The Hollywood Stylings of Harriet Tubman

3 Nov

This Friday, a couple friends and I went to see the opening night of Harriet, the new movie about one of the most iconic and celebrated abolitionists, Harriet Tubman. It has received many positive reviews, including the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, many of which point out that it’s not just a film about slavery but a film that also reflects on Tubman’s inner life, her romantic self-hood, her powerful relationship to her family, and gender roles. Indeed, signalling the centrality of such themes, the movie opens with Tubman having one of her sleeping spells that give her powerful visions, after which her family comes to get her so that they can present a legal petition for their freedom to their owner, which is of course rejected.  This scene is followed by a tender scene with her husband, as they think together about how to achieve freedom. Most of the movie then proceeds to tell the story of Tubman’s rise to heroic status, where her famously peculiar “spells” are not a disability for her adventures but give her something of a “super-ability” to predict the future and evade the dogs of slave catchers in action-packed chase sequences where she narrowly escapes or bravely confronts her pursuers. As we exited the theater, I  exclaimed to my friends that Tubman is a Jedi master, and awesomely so, but, as I discovered later on the internet, my humorous analogy is not actually that far off from the intention of the writers, directors, and actors who, in interviews, have compared her to super-heroes like Spider-Man and her “spells” to a “Spidey-sense.”

Although all of the usual media outlets are busy celebrating this movie as the first movie about Harriet Tubman, prefacing their praise with wonder why there hasn’t been any other movies made about her before now, it might be worthwhile to keep in mind that when magazine, newspaper, and TV reviewers (mostly white people) say, “oh, this is the first time there’s been a film about X or Y black subject,” what they often really mean is that it’s the first time for them. We can recall when reviewers were so excited about 12 Years a Slave being THE first movie to represent the horror of slavery, not noticing that exactly the same story (adapting the 1854 book by Solomon Northup) had been made before for PBS by the famous African-American director Gordan Parks in 1984 — all of which I wrote about back then on this blog [here]. It’s a bit like the statement that Columbus discovered America without noticing that there were people already there. So, the afternoon before we went to see the movie, I took a trip to the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library and watched “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad” directed by Paul Stanley, starring the sensational Ruby Dee as Tubman alongside Ossie Davies and Brock Peters, broadcast on CBS in 1965. Remarkably like the new feature-length movie, the old 1965 dramatization for television also focuses on Tubman’s inner life and family — precisely the things the new 2019 version is being praised for — this older 1965 version perhaps drawing inspiration from the Y.A. biography of her published in 1955 by the famous writer Ann Petry (thanks and shout outs to my friend Miles for teaching me about that work.) Conveniently for you, you don’t also have to go to the special research branch of the New York library, but can watch it here on YouTube.

My point in bringing up this previous version is not to say that there’s nothing new about the new one. Because there is a lot new about the new one, and the acting, cinematography, and story-telling in the new one are all quite excellent, the way that Hollywood movies are so often technically excellent with their large budgets and resources. And the new one even offers us something very exciting, as I hope you will see in my concluding paragraph to my blog post. Rather, my point is to suggest that we can read Harriet in the context of all of the other movies about slavery that your average critic for whatever magazine, newspaper, or TV show will not bring up, because they probably haven’t seen them. For instance, another recent example of Tubman on the screen (that I haven’t seen mentioned in reviews of Harriet, surprisingly) would include episode six, season two of the show Underground, which aired in April 2017 and which was a truly remarkable piece of television since the entire episode was a single monologue by Tubman that inventively wove the issues of 1850s with the issue of the Trump-era today. Whatever it is you think you’ve seen on TV before, trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this — a 45 minute monologue ripping white America apart and declaring war by any means necessary on the institution of slavery by an iconic Tubman, all in a single camera take. But in addition to all of the innovative new television and film about slavery coming out in recent years (e.g., the movie Belle that I wrote about for this blog in 2013), there is also a long history of efforts by black and white writers and directors to dramatize for the screen the horrors of slavery and the awesome resilience of enslaved peoples, that I have been researching and first published an account of in my chapter on “Cinematic Slavery” in the book The Cinematic Eighteenth Century, published in 2017.

What struck me about Harriet was not its uniqueness, but precisely how it did exactly what one would expect it to do (if you had read my chapter on cinematic slavery, wink wink), considering Hollywood conventions about dramatizing slavery and how the genre of cinematic slavery has evolved over time in dialogue with the Marxism, Civil Rights Movement, and Pan-Africanism that blossomed in the 1960s as well as the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements more recently.

