Who’s Afraid of Harriet Tubman?

This piece contains spoilers for the film Harriet.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. (Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

There is a powerful scene in the new movie Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo and directed by Kasi Lemmons of Eve’s Bayou fame, based on an actual event.

Harriet Tubman, formerly Araminta Ross, is leading a band of fugitives after suffering heartbreak upon returning to find the husband she left behind had remarried. She falls into one of her “sleeping spells”—based on epileptic seizures from which she suffers, due to a violent head injury she endured in adolescence from an overseer—and receives a vision on which way to head north. She leads the group to a menacing body of water in the night, and one of her two brothers she is rescuing decides that, based on such an obstacle, Harriet doesn’t know what she’s doing, and the group should instead follow his lead. 

Because Harriet trusts her visions as signs from God guiding her way, she boldly “wades in the water” and tests its depths, making it clear across the other side. It’s not long before the eldest woman of the group, who eagerly joined the fugitives seeing that Harriet had already made it to freedom, places her trust in Harriet Tubman and walks across the water to follow her lead. The rest follow, and it is after they all make it safely across that Harriet sharply asserts her authority over the group. It is she that everyone will follow, and even her dissenting brother acquiesces.  

This real-life incident is perhaps the biggest metaphor for the constant challenges to black women’s leadership and authority. In the words of black feminist Loretta Ross: “Trust Black Women.” Given that Harriet over-performed at the box office its opening weekend—just like the real Harriet Tubman was consistently underestimated at every turn, including winning the popular vote in a campaign to get a woman on the $20—perhaps more of us are starting to “trust the black women” who tell her story.

Still, the words “trust black women” are worth reiterating again and again, especially in the wake of a smear campaign against the film, which has been relentless since last year’s casting news of Nigerian, British-born actress Erivo in the leading role. Ignoring that Harriet is produced by an African American woman, Debra Chase Martin; directed by an African American woman, Kasi Lemmons; and co-written by Lemmons and an African American man, Gregory Allen Howard; the film’s dissenters have created a conspiracy theory in which “Hollywood” is undermining African American talent with “outside” black artists.

Perhaps that sounded too xenophobic, so they amped up the complaints by digging up out-of-context, six-year-old tweets from Erivo that suggested her “anti-African American” sentiments, a subject Erivo herself has addressed.  If that weren’t enough, the next level of the smear campaign revealed that Comcast, which owns the Focus Features studio releasing the film—plus additional media companies and platforms, including some of our very cable providers that give us access to social media on which we freely mount our information and disinformation—is in partnership with the Trump administration to chip away at civil rights protections.

This latter news did not lead to a widespread boycott of some cable providers, since we’re still using the Internet, nor did it lead to boycotts of Xfinity games and various movies and TV shows—but it did lead one New Jersey chapter of the NAACP to cancel a planned screening of Harriet, the one movie highlighting a heroic black woman that is being made to pay for the sins of a major multimedia corporation. 

Perhaps the most insidious of the smear campaign involved dissenters deliberately spoiling the movie’s ending, during the film’s opening weekend, suggesting that the story was a “white savior” narrative in which the main villain is actually a black bounty hunter and the great and fearless Harriet Tubman “forgave” her former white enslaver who had “rescued” her. This is an outright lie, and is nothing like what was actually shown in the film. Anyone who may have seen and thus interpreted such a narrative may well be suffering from deep-seated conditioning of endless metanarratives of white saviors and helpless black victims that have misshapen their gaze, so much so that their blurred vision prevented them from witnessing a true legend who boldly stood up to the forces of oppression and claimed her right to own herself.

In the film, Harriet Tubman does not forgive; she curses. She doesn’t return to slavery—the only reason her former enslaver wanted her captured alive. She instead maims him, steals his horse and rides off on that white horse into the sunset like the boss she is. She doesn’t even flee, because she no longer has to fear the man who tried but failed to own her outright. She had claimed herself in freedom since running away, 170 years ago in the autumn of 1849, and there is only one Black Savior in this movie, working within a network of allies—both black and white—rescuing those who sought to escape the hellish institution of chattel slavery.  

The disinformation about the casting, distribution and story itself left me wondering: Why are so many afraid of Harriet Tubman and her story? What could a story about a fearless and faith-driven disabled black woman who liberated herself from the pernicious jaws of chattel slavery and then returned 13 times to free more of her people before offering her services during the Civil War to help abolish slavery from this nation—freeing 750 slaves for her part in leading a military raid with black soldiers in the Combahee River Raid, the first woman in U.S. history to do so—what could that story do for so many of us who feel powerless in our current era of misinformation overload and rising white supremacy and misogyny? 

We know the power of media, hence the manufactured fear around a movie like Joker, for example, a film that centers on the mental decline of a white man and which spawned dozens of memes and Instagram pictures of movie fans mimicking his famous dance. Joker, like other films released this fall—from Ad Astra to Hustlers—reduces black women in marginal roles, as either “helpers” or “diversity” tokens, and the other film, Black and Blue, starring another black woman—Naomi Harris—has turned even that protagonist into a victim facing relentless attacks before turning the tables on her enemies. Harriet really is the first film this season in which we get a black heroine who transcends victimization and rises to the occasion to claim her superhero status. 

