MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
When I was a lad, there were biographies of famous people written for young readers called Landmark Books. The books were usually heroic depictions meant to inspire kids to consider making something out of their lives. Published in the 1950s and early 1960s, they neglected to include Black History and the part that slavery played in our nation’s history.
Most films about slavery are R rated and by nature upsetting since there is no way to understand this time of brutality and human subjugation without dealing with stuff we would rather not show to children. Harriet is a film that not only highlights a significant figure in Black History but does so in a family-friendly fashion. This movie could serve as a good starting point for an intergenerational discussion about slavery, bravery and dedication to a higher purpose.
While Cynthia Erivo creates a nuanced depiction of Harriet Tubman, the script is not particularly subtle or persuasive. The film is filled with details about Harriet’s life that I did not know (“Harriet Tubman” was the name she assumed for herself; her slave name was Araminta “Minty” Ross; she did not invent the Underground Railroad, but became a leader in the movement; etc.). I was also unaware of the spiritual visions that guided her life and the identity of “Moses” that she was given when she chose to move undercover in her forays to free other slaves.
It is worth noting that there were many free Black Americans who lived with everyday struggles with racism as they worked to liberate those in chains. The church is presented as a key player in this liberation and we are reminded of how the coded language of spirituals helped to bolster the hopes of slaves for liberation (although I doubt that the songs were sung with the contemporary soul depicted in Harriet). The story covers a lot of ground, including Tubman’s participation in the Civil War as a spy as well as a military leader.
The major missteps for me included a backstory with Harriet and her original slave masters that seemed melodramatic and hokey. And the PG-13 rating leaves a bit too much of the sting of slavery on the cutting room floor. The plantation shown on screen is almost Gone with the Wind squeaky clean (outside of a few signs of whip marks and chains).
Yes, this movie is worth seeing, with beautiful cinematography by the great John Toll and good supporting performances. Everything is a bit rushed and repetitive along the way, but perhaps there is a good reason for the film’s impassioned pace: We still haven’t learned from history why all persons need to be seen as beloved children of God. Thanks to Harriet, we are given a hero that will guide us to the freedom and understanding that we need.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: A respectful biopic about a remarkable woman.
Three pitchforks: Racist language; violence.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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