Focus Features, 2019, 125 minutes
If you’ve seen Harriet, the new Harriet Tubman biopic now playing in theaters, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Harriet was an antebellum James Bond. Dressed in a top hat and gentleman’s tail coat, she could waltz through a southern plantation undetected, tie up a slaveholder’s child, and for good measure, shoot off a man’s hand moments later. All in a day’s work for the “Moses of Her People.”
Quite a story, if it were true. But the Harriet Tubman introduced in Kasi Lemmons’s new biopic starring Cynthia Erivo has more in common with Clark Kent and Tony Stark than the real-life Underground Railroad conductor who guided 70 men, women, and children to freedom.
Perhaps our current glut of superhero films is to blame. In the last five years, major studios have churned out 52 live-action superhero films, with more than half coming from the Marvel and DC Comics universes. Audiences love watching evil get vanquished by the underdog, while studio executives love profitable and endlessly extendable franchises.
But the action-packed escapism that makes superhero films so entertaining also distorts our understanding of true, everyday heroism. Despite their focus on the struggle between Good and Evil, the movies lull us into moral laziness. Actor Edward Norton, who played the Incredible Hulk in 2008, notes that superhero films turn viewers “into passive receptors of narrative” who rarely filter the stories on screen through their own morality. Real heroism, he says, is “formed by a [person’s] sense of being proactive, being themselves. It’s a person with a lot of daily battles and problems [who] is going to get off their ass and do something about anything. A lot of what we’re doing is not cultivating those people.”
A good story, whether fiction or nonfiction, offers itself as a laboratory of character. It invites us to peer into the lives of other people, examining their virtues and faults while learning from their actions. In their What So Proudly We Hail anthology of classic civics texts, editors Amy Kass, Leon Kass, and Diana Schaub write that character goes beyond temperament, personality, and values. It is the “power of choosing, a most peculiar fusion of heart and mind that reveals itself in the choices we make and deeds we do.” That’s a perfect description for Harriet Tubman.
Harriet had those three things: her heart, her mind, and the power of choice. But she had little else. She couldn’t read or write. Childhood abuse inflicted by her slaveholders crippled her for life. She escaped slavery with no funds to her name and little but the shirt on her back. After beginning her life as a free woman in Philadelphia, she labored as a cook and maid, saving whatever she could.
There’s a certain type of person who, seeing a house on fire and hearing screams, decides to run into the flames. Harriet made that choice again and again. Each time she had saved up enough of her wages in Philadelphia, she embarked on rescue missions to the slave state of Maryland, gathering family, friends, and strangers who were ready to seek freedom. She did this for 15 years, until the outbreak of the Civil War. The attributes of the real Harriet Tubman—her innate strength and goodness—humble any depiction of heroism on offer from Hollywood.
Yet the new biopic gives Tubman the franchise superhero treatment, divorcing her from the real-world circumstances that make her the perfect guide through America’s darker legacies and to its brightest potential. Her life is a rare opportunity to reconcile seemingly contradictory visions of American history—the shameful legacy of slavery, but also the hopeful story of Americans who risked their lives and livelihoods to help others find freedom.
Just outside of Bucktown, Maryland, at a small country store that can still be visited, a moment’s cruelty brought about life-altering changes in Harriet. Then known by her birth name, Araminta “Minty” Ross, she was 13 years old when she visited the local store on a farm errand, just as a local overseer tried to capture an enslaved man within the store. The overseer demanded she help him tie down the field worker, but she refused. A moment later, the fugitive broke free, and just as he ran past Harriet, the overseer threw a two-pound weight in his direction. Harriet was struck instead. The metal weight drove into her skull, cracking the bone and pressing a scrap of shawl deep into the wound.
Harriet was carried back to her slaveholder’s farm, but received no medical help. Having no bed, she was laid down on the bench of a weaving loom. For two days she floated in and out of feverish consciousness with an injury that could easily have killed her. But on the third day she was forced to return to the fields, working, in her own words, “with the blood and sweat rolling down my face till I couldn’t see.”
The metal weight that had cracked her skull also damaged the front temporal lobe of her brain. This region is responsible for sight, hearing, taste, and smell, as well as memory and emotion, and damage to the lobes can cause temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). As a result, she would suffer from frequent seizures for the rest of her life, along with debilitating headaches and exhaustion.
From Harriet’s perspective, the seizures were something else entirely. She was swarmed by religious visions and hallucinations. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke to her in their ancient tongues. Angels carried her over fields and streams, revealing the paths to freedom.
The visions strengthened her faith and sense of purpose. Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett worked with Tubman regularly, and noted that he “never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.” From a young age, Harriet maintained a constant dialogue with God in her mind, a habit that would continue throughout her rescue missions, when she had faith that God’s active involvement kept her safe amid constant and shifting dangers.
In the new biopic, Harriet’s seizures take their cue from Spiderman’s “Spidey sense” rather than heaven-sent missives. Her visions foreshadow the dangers to come with high contrast, acid-washed clips of scenes that take place later in the film. While the visions serve as a convenient plot device to warn our conductor that slavecatchers are nearby, they misrepresent this key aspect of Harriet’s life—one of the few facets of the film that could have used more, and not less, heightened drama.
