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The Facts and Faith of 'Harriet': A Historian Reviews the Tubman Biopic

, | November 1, 2019 | By

Hollywood loves to make movies about real historical figures, but too often, they're more about what the filmmakers want to say rather than the person's real life. Harriet may be an exception to that.

In theaters now, the Focus Features film, directed by Kasi Lemmons (who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard), centers on the life of Harriet Tubman (played by British stage and screen actress Cynthia Erivo), an escaped slave from Maryland who first got herself to freedom, then, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, guided her family and many others out of slavery. 

Kate Clifford Larson is the author of the 2003 book Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (2003)and we had a chat earlier this week about the movie, on which she consulted. Here are the highlights of what she had to say.

On what issues she may have had with the film:

As a historian, of course I could be really picky, but overall the film is fabulous and the most important thing is, it is true to Harriet Tubman. They do portray that fierce, militant, radical, defiant, deeply and profoundly faithful Harriet Tubman. And that is what is so powerful about the film. They get many of the facts of her life right, they just conflate some of the timelines. They conflate some of the escapes missions, they combine characters and different things that happened on different missions. They put them in one or two or three of them. I can't quibble with that. It's a feature film, and they had two hours to tell this amazing story, so I think Kasi Lemmons did a great job pulling it all together.

On how Tubman, who was barely over five feet tall, illiterate and not possessing of superpowers or high-tech weaponry, managed to be a true hero (and never lose one person she guided out):

That is the essence of it. It's the truth. She had this great intelligence that is finally being celebrated on screen and she's a real flesh-and blood-woman who did these things, and why has it taken 150 years for us to pay this much attention to her? But she's this fierce character and it comes across in the film. Thank goodness.

On what she hopes the film will do for Tubman's legacy and for young people who haven't heard about her:

I think the film will have long legs because it can be used in school. I think upper-level middle-school kids can see it. Certainly high-school kids can see it. It doesn't have horrific violence in it. It doesn't have sex scenes in it. It's a great tool to teach students about this great American hero, but also the truth about slavery, the Underground Railroad, abolition, this interracial movement from 150 years ago. Kids can learn about that. Yes, you can work together and make huge changes in the world.

Parents should know hat Harriet is PG-13 for a reason. There is not violence on the level of a horror or war film, but it is there, and it's directed at African-Americans, and, in particular, women. There is rough language and a liberal sprinkling of racial epithets.

One bonus is we do get to hear bits of Erivo's glorious singing voice, and she co-wrote (with Joshuah Brian Campbell), an original song called Stand Up.

Tubman was also a person of deep Christian faith. After suffering a head injury as a child, she had "spells," during which she believed God communicated with her -- and these visions helped her on her journeys.

Erivo attended Catholic schools in England and was described as Catholic in the New York Times, saying, "My faith is with me always."

Speaking to writer DeWayne Hamby at Patheos, she said:

“What was wonderful about playing Harriet and diving into that part of her is that it gave me access to my own faith. It made me braver in my prayers. It made me want to pray, and not be afraid to do it out loud if I needed to."

But, in an otherwise positive review of Harriet, Common Sense Media seems to feel this detracts from Tubman's accomplishments: 

The cast is wonderful, and the story is important, but the movie suffers in its exploration of Tubman's condition. Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard portray her traumatic brain injury as leading to actual divine prescience. The film credits that supposed skill with her ability not only to turn the right way and avoid capture (she never lost anyone she guided to freedom) but to also see the future -- like the time and place of a white man's death while fighting for the Confederacy.

Tubman did believe that her visions were inspired by God, but Harriet's focus on her spells as supernatural turns the film into a case for her sainthood/near-invincibility rather than concentrating on the ongoing bravery and clarity of purpose she required to continue returning down South. The film is definitely worth seeing, but a little less about the visions and more about the woman would have made it even more powerful.

I asked Larson about the emphasis on Tubman's faith, and she said:

The interesting thing is when Tubman, after she escaped and she started traveling around and getting to know all the abolitionists, they were starting to get to know her. She couldn't read or write so that separated her from a lot of people.

But her faith is what connected her to people, and that was her entree into those circles because she was so profoundly faithful. That was her stamp of approval. So, isn't it interesting that today people get nervous talking about her faith, but back then that was her vehicle into these powerful circles?

I'm not an expert on Tubman's faith, but you have to write about it. You have to show it. You have to share it because that's what motivated her. That was part of her whole being. I'm not going to question that. I'm not going to deny it. It is who she was, and it was powerful, you can't deny that. You can't deny it, it's not right.

For a lot of people who don't have that same faith, it's still magical. I don't feel the way Tubman did, but boy, I find it really magical. It gave her sustenance and it gave her comfort and it guided her and that's powerful. That is really powerful. So would she have been Tubman without that? I don't know. You have to include it.

Larson also shared a story about a talk she did recently about Tubman and her faith. Afterward, she recalled, an African-American mother and child came up to her and declared that she considers Tubman a prophet. About that moment, Larson said:

I am not qualified to write about it, but this woman, it was on her mind and she shared it and she was very serious about it. And I'm sure the people who follow Tubman sometimes felt that. They trusted her completely, even through situations that it defied logic that she succeeded to get them through. So who am I to question?

Image: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

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