Quick review: 5. Stars. If you are looking for a super informative documentary about all the vignettes that make up the story of Harriet Tubman’s life, this is not it. If you are looking for a graphically accurate portrayal of slavery in the United States pre-civil war, then you probably want Twelve Years A Slave. This is a dramatized (though not excessively) true to her own experience narrative about a woman that history should never, ever forget. I look forward to seeing her face on my $20. Go see it. Make your kids over the age of 12 go see it. Everyone should.
Longer review: I’m not really sure what else I can say other than this is one of the most nuanced depictions of the Antebellum South I’ve seen, maybe ever. Harriet’s humanity is as much a character in this film as anyone else. (I then I go on to say a ton of other stuff. We are not surprised.)
Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Minty turned Harriet is every bit as nuanced as the film itself. She spans the gamut of human emotion, from the radiant delight of crossing into freedom on her own two feet to anger at those who continued a scheme of legalized violence to her somber determination and her emotional connection to the Divine. The film, though as adamant of Harriet’s unique character as anything else, never paints Harriet as a one woman show. She always has help, either from realms unseen or other good people doing what they can to make a wrong world right. The story of William Still was not one I was well aware of, though I knew the name. He’ll be going on my ever growing list of people and ideas to do a deep dive of research on.
I guess this isn’t super noteworthy, but I was surprised by the number of things I was surprised by. I can’t stand in anyone else’s identity, but I try to be aware of the perspectives that differ from my own. And I have always had a profound respect for those that show courage in the face evil. As a child my mother couldn’t understand why I wanted the American Girl doll Addy and not one of the other dolls. “Don’t you wan tone that looks like you?” I saw in Addy everything I wanted to be: brave, strong, smart, and quick. I didn’t want to be her (no Rachel Dolzal-ing here), but I wanted to be like her. And thus Harriet’s story is one I thought I knew pretty well. I am grateful for the exposure to things I didn’t know I didn’t know.
One of the things that never really occurred to me before in my forays into the horrors of chattel slavery in the American South was the affect it had on families. I don’t mean the tearing apart of family members from each other to be sold away: babies from mothers, siblings from siblings, and spouses from each other. That is well documented, and one the ever present fears of those who lives were not their own. What never occurred to me was that when such separations took place, as a means of staying sane and connected many adults simply took new spouses. Harriet’s discovery that her husband, John Tubman (played by Zackary Momoh) a free man in Maryland, had remarried devastates her. She discovers similar choices among her own family, sister’s-in-law taking new partners after their husband’s escaped under Harriet’s help. And she is enjoined y her sister not to judge those that choose to move on rather than cling to a relationship that may never be renewed. You can see the memory of her own hurt warring on face against the truth she herself has lived; in such conditions you do what you can to survive.
The other notion I found myself pondering after the film was, “How depraved or dead inside would you have to be, to be black in the Antebellum south and help track down runaway slaves?” It’s the same question I ask of the Jews who took up overseer positions in the Nazi camps, the North Koreans who continue to inform on one another to a tyrannical government (though there’s all manner of mass indoctrination there), and Native Americans of varying tribes who aided colonial forces as they killed each other.
I understand intellectually that in times of chaotic change and systematic oppression we all do what we can to stay afloat, and we can never say who would look at our own life and declare us a traitor to some ideology.
I get that.
What I wonder at is the inner life of the person willing to hurt their own people for gain and comfort. How does a person wake up to themselves every day with the knowledge that they are the monster of their own children’s nightmares? What mental gymnastics or emotional aversions have to take place so that you can perpetrate not just atrocity (because all the studies show that if the group says the “us” needs to oppress the “them” humans will fall for self preservation as justification every time), but atrocity upon yourself? I suppose it’s different for each person. And I have no answers. I simply shake my head and wonder.
Another “win” for the film is that Harriet’s triumph is not in the tally she made of lives brought North (though let’s not dismiss the impact she had on each and every life saved and their posterity), but in her refusal to become complacent. Harriet rejected her own freedom and even her family’s freedom as her end goal. She would not rest. She would not stop. And her delicious, “Oh, snap!” moment of telling Fredrick Douglas he had gotten too “important” and therefore forgotten what was happening at that moment to their fellow human beings nearly had me on my feet shouting, “Amen!!”
Last words, as a person of faith, I was so grateful that the movie didn’t try to pull Harriet apart from her faith. The secularists point to her brain injury as causing “spells.” Some her episodes could likely be ascribed to said injury, but Harriet had a profound and personal relationship with her maker that more than once saved her life and the lives of others. To chalk all of her success up to a combination of personality, work, and coincidence is to deny what Harriet herself believed. God was more than an idea, God was her friend and personal guide.
Not unlike Jojo Rabbit of last week, this film leaves us asking, “In a world gone mad, built upon brutality, what can I do to stem the tide?” The answer for Harriet is the same as it was for Jojo’s mother, do what you can.
Until next time, bring the tissues, and enjoy the show!