It makes a difference to have a black woman behind the camera in telling this story. Lemmons makes certain choices stemming from a black feminist sensibility and the wherewithal that she is telling a “freedom story,” as she told Ms. in an interview with me in March, and not just “another slavery movie.”

The opening shot of Harriet features a hazy natural landscape before panning to a row of slave cabins. We see Araminta—before she becomes Harriet—blending into the landscape and away from the cabins, already indicating how she is not someone who is ever confined, as she experiences one of her sleeping spells. Traumatized by the memory of the sale of two of her sisters, she wakes up to the face of her beloved husband John Tubman (played by Zackary Momoh), someone who is already free and whose status she seeks to share.

Here, Lemmons grounds the mythical legend into a fully fleshed out woman with traumas, passions and a disability that she interprets through the lens of spirituality. Harriet believes her “sleeping spells” allow God’s voice to speak more clearly to her, and Lemmons demonstrates through the authority she gives these visions—her auteur-style developed since Eve’s Bayou—the truth of this gift. In the role, Erivo embodies Araminta/Harriet as both ordinary and extraordinary black woman, both ultimate “strong black woman” and vulnerable disabled black woman. 

Before Araminta runs off, she first seeks her freedom through legal means, which is roundly rejected by her enslaver. Not long after, Araminta is on her hands and knees praying for his demise, which soon follows, hence reminding us that her faith is a powerful weapon. She also makes the decision to leave her husband behind—thinking that his running off with her would compromise his own freedom—and so begins her fearless journey on the Underground Railroad, enlisting the help of a trickster figure, Reverend Green (played by Lemmons’s husband Vondie Curtis-Hall), who preaches enslaved obedience in the eyes of white enslavers, while stealthily hiding enslaved fugitives in his church. Elements of the Underground Railroad story are shown—from following the North Star to stowing away in wagons driven by white abolitionists and boats run by Blackjacks, free black men who engaged in the lumber trade along the Eastern Shore, to finally “crossing that line” to freedom in Pennsylvania, where Harriet meets famed William Still (played compassionately by Leslie Odom, Jr. of Hamilton fame), “stationmaster” who records her story along with the stories of other fugitives.

The film does make some narrative choices with which I didn’t always agree, and certain scenes and characters needed further fleshing out. I would have loved an actual Civil War battle scene concerning the Combahee River Raid. I was particularly taken aback by the violence visited upon Marie Buchanan (played by a radiant Janelle Monae), a fictional character serving as a stand-in for free black womanhood—one who specifically runs a boarding house in Philadelphia. Her presence nonetheless is important in making visible the kind of privileged free black woman from a 19th century context that we rarely see onscreen, and her friendship with Harriet in freedom illustrated a nuanced portrayal between black women on different sides of the slavery / freedom divide. 

The treatment of compositely-sketched characters of course brings us to another fictional character based on those few black slave-catchers who worked alongside their enslaver-oppressors to capture fugitive slaves, played with particular relish by Omar Dorsey, more known for his role as Hollywood on Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar on OWN and who outperforms Joe Alwyn, who portrays Harriet’s former enslaver, Gideon Brodess, another fictional character whose villainy fails to live up to Michael Fassbender’s chilling Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave. This black villain has ascended in the eyes of some viewers as the “true” villain, in comparison to Gideon. Perhaps this is due to Dorsey’s scene-stealing turn as Bigger Long, who exhibits violence against black women and whose transgressions are undercut by the white enslaver whom he “disobeys” when attempting to murder Harriet rather than capture her alive.

But make no mistake: it is Gideon, Harriet’s former enslaver, not Bigger Long, who is her main antagonist. This is no Django Unchained, where Django fights alongside his “white savior,” nor is this the brilliantly filmed but nonetheless torture-porn-filled 12 Years a Slave, with its violent spectacles. Lemmons has come to “heal our imperialized eyes,” to quote Toni Cade Bambara, in which we get no arbitrary whipping scenes tearing at black flesh nor relentless rapes shown in movies like Sankofa and The Birth of a Nation. The scarred bodies of the enslaved fugitives—including Harriet’s—tell their own stories, and we see this as Still diligently records their narratives in what would become his famous publication, The Underground Railroad.

The interweaving of both fictional characters alongside historical figures deepens the story and reminds us of the daring choices some of our enslaved ancestors made. For every Bigger Long, there is Walter (played by Lemmons’s son Henry Hunter Hall), another black slave-catcher who switches sides to join in Harriet’s mission once he witnesses her greatness. For every heroic Harriet Tubman, there is also her sister Rachel, who refused to let her sister rescue her, so afraid was she of the power of her enslavers. There is a lesson to be learned here, not just because Harriet’s 91 years of life is an entire sermon, but because of how these struggles of the past mirror our own. 

Those who cannot imagine a Bigger Long existed must have forgotten we have a Clarence Thomas working diligently today to dismantle African Americans’ Civil Rights as he sits on a seat of the U.S. Supreme Court, enabled by a nation that failed to “trust black women” like Anita Hill. And there are too many black women, even now, who will look at fellow black women—like Kasi Lemmons, Debra Martin Chase and even foreign-born Cynthia Erivo—and fail to trust their vision, just as poor Rachel didn’t “trust black women” like her sister to help her get free. 

Fear kept Rachel enchained to slavery, while fearlessness propelled Harriet forward to freedom. May we all emulate the same fearlessness Harriet Tubman possessed as we continue to witness and learn from her story. 

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.