By treating Harriet’s visions as a supernatural ability, the movie underplays the difficulties of what she actually faced and the real-world experience of coming to terms with a disability: the fear, the ambiguity, and confusion of adapting to a new normal, and even the discovery of a new strength as knowledge and experience is gained.
Following another dictum of superhero films, the biopic also creates an entirely fictional supervillain rather than work from the knottier source material of Harriet’s life.
Early in the film, Harriet makes her first daring escape. After the death of slaveholder Edward Brodess, the family decides to sell Harriet. Within minutes, slave buyers are lurking throughout the Brodess farm, ready to shackle Harriet on the spot. She is forced to flee, but not before tear-stained farewells with her husband and father. She takes off into the woods—and almost immediately, is hunted by a gang of slavecatchers led by Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the evil blond-haired son of Harriet’s recently deceased slaveholder.
The gang corners Harriet at the midpoint of a stone bridge, high above the river. As Gideon and his goons hedge closer, Harriet declares that she will “be free or die”—and pushes off of the bridge, plunging into the rapids far below. Will she survive? Will she drown? It’s an odd moment of fictional high-stakes drama, given that we know the answer.
Not one kernel of truth exists in the dramatized scene. Gideon, who appears to be driven by malice and little else, is an entirely fictional character. Yet he has more screen time in the film than anyone save Harriet.
The problem with inserting a fictional supervillain into nonfiction source material is that our fabricated notions of evil will never match the brutality of the real world. Gideon’s presence shifts the course of the film entirely. Instead of watching Harriet fight back against the chilling inhumanity of slavery as a system, we see a cat-and-mouse chase driven by a fictional character’s all-consuming obsession.
The result is a canned moral righteousness, more in the service of the screenwriters than in revealing the messy historical reality of slavery. By focusing on Gideon’s personal villainy, the biopic sidesteps the real ways in which slavery was often masked in the veil of virtue and industry. Examples abound in biographies of Harriet Tubman’s life, particularly Kate Clifford Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land, which reveals the moral excuse-making that slaveholders adopted to feel beneficent in their cruelty, from twisted readings of the Gospel to happy Sambo stereotypes.
In actuality, by the time Harriet made her successful escape at 27 years old, she had achieved a relative degree of independence for an enslaved woman along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She had saved up enough money to buy two oxen, and in an arrangement with Edward Brodess, paid him an annual fee for the right to hire herself out to the surrounding farms as an ox team driver. Harriet often worked with her father Ben Ross, a skilled woodsman, clearing timber in the marshes. Far from the eyes of overseers, she learned wilderness navigation and forged important connections with the black mariners who formed a covert communications network linking the free and slave states.
When Edward Brodess died, word spread among the enslaved community that Harriet and her brothers would be headed to the auction block. To pay off the considerable debt left after Edward’s death, his widowed wife Eliza Brodess had decided to sell them—in essence, to liquidate their lives into cash to pay their captor’s debt.
Sometimes an act or practice is so brutal, it sends shockwaves through a culture that lasts for generations. The phrase “to be sold down the river,” commonly used by the enslaved community of the Mid-Atlantic, to this day indicates betrayal of the worst kind. It was illegal in Maryland to sell slaves out of state, and considered in “poor moral taste” among slaveholders—which we can now recognize as an immensely hypocritical distinction. And yet, in the “breeder states” of Maryland and Virginia, it was common for enslaved men, women, and children to be sold illegally out of state to Southern slave traders willing to pay a premium. Some slaveholders would tell their neighbors that their enslaved person had escaped when in actuality the person had been sold and smuggled down south.
The Deep South held comparatively worse conditions for enslaved men, women, and children than the Mid-Atlantic. Separated from their families and attached to chain gangs, they would be forced to march to Georgia, Tennessee, and other states where large sugarcane plantations and western expansion created a demand for slave labor. Severed from the underground communications network of the Mid-Atlantic, many enslaved people were never heard from again—as Harriet’s family knew all too well. The Brodess family sold Harriet’s three older sisters, Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph to out-of-state slaveholders. Two of the sisters had children who likely never heard from their mothers again.
During Harriet’s real-life escape, she used leisure as her subterfuge. While the film depicts her escaping from the Brodess farm, she was actually living on the farm of Anthony Thompson, her father’s slaveholder. She was already familiar with the mechanics of escape, having watched her father, himself a conductor on the Underground Railroad, help ferry freedom-seekers out of Maryland.
The day of her escape, Harriet walked and skipped down the farm road, past the slave cabins, and in fact past slaveholder Anthony Thompson himself, singing a spiritual of her own devising: “I’m sorry I’m going to leave you, farewell, oh farewell / I’ll meet you in the morning, I’m bound for the Promised Land / On the other side of Jordan, bound for the Promised Land.” Her song was typical enough of an African spiritual to be received at face value, but once her disappearance was apparent, its coded message could reassure friends and family.
