The abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman is experiencing a renaissance. In 2016, she was chosen to replace President Andrew Jackson as the new face of the $20 bill. She has been featured in television shows, podcasts, as a literary figure and now, in a major motion picture. In the current moment, Tubman is experiencing newfound fame.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, the film “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo, is the first film to feature her life since a 1978 made-for-TV film, “A Woman Called Moses.” Thankfully, the film avoids all of the stereotypical tropes of “slave films” — whipping and rape scenes and triumphant white saviors. Rather than focusing on white abolitionists, the film shows the necessity of force behind freedom. Harriet is armed from the moment she leaves the plantation. Eventually, she upgrades from a bowie knife to a revolver, but in every mission, she is armed.
For this, “Harriet” is different from so many other films simply because it places black womanhood and violent resistance at the center of the quest for freedom. And in doing so, the film captures the historical reality of how women challenged slavery by every means necessary, a story that popular culture has previously missed.
The film depicts Tubman as a nuanced human being who faced the trauma of family separation and turned to her religious faith to overcome the violent institution of slavery. Tubman was deeply in love with her free husband (while enslaved, her first marriage was to a free black man), and like so many enslaved people who experienced family separation, she was strong and fearless in her determination to be reunited with them after she escaped.
The film also captures the centrality of religion in motivating slave resistance. God is the unseen character in “Harriet.” Tubman was emphatic about her unique relationship with God. She talked to and heard from God. She walked with God. Period.
Though her faith in God is teased, her outcome was always trusted. On the Underground Railroad, Tubman never lost a passenger. Rather than framing her resolve in rescuing people from slavery as diluted down to fortune or magic, the film showed the centrality of her faith in her success. Nearly every song was a spiritual with biblical references to Moses or deliverance. In the film, when Tubman sings, enslaved people catch her signal and flee the plantation without hesitation. Tubman claimed God guided her and prevented her from taking dangerous turns or falling into the traps of slave catchers.
The film excavates the specific challenges that black women faced in antebellum America by showing how Tubman navigated sexism and racism while resisting slavery. The film provides a nuanced exploration of her complicated relationship with men — her husband, father, black sailors, slave catchers and fellow abolitionists — to show how Tubman uniquely defied the patriarchal norms of the times. Most women during the abolitionist movement were pushed to the periphery of activism and even admonished for speaking in public. But Tubman was unquestionably a leader. She had little use for lengthy monologues or arousing speeches. Her success in rescuing enslaved people gave her the ability to invert social norms.
And in this, it was not just her resolve, but her willingness to use her revolver that provided results. This is the film’s most important contribution to historical understanding. It realistically depicts not just the realities of slavery, but also what it took to achieve freedom: force.
The expanded Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave black people the limited choice of fight or flight to avoid capture. This law made it possible for slave owners and slave catchers to enter any state in the Union to retrieve their property, shifting the de facto Mason-Dixon Line to Canada’s border. U.S. federal marshals were employed to enforce the law, regardless of how long an escaped slave had been living as a free person. Moreover, the word alone of a master was enough to send freeborn black Americans into a slavery they had never known. Anyone who was caught harboring fugitives could be fined and thrown in prison.
In this context, protective violence was required. The amended law forced black leaders who previously touted nonviolence to take up arms in self-defense. Frederick Douglass was met with cheers when he argued, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers.”
The film captures this historical reality. In one scene, Tubman is running to catch a boat to flee Pennsylvania after the Fugitive Slave Law was amended. A group of men try to stop her, and instantly protective lines of armed abolitionists point their guns at her obstructers. Throughout the 1850s, abolitionists were armed, even black women. Freedom required both fight and flight — the two were inseparable. Freedom had to be forced, and often fleeing required as much fighting as standing one’s ground.
Depicting force accurately is important because so often audiences are presented with enslaved people as passive subjects either being forced into slavery or pulled into freedom. But black people were the primary agents on the Underground Railroad. Black people were also the primary agents in their own liberation. When the Civil War erupted, black Americans were ready. Millions fled plantations on their own to secure their emancipation, and more than 250,000 black soldiers fought bravely. In fact, during the Civil War, Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed assault.
And so, while white liberals can fawn over Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and its portrayal of the passage of the 13th Amendment, “Harriet” tells a different, more accurate story of how slavery died on the ground by 1865. Figures like Tubman and so many other enslaved people liberated themselves by fleeing and fighting. They forced Lincoln to rethink his goals and forced all Americans to grapple with its original sin, slavery.
Thus, “Harriet” is a more honest telling of the lives and contributions that matter, especially those of black women. Nevertheless, watching “Harriet” must be a beginning, not an end of telling the story of black women. Tubman’s life is a gift that transcends slavery and the Civil War. So much can and should be said about the woman who lived to be 91 years old and died in 1913. She, like so many other black women, worked to fight against slavery, protect their families, provide for the elderly, support newly freed slaves, advocate for women’s rights and suffrage and fundraise for a better future. Her hoop dresses never held her back from running, packing a pistol, riding a horse, leading men into battle or demanding rights for newly freed citizens.
This film will have audiences finger snapping, interrupting with applause and feeling empowered, not just because it is a powerful story of an individual. It also reclaims the history of black women’s resistance by any means necessary. Tubman’s activism is a model for a movement.