“Harriet”: The life and legend of an abolitionist, made Hollywood

The “Harriet” movie takes a story that symbolizes black womanhood, and twists it in a way that fits a cinematic agenda.


photo courtesy of Tribune News Service

by Faith Andrews-O'Neal, Opinion Editor

I had an issue starting this, because of the emotions this movie evoked. At first, I thought I’d start witty, something like “There were two choices: me choosing Vanilla Diet Coke, and the creators inventing a black bounty hunter in a story that had no need.” Then I imagined that I would start with something poetic and mysterious, like the blue-tinted plantation that opens the movie. Neither seemed to encapsulate what viewing the Harriet movie made me feel. 

Black stories deserve to be told. This is something I’ve always believed, only strengthened by my short time as a writer for a publication. We are rich in culture and stories and experiences, and that truth deserves to be respected. Therein lies the issue of Harriet. The story of Harriet Tubman is one that resonates with people everywhere, especially in particular, black women. She is a symbol of all we should hope to be: strong, impassioned, resilient and willing to risk her life for those in need. This movie’s portrayal of that story did not do her justice.

We all know the story of Harriet Tubman (I hope). She escaped slavery on her own and went on to be one of the most successful conductors of the Underground Railroad, never losing a single slave. Then, she worked with a team of black Union Soldiers to free over 700 slaves in the Combahee River Raid, one of the only army raids to ever be led by a woman. Long story short, this woman is a pillar of black history.

I am tired of slave movies. I am tired of movies where the central point of a black person’s plot is their oppression and pain. However, I do believe that Harriet Tubman’s story is one that should be shouted from the rooftops, which is why I was excited about this movie. As I often do before writing a story, I began lurking through the internet, trying to gain a general idea of the plot and angle. I was shocked to see the focus of vitriol aimed towards Cynthia Erivo, the Black British actress who played Harriet Tubman in the movie. Blackness is something that we both have a right to claim. However, there is a difference in the cultural experience of a British descendant of African immigrants, and a Black descendant of American chattel slavery. No one group has more claim to Blackness, but when portraying Harriet Tubman, one should have a bigger seat at the table. Then, I noticed a Twitter thread posted by (find and insert twitter handle here), and it articulated the discomfort I felt. 

It is a universally accepted truth that Harriet Tubman, as a historical figure, is a role model and activist. I think there are ample Black Americans who could have played this role (see: Viola Davis, whose casting was rumored for this very role). The idea of Harriet Tubman being played by a woman who is not a descendant of American slavery was disconcerting to begin with. Her past in ridiculing Black Americans and differentiating herself from American Black people made it abundantly clear that she is the wrong person for this role. 

The team behind “Harriet” mishandled this narrative, as seen by the invention of a Black bounty hunter/slave catcher. There is no historical evidence of such a man existing. Instead, creative liberties were taken, and a Black villain was pulled out of thin air in a movie about a woman whose entire life and legacy uplifts black people. To invent a quasi-romantic plotline between her and her late master’s son, and create a black slave-catcher was gratuitous at best, and negligent at worst. When the white slave owner played by Joe Alwyn killed him, saving Harriet, I felt a brief second of relief, then horror. Why should I sit in this movie, glad at this Black death at the hands of an oppressor? Why would they make me feel that way?

I did not need the characters they fabricated. The source material was rich enough on its own. The performances were proof of the cast’s ability to create enjoyable work, without the need for extraneous material. I would have watched an entire feature film about her time preparing for a raid freeing hundreds of slaves in the Combahee River Raid. By inserting formulaic tropes known in biopics (a malevolent greedy villain, a humanized oppressor, etc.), the team behind Harriet told me that they did not find her story interesting enough on its own. 

I left the theater feeling many things. Angry, because of an opportunity wasted. Tired, because watching black bodies hunted down is draining. Invigorated still, because the story of Harriet Tubman is too powerful to be overshadowed even by poor use of creative license. I give the movie 2 out of 5 stars. One, because for all her controversy, Cynthia Erivo’s rendition of Harriet was strong and impassioned, and fully present. Two, because I left feeling empowered. Seeing Harriet Tubman ride off into the sunset on a white horse may have felt like 17,000 archetypical movie tropes at once, but it is always good to see the Black woman win.  This movie made me hold Harriet Tubman closer to my heart, out of admiration for her craft, and a sense of newfound protection. There is great freedom in truth. Harriet Tubman risked everything for freedom.