I feel inclined to inform anyone who takes the time to read this post the process of its conception. I originally planned to entitle this article “Why I Won’t See the New Harriet Movie,” but I feared to execute a superficial discourse on a topic so prevalent to the black collective. Seeing the film actualized an intense hurt which I aim to at least partially articulate with this post.
In its two hour duration, viewers witness narrative assassination guised in a sentimentalized neo-slave narrative. Harriet garners supporters from those seeking a visual vanity consummated by black bodies on the big screen and earns adversaries in those seeking contention to liven up their social media timelines. Collaboratively, both camps compose those whom Tubman would have likely shot for the threat they posed to the plight towards a collective freedom. The film employs physical freedom as a motif countered in a disturbingly frail film marked by an obscured and abridged black narrative, a narrative dismembered to ensure its intended white audience remains vindicated by false emotion. Rather than employing the accurate yet uncomfortable, the film garners its grit from it’s subject’s connotation, not it’s content. So, once again, blackness functions as a means to decorate black destruction to benefit our oppressors and their assistants.
A quick note…
The Harriet depicted in the film, is not Harriet Tubman, but a mutilated, neutered figure doused in white memory that is not be confused with the actual Harriet Tubman. Therefore, this article distinguishes between the Harriet featured in the film, and Harriet Tubman, the paramount figure. I will reference the distortion as “Harriet” and the black female foremother as “Tubman.”
Black people quickly labeled Cynthia Erivo, the woman cast to play Harriet, as an oppressor-assistant for negative comments she publicly made regarding black people in the states. Erivo’s status as the child of African parents who willingly migrated to London provided the foundation for many to contest Erivo as bearing a direct connection to Tubman or her descendants. The white media, of course, dismissed the black people who spoke out and up as “African American” elitists and complainers. Erivo’s “connection” to Tubman, however was never the issue.
This issue at hand is most evident in the scene Erivo shares with singer-actress Janelle Monae. In the film, Monae plays a “free,” middle-class black woman murdered for protecting Tubman’s whereabouts. Their juxtaposition illuminates a jarring reality: Janelle Monae could not play her own ancestor in a visual archive. This subsequently epitomizes the dilemma Ta-nehisi Coates underscored in his 2016 essay “Nina Simone’s Face.”
In his essay, Coates referenced the pure violence of the 2016 Nina Simone film starring Zoe Saldana. The true force, Coates argued, was not Saldana’s blackness or even her “disconnection” from Simone. The true conflict, which conveniently escaped the white media its oppressor-assistants, was the sheer fact that Simone could not play herself in her own biopic. The same point reigns true in Harriet were Janelle Monae, who symbolizes the black “subject,” or the direct descendant of foremother Harriet Tubman, as an inevitable supporting cast member in what should be her narrative. The detachment Hollywood places between the abducted African and their story remains a purposeful and predictable white supremacist act manifested with the help of melanated individuals whose blackness veils white supremacist terrorism. This is the reason that Hollywood selects black British actors to perform the African in America’s story. Blacks in America must remain confined to the figurative bottom to ensure that white supremacy remains stagnant. This performance enables America to maintain its image as bearing “possibility”— a possibility available to those who do not bear a direct connection to the horrors that occurred on American soil.
The pejorative pairing between the sentimental and the black narrative is not a new act. In fact, the sentimental is perhaps the most tried and tested technique used to distort the black narrative. Here, I reference the glaring similarities between Harriet and the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman, employs the sentimental to promote her own white female agenda. Specifically, in Stowe’s novel, the “hero” is an enslaved black man espoused to the bible, and the “heroine” Eliza flees enslavement for the sake of motherhood. Tom is perhaps most obviously depicted in Harriet’s father Ben, who blindfolds himself so that when questioned about the whereabouts of his family and friends, he would not have actually “seen” their whereabouts. As those seeking freedom scurry off into the night, Harriet’s father says, “I ain’t seen nun a ya.” This line functions comedically despite illuminating the systemically disenfranchised black person devoted to exuding and perfecting piety in an impious system. Many viewers who castigated Botham Jean’s brother for hugging the being who murdered his Jean, will laugh at this line, though it illustrates the very ideology that engenders such behavior. Nevertheless, the film seemingly combines Stowe’s characters Tom and Eliza to depict Tubman as she who, equipped with piety and the desire to birth free children, flees horrors conveniently omitted from the film.
Before I expand the point regarding the film’s exclusions, I wish to elaborate a bit on the sentimental as a tool to dismember and distort the black narrative. Filmmakers work diligently to pair Erivo with sentimental lines throughout the film. The lines function to incite white viewers to feel what they will never experience and to perform a fake empathy that is nothing more than condescending sympathy. Conversely, this discourse teaches the melanated viewer how to respond to their own narrative. Sentimental discourse pedagogically informs the melanated viewer to assign their story sympathy and pity rather than pride.
