On Harriet The Movie
I did not care for the movie Harriet, and surprisingly, for reasons I did not see articulated in the comments of many on Facebook or Black Twitter. The majority of criticisms I saw on the movie were hot takes on a supposed “white savior” who saves Harriet’s life in the movie, and the creation of a fictional black male slave hunter to pose as another villain. I will comment on those as well, but as for me, I disliked this movie (pretty intently) for a few reasons:
1. Just Bad Film-making
When you can predict every character motivation, all the dialogue, and all the points of tension in a movie, that is usually a bad sign. Film is an incredible medium, and you can tell stories in such visually sumptuous ways, that I struggle to understand why some filmmakers trod through scenes like they are checking off a to-do list. This movie is written like a low budget History Channel docudrama, instead of a story concerned with deeply exploring the character of Harriet Tubman and her experiences. The movie starts with Harriet, fully grown, lying in the field and daydreaming, before her husband awakens her, and the (hackneyed and surface) plot is already rolling forward by the time we hit the 5 min mark. I was asking myself throughout the movie “What are Harriet’s personality traits?” and I struggled to find an answer. The dialogue, the plot points the film chose to highlight, the scene transitions, the cinematography, the music, etc, were all year one film school stuff, and given the talent of this director, are surprising and disappointing. Some examples of trite story telling (do scenes like this sound familiar?):
A. Protagonist is in a crowd in the back, listening to people arguing about how to overcome a barrier in the plot. Protagonist moves to the center of the room and gives an impassioned speech about everyone needing to follow their plan and doing the right thing. Everyone instantly agrees even though they were torn moments ago, character receives applause/standing ovation.
B. Usually during the final conflict between the protagonist and villain, the villain is insulting the character by calling them out of their name in some way, usually a nickname, childhood name, their civilian name, or something that rejects the chosen identity of the protagonist in some fundamental way, after the protagonist has self-actualized into their new identity. The protagonist attacks the villain and says something like “My name is __________” , or “I am _________” in a moment of triumph and defiance.
C. A character, during a tense group moment, says something that appears to escalate the situation and will lead to a confrontation, only laugh it off a moment later as a joke, causing the whole group to laugh.
All of these scenes happen in Harriet and have been done to death.
2. No Character Development
Characters trudge from plot point to plot point, and dialogue is often relegated to explaining where we are in the story and what the next move is. No one seems to spend any time sitting with the fear, anxiety, rage, trauma, etc, around Harriet’s extraordinary journey, or the journey of other slaves who have had to reconcile themselves with either death or the potential of freedom as a fugitive slave. Other than a scene where Harriot feels betrayed by her husband, a scene I would have cut from the movie as it adds next to nothing to Harriet’s character development, I recall no scenes featuring a contemplative Harriet, scenes of her sitting with the gravity of decisions, mourning losses, struggling to determine her path, etc. Harriet has 2 main emotions in the film: the first half she has a near constant look of uncertainty, fear, and disorientation, and in the second half, she is suddenly empowered, confident, and convinced she can free her family and any other slaves she comes across, with little character-building scenes to demonstrate this transition or where her confidence to do this comes from. Harriet talks about how she persevered in the woods, couldn’t find food to eat for days, and traveled hundreds of miles to freedom by herself, so no one can tell her what she can and can’t do. That’s great, but why are we hearing about this through dialogue, instead of SEEING IT ON SCREEN? We only got a few scenes of Harriet coming out of water after jumping in to avoid capture, then talking to a few Underground Railroad conductors, and suddenly she is free. Why skip over all of these opportunities to explore her character and motivations?
Perhaps the biggest insult of the film, was that some of the most powerful and impactful parts of her story, like her work as a spy, the Combahee River raid commanding Union soldiers and other similar missions, her terrible treatment by the US government after years of service, were relegated to the footnotes of the movie at the end. Imagine a movie that started its introduction to Harriet Tubman with her in her military garb, staring down dozens of slave owners, dodging gun fire, as 700 freed slaves escape onto ships under her command, and we the audience are asked to take a journey to understand this badass woman and how she got here.
The main villain of this story, the family patriarch and slave owner after the death of his father, is acted and portrayed like a 80s movie dead-eyed scoundrel with nothing to discuss other than the people he hates. Hollywood loves to write these characters: a frothing at the mouth racist whose facial expressions, dialogue, and entire existence in the movie are only designed to serve the narrative that he is a racist and is bad. Portrayals like these are part of why the average white person cannot fathom that they are capable of racism, because very few people mirror this caricature of interpersonal racism. One note villains like this do not advance the dialogue of how racist systems operate, or reveal the perverse and often contradictory ways interpersonal racism shows up. Wouldn’t it be powerful to show the patronizing affection that sometimes accompanied racist institutions like slavery? How black slaves were treated from anything like pets, to confidantes, to collectors’ items, to prized chattel, etc depending on the day? Or maybe how these racist, cruel slave owners behaved with their families and friends, displaying a tenderness and kindness for those they saw as human versus those they did not. That is a part of what is so egregious about racism after all: that people CHOOSE it, CHOOSE cruelty and dehumanization, when we can clearly see they are capable of warmth and love. If you are a white filmgoer seeing a movie about racism, and you do NOT see yourself anywhere in the racist villain on-screen, then that is more than likely a failure, a missed opportunity for white audiences to question themselves and their roles in present day racist institutions.
