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A Critical Response to the Film "Harriet"

Lisa has a wide passion for fighting against social inequity. She is currently completing her BA in Psychology and Gender & Women's Studies.

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Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (2019) illustrates the acclaimed abolitionist Harriet Tubman in a strong light that is shining through a very thick film of altruism. Lemmons directed Harriet in a way that appropriately highlights the harshness and, more particularly, the importance of Tubman’s grim journeys between rural Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to finally live as a freedwoman, eventually alongside the rest of her family members. Lemmons created a strong depiction of Tubman’s heroic expeditions, although she withheld on an abundance of crucial components related to Tubman’s real existence, such as building the pathway for freedom while completely illiterate and consciously holding thousands of dollars of bounty on her head, all while living with narcolepsy. Overall, Lemmons created an adequate film to represent the life of Harriet Tubman and her brave actions towards insurgency, but she also, to an extent, shed an inappropriate light on the history of slavery, in a way romanticizing it by fictionalizing the film a bit too much when the entire film’s plot and character development is based off of a momentous historical figure who should always be considered purposefully and vehemently. It is as if Lemmons wanted to put a mask over the bitter reality that is slavery and not publish content that is too explicit, when in reality pieces of media that touch on uncomfortable subjects should also make the audience uncomfortable for full effect. Tubman’s existence should always be reflected upon or recognized in full truth with utmost respect as her actions considerably changed the course of history. After all, “she was a terrorist, whose every liberatory act posed a distinct threat to U.S. chattel slavery and the robust economy of anti-Blackness.” (Lindsey, 315).

The film does an excellent job of representing Harriet Tubman as a radical freedom fighter, risking her well-being and her entire life to reach freedom, with freedom being a walloping 150-kilometre expedition north on foot through all kinds of weather conditions with bounty hunters, mobs, cops, dogs, and slave catchers all trying to hunt her down. Freedom is unquestionably the priority for Harriet, as “Black women activists combine various forms of personal sacrifice with varying modes of militancy” (Lindsey, 317). Harriet even made the tough decision of leaving her husband John (who was already a freedman) behind in Maryland and not taking him on her run with her due to the chance that he may become enslaved again if they come to be caught. This choice of hers accentuates the severity of the inhumane and merciless living quality of black lives in nineteenth century America. Rarely is an individual in a situation so vile and horrid that they would decide to leave all that they have and literally run the distance to a separate state with the risk of severe consequences following them with every step that they take (sometimes even literally, an example being Walter jumping from treetop to treetop to trace Harriet’s pathway to freedom to then report back to Harriet’s slaveowners and Bigger Long, a slave hunter working alongside Harriet’s slaveowners, so that they can track her down more effectively).

An important scene in the movie worth noting in regards to Harriet’s level of radical freedom fighting is when she returned back to her original home in rural Maryland after a year of living as a freedwoman in Philadelphia to convince her family to make the same journey that she did to freedom. Along the journey of her leading her family members, they reached a river that Harriet said that they needed to go through as going around would be dangerous which she came to the conclusion of from her visions that she believed to be omens from God to help her survive. As she said this, her family immediately became openly panicky as they stated none of them could swim. Harriet quickly implemented her strong level of conveyance and attempted to explain to her family the immense importance of finishing the journey. Although Harriet’s brother became defensive to her decision and attempted to convince the group to take the risky route around the river, Harriet displayed her strength, willpower, and courageous leadership towards her brother in front of the group, proving her willingness to resist living enslaved and her dedication to getting the entire group to freedom. As Harriet executed her trek across the river alone, the rest of the group watched with a look of uncertainty and astonishment as they finally witnessed with their own eyes how gallantly she pulls off being a leader to freedom. Soon after, the family follows her across the river and they all safely meet her on the other side, again exposing Harriet’s radical freedom fighting; not just for herself, but this time for others.

When she returned to Maryland to escort her family in the run to Philadelphia, her mother and father decided to stay. Her father heavily insisted on refusing to go with them, claiming that he would be fine where he is and that he can assuredly take care of and protect his wife on his own. This decision of his reflects a mindset that is similar to Stockholm Syndrome that was experienced by an abundance of slaves. It is as if some became psychologically aliened with their slaveowners, believing that living an enslaved life is where they belong, with some possibly holding a belief that living enslaved is not as harrowing as escapees claim because their slaveowners “take care of them” by feeding them, giving them shelter, or any other basic necessity. Of course, this mentality is immensely problematic as it is enabling the perception of Black people only deserving basic care, even at the expense of them being unnecessarily beaten, severely harmed, and sickeningly dehumanized as if they are automatically incapable of dignity, virtue, or lawfulness solely based off of the amount of melanin in their skin.

When Harriet first ventured north by herself following the river, she became trapped in the middle of a bridge surrounded by slave hunters on both ends. She became distressed and looked over the edge of the bridge to check how aggressive or rocky the water was below. Her distress levels grew when she saw how rapid the water was, coming to the immediate conclusion that jumping did not seem like an option. As her own slaveowner began walking towards the middle of the bridge from the end and became closer and closer to her, he saw her contemplating on jumping over the edge into the river and began ridiculing her idea to her. This only motivated her to jump even more, crawling up onto the edge of the bridge and getting ready to leap. At this point, one of the most meaningful quotes from the film arose. As Harriet’s slaveowner began to ridicule her even more as she was preparing to jump, Harriet looked at him straight and said “I’m gonna be free or die.” (Harriet) as she hurdled herself over the wall of the bridge and into the jagged waters. This quote resonates so deeply as it holds such a powerful meaning in a matter of only six words. It articulates the entrapment that is a slave’s entire identity, feeling as if there are only two worthwhile paths to follow in life: successfully escaping to freedom, or death. It is absolutely wild to think about how an entire country’s history is being held up by a base of millions of people’s suffering to the point that they would rather cease to exist. It is even wilder to think about how anti-Blackness still runs rampant to the point that America’s modern system remains racist today, and that the quality of life for an African-American citizen, on average, remains lower than their white neighbours’.

Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (2019) illustrates the acclaimed abolitionist Harriet Tubman in a strong light that is shining through a very thick film of altruism. Lemmons directed Harriet in a way that appropriately highlights the harshness and, more particularly, the importance of Tubman’s grim journeys between rural Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to finally live as a freedwoman, eventually alongside the rest of her family members. Lemmons created a strong depiction of Tubman’s heroic expeditions, although she withheld on an abundance of crucial components related to Tubman’s real existence, such as building the pathway for freedom while completely illiterate and consciously holding thousands of dollars of bounty on her head, all while living with narcolepsy. Harriet Tubman was one of the most prodigious people to set foot on this earth and remains so today, even over a century after her passing. Through her radical freedom fighting and being a saviour to her people, she proved that freedom is part of one’s being. She started one of, if not the, most powerful liberations of the Black community. Her efforts likely seemed only personal when she first began her journey alone, yet the path that followed her first decision to attempt to reach freedom changed the entire course of American history. “Tubman’s legacy cannot be reduced to the lantern or the gun -- her legacy encompasses a multitude of tools, strategies, and sacrifices.” (Lindsey, 319).

Works Cited

Harriet. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Focus Features, 1 Nov. 2019.

Lindsey, Treva B. “Negro Women May Be Dangerous: Black Women’s Insurgent Activism in the Movement for Black Lives.” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 19, no. 3, 2017, pp. 315–327, 10.1080/10999949.2017.1389596.

© 2020 Lisa Hallam