The film festers the sentimental by positing Harriet Tubman as an intersectional agent. Specifically, though enslaved by white people conveniently depicted as more money-hungry than cruel, the film portrays Tubman as having to overcome minimized racial obstacles complicated by gender adversity. For example, the film depicts Tubman as having to overcome black abolitionist and Railroad conductor William Still, who underestimates her abilities and her husband, who, assuming she was dead, remarries and starts a new family. Without proper context, the disappointment the black woman experiences engendered by black men appears autonomous from its systemic root. It thus places Tubman alongside the black feminist who though verbally against anti-blackness cites black masculinity as an equally toxic evil that the black woman must overcome.
This depiction proves particularly problematic as it misplaces an obstacle unique to the African experience for conflicts that do not incite viewers to confront or even acknowledge the real villains.
As a narrative distorted by omission, Harriet holds hands with another Harriet’s narrative— Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl. Jacob’s narrative only obtained publication after Jacobs secured white female vindication. Harriet seemingly mirrors this validating act with the white female historian consulted to make the film. This white female pairing with a contentious discourse that threatens to expose the too-often obscured gaps in Jacob’s narrative, reflects an ambiguity imposed that exposes white comfort as more valuable than black truth. For example, the film depicts an abusive relationship between Tubman and her young “master” that mirrors Mr. Flint’s obsession with Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs). In both instances, readers and viewers witness physical violence, but the uncomfortable encounters eliminate the very sexual assault that birthed much of the “African American” constituency in North America. This invisibility or purposeful obscurity proves identical to the film’s casting, where eliminating the abducted African in American illustrates a covert effort designed to make our story, his-story.
This omission is not just inaccurate, its hurtful. To omit the violent act that constitutes the very anti-blackness that continues to haunt the black experience is to violently actualize a pervasive black erasure depicted in the film but ever-present in lauded spaces in American society. So for me, a black woman descended from the enslaved, not only could I not play my foremother, I, and those who share my experience, do not even exist; for the effort to erase one’s history is a violent act to delete the individual.
So imagine the disappointment that follows viewing the film’s character “Bigger Long” as the force that caused many to withdraw their support from this film. Bigger Long, the black bounty killer hired to catch Harriet, earned significant traction on Twitter. While criticism cast against this character appeared praiseworthy, it proved ironic that the overt action, rather than the action itself, proved problematic. Specifically, how are the melanated faces paid to “catch” a significant page in the black narrative and circumscribe the tale to entertain our oppressors any different from Bigger Long the character?
There is, of course, no difference, but the true detriment of the melanated individuals involved in this project remains obscured to those trained to only react to the obvious.
Additionally, the name “Bigger,” seemingly extracted from Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, distorts the prevalent discourse its original configuration existed to delineate. While Harriet‘s Bigger also illustrates a systemic issue, he is not the portrait of injustice Wright’s Bigger Thomas painted; rather, he is a symbol of an anti-black justice that appoints a black face to actualize said anti blackness—which, to reiterate my earlier point, is exactly what viewers witness with lead actress Cynthia Erivo and black female producer Kassi Lemmons. Erivo, Lemmons, and their supporters epitomize the white supremacist strategy to solicit the cognitively enslaved to cut a shared flesh for a violent visibility in our oppressor’s gaze.
We as a collective did not need this Harriet film anymore than we needed any previous biopic or any slave narrative. What we need is another Harriet Tubman. Yet, as long as her story remains mutilated, America can proceed without caution knowing that Harriet Tubman’s strength, her courage, and her determination remain rooted in the superfluous, her inaugural depth summoned to the space and place of other omissions in a narrative that remains publicly defaced in what the world labels entertainment.
The film is a glaring failure in many ways, but perhaps its more prodigious error is placing freedom alongside the age-old American ideal that if you work hard, anything is possible. As illustrated by the enslaved who worked for decades never to receive compensation or physical freedom, this ideal posits what for the black person has simply never been true. Moreover, Tubman’s story remains a pillar in the black narrative, not because she substantiates a fictive claim, but because she took what should have been innately hers.
Tubman’s unsullied narrative underscores that we as a collective must take our narrative from a his story that casts the abducted African as slaves. Tubman reminds her descendants of that important distinction between “enslaved” and “slave.” Specifically, her story reminds her descendants that, while the black people brought from African may have been enslaved, many of our foremothers and forefathers were never slaves.
Believing our ancestors were slaves is one way white supremacy ensures that the current African in America remains predestinated to “slave” status.
The film proceeds with these very ambitions as it belies freedom as a space and place. The slave views enslavement as a physical space or place. Thus, the slave seeks to consummate freedom through hollow gestures that remove physical chains but ignores mental bondage . The enslaved realizes that enslavement is cognitive, thus true freedom constitutes a metaphysical space or place that no one can take from you.
Harriet, a perfect example of the imperfect Neo-slave narrative genre, ignores the enslavement discourse black ancestors like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Tubman teach readers with their life stories. Taken together, these discourses inform the summation for both the movie and this article.
The enslaved built the White House, but slaves made this movie.
“I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves”—-Harriet Tubman
May Queen Harriet Tubman rest in a peace not granted through the Harriet film or American history.