3. Confused Themes on Christianity
If this film had wanted to say something interesting about the role Christianity played in both the oppression of enslaved people, and in motivating anti-slavery activism and rebellion in people like Harriet Tubman, then that would have been far more interesting than what the movie chose to do regarding Harriet’s religiosity. There is a good scene at the beginning showing a black preacher teaching the gospel of submission and how enslaved people should obey their masters, a real job that preachers had during these times, but we get no further juxtaposition of Christianity to the enslaved versus the slave owner, for the remainder of the film. Harriet is devoutly Christian in the movie, as she was in real life, and we are shown how she gets “visions” directly from God, shown in starkly literal fashion like a film reel is playing in her head, and that are guiding her pathway. Rather than put some emphasis on Harriet’s skills as a woman who grew up navigating the wilderness, or how enslaved black communities taught each other essential survival skills, we are instead given scene after scene to suggest that Harriot succeeded in her endeavors because of a mystical and unique connection with God, and has a Spiderman like ability to sense what to do next. This portrayal of POC as having a special connection to spiritual forces is an ancient trope. Many horror movies, for example, will have a POC character, usually a woman, offer spiritual warning to white protagonists, or will be the ones to guide them through special rituals to speak to the dead or attack an evil spirit. This trope and some variations on it are often called the “Magical Negro” trope. These types of portrayals function to downplay the tenacity, the brilliance, and the courage people like Harriet Tubman MUST have possessed in order to take action against a legal, social, and political system out to subjugate and destroy black people, and instead anchors their success up to forces outside of themselves. If you want to see a movie do prophetic visions better, look no further than this Director’s other, better film, Eve’s Bayou, which has two main black female characters whom receive visions, and is shown in a much more engaging way.
4. Other Issues
White Savior? There is no white savior in the film. Th film bends over backwards with dialogue (the whole pig speech at the beginning of the movie by the villain, his dialogue with other characters about Harriet, etc), to demonstrate that the villain of the movie views Harriet as expensive property that he has some vague fondness for, but that again, is only ever said in dialogue rather than shown on screen. It is made abundantly clear that he shoots the black bounty hunter not the save Harriet, but because the bounty hunter disobeyed his direct command to bring in Harriot alive. This is the ONLY scene, other than one featuring a white man apart of the Underground railroad, that one could construe as white saviorism.
Portrayal of Black Men? I imagine this is what many people complaining about a white savior were actually frustrated about. There are 4 black male characters of note in the movie: Harriet’s husband, who is only in the first half of the film, and whose presence ends after he marries another woman following Harriet’s escape, an abolitionist she meets shortly after reaching Philadelphia, and 2 black male slave catchers, one of which becomes an all. There are very few scenes of violence in the movie, but the most prominent one features the black slave catcher beating a free black woman when he is looking for Harriet. These choices are confusing, in a movie ostensibly about navigating anti-blackness and slavery. When the opportunity arrives for violence against our main villain, something many hero movies revel in, Harriet “takes the high road” and does not harm her former master and slave-owner. This feels like a cop out to be honest, even as someone not looking for more violence in movies, given how the narrative played out. It is painted as a heroic moment of morality winning over anger, but it comes across as a tone deaf, and again trite, scene.
5. What I Want:
What do I wish Hollywood would get right about movies like this? We first, white audiences need to have their perceptions of racism, and who is and is not a racist, challenged, constantly. They need to be able to see themselves in these horrific systems, because the same mechanisms that created slavery are operating today, and the majority of the white population in the US happily participates in them with an uncritical eye. A stereotypical, angry white guy villain who can’t sleep or eat without spewing racist garbage isn’t going to do that, and continues to paint racists as those who are intentionally mean, rather than people who participate in a system that marginalizes POC and have absorbed its ideologies. I am also kinda done with slave movies and movies about segregation. I want more movies about black people in the future, about black achievement. I want very human and universal problems told through the black diaspora and I want black identity, community, and history to show up in how black characters are written and how they navigate the world. I want powerful, impactful, vulnerable, fragile, complex, daring, loving, gorgeous characters that help us explore the human condition, to be black more frequently in film and television than they are now.
There are some excellent examples (Into the Spiderverse, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther, This is Us, etc), but unfortunately, Harriet was not one of them.