‘Harriet’ falls prey to the dignity paradox
The first major feature film about Harriet Tubman renders her as a symbol rather than a person
Enslaved is not a personality.
That’s the major stumbling block with Harriet, the new biopic about Harriet Tubman, in theaters Friday.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me) and co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, is so consumed with reverence for the patron saint of Black History Month that it neglects to make her, or any of the supporting characters around her, a real person.
Instead, Tubman falls prey to what I call The Dignity Paradox.
Harriet is the first feature film about Tubman, who died in 1913, but went unrecognized by Hollywood in the years since. Cicely Tyson starred as Tubman in the 1978 NBC miniseries A Woman Called Moses. Such circumstances create a tremendous amount of pressure on whomever is charged with telling Tubman’s story, especially someone aware of the ways that black women have historically been ignored or maligned in major studio projects. But it’s possible to overcorrect for the shameful sting associated with say, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind. The result is a portrayal that’s so safe, so unwilling to take risks, and so earnest in telling its audience that Tubman was an American hero that it forgets to give the woman a personality. In Harriet, Tubman gets to be determined, psychic, briefly heartbroken — and that’s about it. I daresay Tubman got better treatment in an episode of Drunk History.
The film opens in 1849 with Tubman lying in a field on the plantation in Bucktown, Maryland, that was her home. She’s in the midst of one of her narcoleptic spells. (Tubman was famously hit in the head with a 2-pound iron at age 12. The result was her sleeping spells.) Lemmons revisits the mysticism that made Eve’s Bayou such a richly compelling tale in Harriet. She gives Tubman the gift of The Sight, and depicts her narcoleptic psychic visions with a blue filter not unlike the one Nate Parker used in The Birth of a Nation.
When Tubman learns that her owners refuse to grant her or her yet-to-be-born children their freedom, as a previous owner promised, Tubman decides to run. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh), is free. Both are afraid of endangering John’s free status, so Tubman sets out alone. So Tubman sets out alone. She doesn’t have a plan other than following the North Star and a series of rivers until she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania. She cannot read nor write. Rather than demonstrating Tubman’s cunning intellect, Tubman’s many feats of daring bravery and by-the-skin-of-her-teeth escapes from slave catchers get explained by woo-woo spirituality. Whenever enemies begin to close in, Tubman magically falls asleep and gets a vision that tells her to take a different route.
The dialogue in Harriet consists mostly of Important Speechifying, not only for Tubman, but also her free black Philadelphia accomplices William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Both Still and Buchanon help the refugee Harriet get settled in Philadelphia before she begins making her famous costumed trips back to plantations and develops the nickname of “Moses the Slave-Stealer.”
At one point Odom launches into a speech about how Congress just passed The Fugitive Slave Act (here, Howard and Lemmons took some liberties with historical fact. In actuality, the act was passed in 1850. The film has it happening much later.) As Still, Odom doesn’t really sound like a person either, but a set piece in a fifth-grade textbook come to life. The same is true of Monáe and Bigger Long, the one-note slave tracker played by Omar J. Dorsey. Were it not for the fact that Erivo, Odom, Dorsey, and Monáe have demonstrated their substantial acting bona fides in other productions, one could not be blamed for assuming that the group might have a future in low-budget basic cable prime-time soaps. It’s little consolation that the film’s white characters come off as blandly evil and one-dimensional, too — is this what equality looks like?
Harriet’s faults are not unique. In fact, they’re rather common in the biopic genre, which is littered with films that feel obligated to touch base with every major point of a person’s Wikipedia entry rather than starting with an interesting story and building from there. Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a good example of a film that bucks biopic norms and is all the better for it. She runs headlong at the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs that had an effect on his marriage, and she focuses on the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Civil Rights Act instead of King’s entire life from birth to death.
In a world that made sense, there would be multiple on-screen works about Tubman, which would allow for a deep dive into the logistics of the Combahee Ferry Raid or Tubman’s time as a Union spy, or a closer examination of the 100-mile route she repeatedly took guiding her enslaved brethren and sistren from Maryland to Philadelphia. In the most disappointing turn of the film, the Combahee Ferry Raid is treated as a coda rather than a major, awe-inspiring point in Tubman’s life. It’s on-screen for maybe two minutes.
Among the many questions Harriet leaves unanswered: What on earth were these poor souls eating as they were on the run from trackers and slave-catchers? Adrenaline is a powerful chemical, but no one is going 100 miles on foot without food. Freedom alone does not supply calories.
Warren Alan Young’s production design is rich with detail, and so is Paul Tazewell’s costume design, but they’re not enough to convey the horrors of America’s peculiar institution in this PG-13 story. There’s no doubt that Lemmons has experience telling beautiful tales about ugly subjects. Her debut feature, after all, was about incest and the crushing disappointment that comes when a child realizes that her biggest hero is a monster. The biggest challenge about rendering slavery on-screen is actually a challenge of world-building. Conveying how vile it was requires a commitment to sinking the viewer into its horrid banality and allowing it to steep, to feel how slowly time moves, how backbreaking the forced labor is without the aid of automation, and the never-ending weariness that is accompanied by the terror of rape and the threat of the lash. Instead, this is conveyed by yet another speech that Tubman gives to an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia and a brief, darkened peek at Tubman’s whip-scarred back.
When a filmmaker attempts to protect his or her audience from the worst of slavery by simply gesturing at the possibility of violence or rendering it with dialogue alone — as Lemmons does with Tubman and her young owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the effect is too safe. Gideon likens Tubman to a favorite hog, but semantics rarely hold the same emotional weight as action.
I realized, after watching Harriet and comparing it to 12 Years a Slave and Beloved, that films about slavery should disturb. They should give us nightmares. They should terrify us. Because they are the closest thing we have to understanding the shameful, disgusting depths to which people will stoop to enact and preserve white supremacy. What’s more, that disgusting behavior was not exceptional; it was the wallpaper of American life for hundreds of years. When we soft-pedal the everyday cruelty of slavery, it deadens our understanding of an institution built on exploiting and destroying an entire people’s humanity.
It’s understandable to want to honor Harriet Tubman. She deserves it, regardless of the short-sighted decisions of the current Treasury secretary. But when we turn away from the truth of the worst circumstances of her life, we do the opposite. To value that for which she fought, it is paramount to understand exactly from what she was running.