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I am a rebel, fighter, lover & all of the sweet stuff in between. I write, coach others & push boundaries. Visit my website for the fine print details.

Parent’s Guide to Watching the Movie ‘Harriet’

I had the privilege of seeing a screening of the movie Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons about a month before it was released in theaters. So, be warned that this article has spoilers regarding the plot of the film although we are all familiar with the general Harriet Tubman story. I went to see the screening with my daughter and her dad, curious to see how the iconic woman we know as Harriet Tubman would be portrayed on screen. I had always been fascinated by Harriet Tubman’s life story, the bare bones of it that we were always told. In fact, one of my first books I selected on my own from Scholastic, as a voracious reader in first grade, was a small paperback book on the narrative of Harriet Tubman. Learning at six years-old about slavery and all of the brutality Harriet Tubman endured before escaping with her life was a lot to digest at such a young age. I remember having dreams of a young Harriet Tubman being knocked in the head by an overseer and almost dying and feeling like I literally wanted to cry. This new movie may not be as triggering as the paperback book that I read as a six year-old, but, it may have some questionable content that may lead your children, regardless their age, to ask questions, or worse, accept some things unquestioningly as solid fact. This article seeks to offer some suggestions when having a debrief with your kids after the movie.

scene from the film “Harriet” out in theatres now

Harriet Tubman, disabled survivor of brain trauma or a mystical, magical Negro with super-human abilities?

One of the heavy tropes used in the film was the “magical Negro” trope which presents a Black character as superhuman or blissfully non-human with capacities that make their existence atypical and peculiar. While applying mystical properties to said Black character, this trope often creates a Black character that is often exoticized and left to display mystical traits while lacking dimension and development that alludes to a human core. Movies like The Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance and even, one of my favorite films, Ghost, use this trope which often leaves the leading Black character with little essence as a person and more of a mystical unknown. In Lemmons’ film, Harriet Tubman almost becomes an entire trope as her fainting spells due to traumatic brain injury are presented as spells of intense direction from a higher power. She just “knows” and this knowing of when to hide from approaching enslavers or exactly where to go with a band of runaways in her care is presented as an uncanny gift that is otherworldly. While a brief interaction with a Black pastor who becomes her first stop on the underground railroad gives some clue that maybe she has been instructed on how to navigate her route due to extensive memorization and study of star patterns and woodland routes, this interaction is trumped by at least six instances where she is depicted having a fainting spell that gives her psychic ability.

Discuss this trope with your children and how it appears in films that feature Black characters. Talk about the possibility that Harriet Tubman very may well have been psychic. But, also discuss what intuition is and how it is possible that a heightened sense of intuition is possible for anyone to develop if they practice being observant, empathetic and generally more aware of internal cues of how they feel about a certain situation. Also inform them of how rigorous it was to travel at night while being pursued. Discuss how Harriet had specific methods that she would employ, so specific and secret that she refused to share  many of them while she was alive and even after slavery ended. In short, rather than allow the magical Negro trope take precedence over the very real skill set Harriet Tubman had to have had to endure her rigorous journey multiple times, share factual information about what types of preparation was necessary to make such journeys by foot and at night.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

Some Black people were free in the South and some were slaves? How was this possible?

It was quite surprising to find myself laughing at some of the purposefully humorous parts of the movie where Harriet was in dialogue with her father once she set off to escape. I didn’t think I would find anything in a movie about slavery comical. The director did a good job making those moments funny and heart-wrenching at the same time. What was not thoroughly discussed, however, was how Harriet Tubman’s father was free, her husband was free, yet, Harriet and siblings were enslaved. While an early scene alluded to why Harriet’s mother was still enslaved, very little explanation was given about how Harriet met her born-free husband, John and the dynamics surrounding that relationship. The presence of Black bounty hunters in this film also gave a very distorted role of the slave bounty hunter and failed to explain if the prominent Black bounty hunter characters depicted were actually working as freed Black men or as those enslaved by white slavemasters.

This interesting dynamic is a point of discussion with your child regarding the ways that some enslaved people were able to purchase their own freedom and the precarious status of freedom for Black people living during this time. The scene where Harriet Tubman, using someone else’s freedom papers, is still questioned and treated as an enslaved person is a good conversation to have to discuss the ways that free wasn’t necessary free back then. You can even bring the conversation forward to today to discuss ways that Black people still are treated as second class citizens and enslaved within the prison industrial complex even though the Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to end chattel slavery.

The real abolitionists Harriet Tubman and William Still who were depicted in the film

What or who was real? Who wasn’t?

The main thing that you should be clear with your children is that the movie Harriet is a work of fiction based on a real person’s life. Many elements of the film are made up. Harriet Tubman was very private and very little of her private life was known. Even less was known about her husband who was a free man. Most significant that we knew about him is that he did not run with Harriet. The entire love story created about them was fictionalized. The Janelle Monae character was made up. The evil antagonist of the movie chasing Harriet throughout the film was made up. Fragments of truth included William Still being a large help to her. He was a real person and a phenomenal archivist who has given us a lot of what we do know about our heroic Harriet Tubman. But, most of the characters were creations of the screenwriter, Gregory Allen and the white historian who consulted on the film, Kate Clifford Larsen. A great assignment (if you’re a homeschooling family, especially) is to have your children be fact-check detectives and do a comparative find of what exactly was true and what were some creatively added elements. I was disappointed to learn that Janelle Monae’s character was not only fictional, but, had no specific person who inspired the role. The fact that she was fictional and her demise in the film at the hands of a Black character made me wonder what was the reason for this creative choice if it was not based in a real experience.