Harriet traveled by night through forests, guided by the North Star. One of the region’s most active Quaker abolitionist communities, the Marshy Creek Friends, lived a mile from Thompson’s farm. The Quakers of the Eastern Shore had made the decision to stop owning slaves 60 years earlier, and this community helped Harriet escape in her own. She posed as a house worker at the first house that sheltered her, sweeping the front yard to avoid suspicion during the day. As night fell, one of the Quaker conductors hid her in a wagon and brought her to the next safe house. And so, hiking, hiding, and slipping from house to house, she made her way to Philadelphia.
Yet just 150 miles south in Maryland, Harriet’s husband and family remained unfree.
“Slavery is the next thing to hell,” Harriet told her grandnephew one day. In saying so, she drew down her dress to reveal the raised welts where whips had cut her skin. These markings were a memento of the world that she had left but couldn’t escape. It was a hell that continued to exist and threaten her family and friends, the welts a constant reminder of a bitter truth she couldn’t change. This, too, is a truth that the biopic struggles to translate into film.
After escaping to Philadelphia with her own freedom, Harriet worked until she had saved enough wages to fund her next rescue mission. Money functioned as a tool of liberation for Harriet. She eschewed any idea of using money for the comforts of life—a warmer coat, a full larder, enough savings for peace of mind. She began making return trips to save enslaved family members threatened by imminent sale.
Within two years of her initial escape, Tubman returned to Maryland on a high-risk mission to retrieve her husband. She had married John Tubman, a free black man living in a nearby community, five years earlier. On her trip to the Eastern Shore, Harriet brought the new suit she had bought for him, likely to symbolize the new life they would live together as an equally free couple.
But Harriet came back to unexpected news. John was remarried to a free black woman. Harriet was hiding in a nearby friend’s home and sent word for him to visit her. But he refused to do so, being content with his life as a free man in a slave state.
Harriet was devastated. The future she dreamed of, perhaps rebuilding their life together in Philadelphia while saving family members from slavery, was dashed. In her grief and fury, Tubman considered storming into John’s house to disrupt his life. Instead, she drew deep from a well of self-respect and dignity in the hours following John’s rejection. As she told others later in life, she realized “how foolish it was just for temper to make mischief.”
Her next actions speak directly to the kind of person Harriet was. If John “could do without her, she could do without him.” She could still serve as an instrument for good. And so, working with her Underground Railroad contacts, she found another group of fugitive men and women seeking liberty and led them north.
Even amid grief that would make others feel helpless, Harriet responded to the indifferent cruelty of life as she did the intentional brutality of slaveholders—by focusing on what she could do, rather than on what she had lost.
For storytellers, the rich potential of Harriet’s inner life is almost unfathomable. What were her thoughts, motivations, and fears as she progressed from being a fugitive to a free woman to a rescuer on a God-given mission? And what type of internal conversation is had by a person who escapes hell, and then immediately devotes herself to returning so that she might save others? What internal thread of compassion and logic tied her to figures like Raoul Wallenberg and Johan van Hulst, people who risked everything because they couldn’t forget the humanity of others?
Unfortunately for us, film editing is a zero-sum game. Every second spent telling one story is a second taken from another story. As the movie progresses, we see just how much of Harriet’s story is lost in an effort to tell Gideon’s fictional story—and it is a loss of epic proportions.
In the final scenes of the film, the mystery of the unnecessary fictional villain is solved. Gideon has tracked Harriet into the woods, before Harriet manages to turn the tables on him. As he kneels before her, pleading and bleeding, Harriet is overtaken by one of her prophetic Spidey-sense visions. In her vision, Gideon is laying dead on a frozen battlefield. She spares his life—or, rather, the screenwriters do, knowing that attributing a fictional murder to Harriet Tubman would be going too far.
These last moments reveal that Gideon is the proto-Confederate soldier, a man whose anger and racism will fuel the Civil War to come. His death is the wage for the sin of slavery, and by extension, the filmmakers imply that the 258,000 Confederates who died in the Civil War are paying that cost as well. Not finding a figure from Harriet’s actual life who fits our contemporary model of Southern-fried racism, the filmmakers created him from scratch. The story of Harriet’s life is diverted to spotlight a caricature of unredeemable villainy.
To get to know Harriet Tubman, don’t see Harriet. Spend a weekend immersed in her real life, exploring the 40+ sites of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway that winds through Maryland, Delaware, and Philadelphia. Or visit the recently opened Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, detailing her life along the Eastern Shore. Her final years would be spent fundraising and building a home for elderly African-Americans in New York, which can still be visited today.
Harriet eventually found herself in the Deep South, that land that took her three sisters and terrorized her family. When she arrived, it was aboard a Union gunboat, rifle at her side. Facing the banks of the Combahee River, she sang a spiritual to signal that the plantations’ enslaved men and women could come to her for freedom. And they came—more than 700 running in her direction. It was the largest liberation of enslaved people in American history, and the first U.S. military raid led by a woman. In that moment and many others, Harriet exercised her power of choice, that “most peculiar fusion of heart and mind,” and lived a life beyond anything a modern film studio could possibly imagine.