inaccurate character. In this period of time, few records were indicating the presence of black slave catchers. He is seen as a negative inaccurate character because he is portrayed as a selfish character. He turns his back on his people to help the white folk catch their slaves. This leaves the general viewer with the sense that slavery had little to do with race, yet it had a lot to do with your status within society. Bigger Long portrays this by indicating he is a free slave and even asking white men for payment to help them catch their slaves. He establishes the same culpability as a white man by co-operating alongside Gideon to catch Harriet and the other missing slaves. He is portrayed in the movie to comfort white people in the audience easing their mind by having them think they were not the only ones to treat African Americans poorly.
In the year 1850, The Fugitive Slave Act was passed, according to our textbook Freedom on My Mind the Fugitive Slave Act made it “easier for fugitive slaves to be captured and returned to their owners by strengthening federal authority over the capture and return of runaway slaves.” In the movie, Harriet and several other freed slaves head to Canada to resist the threat of the Fugitive Slave Act. Living in Canada, Harriet has a spell in which she sees her father in danger. She decides to, yet again, travel back to the South. She is able to meet with her father and is told that he is about to get arrested for helping slaves escape. She rounds up the remaining of her family members and more and heads North. During her journey, Gideon and Bigger long were in pursuit of Harriet. Noticing this, Harriet sacrifices herself and leads Gideon and Bigger Long the wrong direction as the others escape. Gideon shoots Bigger Long for trying to kill Harriet. As Gideon spares Harriet Tubman’s life he emerges as a better person than the slave catcher with this act of sparing her life, whereas Bigger Long turns against his own people by helping white men hunt for their slaves sparing no black person who gets in his way. Harriet shoots Gideon in the hand and has him on his knees at gunpoint. She tells him that she will spare him today as he “will die on the battlefield of the Civil War” and rides off on his horse.
So the question is, why were these false characters added in the movie about Harriet Tubman? Unfortunately Hollywood is to blame. According to the scholarly article “Slavery, Hollywood, and Public Discourse” it clearly states, “For the most part, films have represented the period of enslavement in a manner that reflected society’s comfort level with the issue at the time.” These inaccurate representations of black history and black individuals, in general, have been prominent throughout US history since movies were made. Back in 1915 Director D.W. Griffiths silent drama, “Birth of a Nation”, showed African Americans happy as slaves. The actors playing African Americans were white actors in blackface; however, the reasoning behind this is because white people would never have been able to grasp the concept of African American people being actors/actresses. Movies back then influenced the way people think so for “Birth of a Nation” to show the enslaved being happy with being owned allowed white folks to have peace of mind in what they are doing. More than two decades passed where there was little change of African American portrayal in movies. In 1939 “Gone with the Wind” was released once again showing the enslaved as happy, loyal, and a depiction of how America’s segregated society was perfect. Movies in America have come close to the reality of the lives of the enslaved but still fails to show the full truth. Harriet is the prime example of Hollywood’s depiction of the enslaved. In the movie, they added new characters to make the movie more modern.
Films like Harriet are valuable in today’s society. Although there were several historical inaccuracies and negative messages expressed about black people and their experiences with race and racial inequality the movie changed people’s perception of their relationship to racial inequality. By using false characters throughout the movie the audience understood racial oppression better by having it shown to them in a detailed and softened way attracting and pleasing the audience. Overall, I thought the movie was interesting as the inaccurate characters played negative and positive roles which ultimately impacted the story heavily.
Hampton, Rachelle. “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Harriet.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 31 Oct. 2019, slate.com/culture/2019/10/harriet-movie-historical-accuracy-fact-fiction.html.
“Harriet.” TEACH WITH MOVIES, teachwithmovies.org/harriet/#unique-identifiere.
Mandell, Andrea. “’Harriet’ Fact-Check: How Accurate Is the New Movie about Harriet Tubman?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 4 Nov. 2019, www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2019/10/30/harriet-tubman-fact-checking-new-movie/2502104001/.
“Slavery, Hollywood, and Public Discourse.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 8 Feb. 2018, nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/slavery-hollywood-and-public-discourse.
Swanson, Ana. “You Have No Idea How Hardcore Harriet Tubman Really Was.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Apr. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/21/the-audacious-career-of-harriet-tubman-the-new-face-of-the-20-bill/.
Vincenty, Samantha. “Harriet Tubman Really Did Have Visions.” Oprah Magazine, Oprah Magazine, 2 Nov. 2019, www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/tv-movies/a29664794/harriet-tubman-visions-movie/.