In closing, talk with your kids after watching this movie. It is entertainment based on history and needs to be discussed. A film depicting a story about the extraordinary ancestor Harriet Tubman is long overdue and a thoughtful conversation about her life and impact is worthy of continued and substantive inclusion in our parenting practice.

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is a writer, cultural critic and homeschooling parent. She is founder of So Our Youth Aspire (SOYA).

’13 Reasons Why’ Season 3 Has a Problematic New Character

If you are the parent of anyone over the age of 11 years-old, chances are you are well aware of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (stylized for television as TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY). This melodrama debuted in 2017, produced by former teen star Selena Gomez and based on the book by Jay Asher. The initial story dealt with the suicide of one of the main characters and the television series sparked a lot of conversation revolving around the way suicide was depicted. After the first season, the very heavy topic of teen suicide has been replaced by the very heavy topic of rape, becoming the focus for both second and third season. This article has significant spoiler details, so let this be your spoiler alert to not read further if you haven’t already watched the third season yet. If you have watched it, your comment is encouraged.

New character Amorowat Anysia “Ani” Achola played by Grace Saif (center) flanked by series regulars Dylan Minnette , Brandon Flynn and Ross Butler.

New Character Awkwardly Inserted

So, if you have stayed with this dramatic series to the third season, you most likely have grown a fondness, or at least familiarity, with the story’s main characters led by main character Clay Jensen, played by Dylan Minnette. Minnette returns for season 3, looking painfully concerned as usual and joined by other cast regulars including Christian Navarro as Tony Padilla, Alisha Boe as Jessica Davis, Brandon Flynn as Justin Foley, Miles Heizer as Alex Standall, Ross Butler as Zach Dempsey, Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker and Devin Druid as Tyler Down. Notably absent, or at least not as prominent as in past seasons are Michele Selene Ang as Courtney Crimsen, a prominent character in the first two seasons and Ajiona Alexus as Sheri Holland who was prominent in season two. Only Ang is seen briefly in a few scenes while we don’t see Alexus at all. But, a new character was introduced this third season, practically becoming the protagonist of the show, leaving many of us baffled and confused.

The new character, Ani, played by newcomer Grace Saif, doesn’t enter with any introduction. She opens as narrator and is prominently placed front and center, a new girl who has been in town for eight months. She is familiar with each character, speaks cryptically about the unraveling mystery and suspiciously references past happenings as if she was present when they took place. What is most unclear and never really becomes clear is how she is able to speak with familiarity regarding the town’s secrets regarding Bryce Wilson and his tendency to behave as a serial rapist. It is weird that she knows so much about his history because she never behaves as if it makes a difference when she interacts with him.

Ani is actively engaged in humanizing Bryce throughout the show. She questions the other characters about their suspicious ways and possible motives to want to see serial rapist and bullying Bryce Walker killed. She engages in sexual activity with said serial rapist and plays endless mind games with Clay Jensen who is as hopelessly smitten with her as he was with Hannah Baker. Ani is contradictory, confusingly involved in a mystery that has nothing to do with her and loyal to a group of people through the most contrived explanation possible.

Ani became the person to voice the conflated idea that there are two sides to every story.

Bryce Walker Didn’t Need an Advocate

Ani became the person to voice the conflated idea that there are two sides to every story. She was presented to show that, yes, Bryce Walker is a wealthy white male who believed he was entitled to do whatever he wanted to anyone he wanted, yet, somewhere, deep, deep, deep, down inside, he could be loving and respectful of the teen-aged daughter living in his house with the nurse paid to take care of his grandfather. She was intelligent in every way, we were told (in one scene, the teacher remarks she did not need the review for an upcoming test due to her progress in class), but, somehow, her intelligence was not matched with empathy or consideration for her so-called friends who she casually betrayed regularly with her trysts with Bryce even after knowing that he was responsible for raping her new so-called best friend, Jessica Davis.

Ani’s disruptive presence was amplified for me because she was a Black character. It was very disturbing for me to see these contradictions portrayed as a Black person when the other Black characters (other than bi-racial Alisha Doe) in the show had been written off or seen in very small doses (Derik Luke as counselor Kevin Porter made a brief appearance in a confusing capacity which was very odd given that he was fired in the previous season). It made me uncomfortable seeing a young Black girl engage in a sexual relationship with a character who is a rapist, rallying behind him and his questionable humanity, lying to her mother to spend time with him, lying to her friends to spend time with him, and behaving consistently untrustworthy, irrational and suspiciously. With the current culture of rape survivors speaking up and out, with films like the recent Surviving R. Kelly documentary breaking the silence on the exploitation and violence against young Black girls, and push-back against society’s tendency to over-sexualize Black women and romanticize historically predatory relationships (i.e. slavery tropes, Venus Hottentot, etc.), this casting choice seemed like a step backward. Honestly, however, I think the character, even if she was cast with a white actress, is a step backward in storytelling. Ani’s contrived presence is a distasteful example of how we don’t need apologists for rapists– whether through our fictional storytelling or in real life. If the series continues life with a fourth season, here’s hoping they do a better job with depicting challenging topics in a way that does not devolve into disappointing apologist tropes.