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.
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.
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.
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).