I recently saw the controversial Harriet Tubman movie. As a community organizer and educator, I put forth a call-to-action asking Black people around the world to organize community field trips to watch the movie and intelligently discuss it, then create community initiatives to help “liberate Black people from bondage” TODAY.
I followed that with a video asking why ADOS supporters were attacking and even boycotting the film.
The popular critiques from the film’s Black opponents are: 1. It depicted a brutal Black bounty hunter who killed a free Black anti-slavery advocate. 2. It made certain white folk seem heroic. 3. Black people were killed, but no white folk died. 4. The actress portraying Harriet Tubman-Cynthia Erivo- is not fit for the role because she was born in Britain. As a historian, I did take note of the traitorous and excessively brutal Black bounty hunter. I don’t recall any white folk dying either. I figured those were concessions made to appease white Hollywood folks. That’s what happens when you are a colonized people under the control of others. It’s to be expected.
In the midst of these general critiques from others, I had to compare my dominant recollections of the film’s characters, tone, and memorable scenes. I saw the brilliant portrayal of a determined, tenacious revolutionary woman. A sister who was courageous and did much with little; I saw a traitor who became Harriet’s number one ally; I saw enslaved Black people who risked life & limb to be active agents of their own liberation; I saw free Africans working with and assisting their enslaved kinfolk; I saw Black people who sacrificed and used their wits to deceive crackas and help their people (preacher & Harriet’s dad); I saw Janelle Monae endure death rather than snitch on or betray Harriet; I saw complex Black people who loved and dreamed and feared and pushed through their fears.
About those (unfair) criticisms. I think it’s unfair and inaccurate to suggest white folk and Black traitors were depicted as “heroic” in the film. The Black bounty hunter was depicted as a COLLABORATOR (they existed then and still exist now), of white slave agents, not a hero. Nor was he portrayed as public enemy number one. That distinction goes to white folk. And the film clearly illustrated this. The bounty hunter was sought after and employed by a WHITE MAN. WHITE PEOPLE created and most benefited from the institution of slavery. WHITE PEOPLE created armed slave patrols and slave catchers. WHITE PEOPLE passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; WHITE PEOPLE put a bounty on Harriet Tubman. WHITE PEOPLE made it illegal to hide or help fugitive slaves. WHITE PEOPLE used intimidation and incentives to compromise enslaved Africans. And who wrote the rule that movie characters could only be played by actors who shared the same nationality?? Was this questionable issue raised when Idris Elba played Nelson Mandela? Or when Denzel played Steve Biko? As for Ms. Erivo, why boycott the entire movie because of some Twitter comments- many of which were exaggerated and taken out of context anyway? This issue has gained traction not because of its sound logic, but because it represents the anti-African and Pan African agenda of the ADOS movement. Sad and shameful….
Was the movie completely factual? Of course not; Historical accuracy is the domain of documentaries, not Hollywood films. Did the movie have some contradictions? Yes. As if those criticizing AND supporting the movie don’t? As if ALL films don’t? Nevertheless, this film was generally inspiring and true to the revolutionary spirit of sister Harriet. The message was revolutionary: “If you want liberation, you- like Harriet Tubman- must be prepared to disobey unethical laws, experience discomfort, risk your life, take life, form important alliances, and do so with great faith and creativity.”
Some harsh critics of this movie are politically motivated by the compromised and conflicted ADOS movement. Others don’t understand the complicated process of publishing books or making movies with the assistance of white mainstream backers. Others are innocently missing the point, and view their opposition to the film as being somehow protective of Harriet Tubman’s legacy. Fine. They are entitled to dissent. However this must be done FAIRLY with nuance and balance, rather than nitpicking a few things, exaggerating others, and conveniently ignoring all of the film’s excellent attributes. In fact, this glaringly unfair and imbalanced level of critique served with such hostility, smells more like an outright irrational attack…..
Time will demonstrate this film’s importance as a tool of education, inspiration, community organizing and BLACK RESISTANCE. In the meantime, SOMEONE doesn’t want Black people to know about, take interest in or EMULATE their revolutionary ancestors. First Nat Turner, now Harriet Tubman. Hmmm. Who might these people be? The same white supremacist type of folks who created slavery, imperialism and colonialism targeting Black folks. They have every interest in getting our people to disavow revolutionary thinking and practice.That is in fact, their job. Our job is to fight for Black liberation. challenge the enemy, educate those among us who don’t know and expose collaborators with our enemy. WE WILL WIN!