So, I want to compare Harriet to some of these other films just to indicate what a story could be, in contrast to the way that Hollywood does it.

First, what do I mean by the Hollywood style. Put simply, the Hollywood style requires a rearrangement of history to maximize the individual heroism of the subject. As a summary by Slate and another summary by the Smithsonian of all the historical inaccuracies in the film suggests, the movie focuses on her exceptional super-abilities and unique heroism. For example, in the movie version, even the Fugitive Slave Act seems to have been passed because the South was frightened of Tubman’s ability to free slaves, when in fact, the passage of this law happened before she had freed more than a few. In Hollywood, all history is rearranged around the exceptional heroism of the main character in order to magnify their uniqueness and historical significance, making heroism the causal factor in the unfolding of history. In the movie, Tubman is able to accomplish all that she accomplishes because God speaks to her and because of her strength of will. Ironically, in a film presumably about the Underground Railroad, the role of the Underground Railroad is sometimes minimized — the vast network pops up here and there as a resource for Tubman, but for the most part the movie characterizes Tubman as someone who defies the Underground organization and instead accomplishes everything by herself — alone — rather than as part of a political network.

Some of the historical inaccuracies are telling about how Hollywood carefully aims to avoid offending white audiences, so, for example, her white former master (a character invented for the screen and not based in history) is given perhaps more screen time than almost any other character (more screen time than Janelle Monae’s character, whom I think we’d all much rather see, and more screen time than the iconic Frederick Douglass, who had scarcely a line); repeatedly, the audience is subject to this white man’s tortured feelings for her because of their childhood relationship, tortured feelings that for no apparent reason are made to seem… um… relevant?…Blah. We saw this before in the movie Belle about a biracial heroine whose black mother was taken out of the original script to be replaced by the producers with a incredibly sensitive white father… Gah. Also historically impossible would be the presence in the movie of gun-toting black men working as slave catchers below the Mason Dixon line; but in fact, the law prohibiting black people from owning guns was one of the very first laws passed in the British colonies of North America. Another curious detail is how a black church in Maryland occupies a special place on the Underground Railroad, a historical improbability since black ministers were not allowed to have their own churches at this time. All of these details serve to appeal to a white, middle-class viewing audience who want to see that there was some black-on-black violence, not just white-on-black violence, and that although the church may have been a bit imperfect at times, it was mostly for the good of us all, and that white people could be very conflicted emotionally about slavery, boohoo. Sorry, not sorry, for my sarcasm.

But most importantly for me is the issue of whether Harriet is some kind of exceptional super-hero accomplishing incredible feats on her own or part of a larger political movement and complex social network. This is a more complicated question that, I think, requires us to situate the new movie in cinema history. Certainly the real Tubman was exceptional and incredible, I don’t mean to express doubt about that, but also just as certainly, she was part of a broad social movement and sophisticated political organization.

So, how might a Pan-African filmmaker tell the story of Tubman? Pan-African films such as Sankofa by Haile Gerima, Ceddo by Ousmane Sembene, and Black Goddess by Ola Balugun (which I’ve written about [here] in another blog) tend to focus on the support systems and deep cultural resources of the black community. One of the key differences between a Hollywood film and a Pan-African film would be the characterization of religion. So, while in the Hollywood Harriet, the Christian church is an ally for her escape, in the Pan-African Sankofa it is African spirituality and culture that is the ally, while the church is what betrays the rebellion. Likewise, Marxist cinema such as the classics Burn! by Pontecorvo and Last Supper by Alea paint the church as a hypocritical institution. It is probably worth mentioning that Harriet Tubman’s fellow abolitionists in the 1850s, Fredrick Douglass and Martin Delany, were closer to the Marxist viewpoint in their own direct analysis of the problematic double-role of the church as on the one hand serving the interest of the power structure while on the other hand preaching salvation to the slave. It is to the credit of the movie Harriet that it subtly indicates the complicated position of the church in relation to slavery. Historically, both scenarios were possible — sometimes the church was a resource for slaves, but other times it was the church that served as a source of intelligence for the white master in order to maintain control of his slaves through soft, indirect ways that supplemented the raw brutality of domination. Hollywood movies, including Harriet, tend to lean far in one direction in its representation, while Pan-Africanist and Marxist cinema tend to lean far in the other direction. Moreover, what Marxist and Pan-African cinema will emphasize instead of the heroic individual is the heroic community struggling to maintain solidarity and a unified voice. One might guess why Hollywood would shy away from the kinds of stories preferred by Pan-Africanists and Marxists, since the story of an empowered community of black people in mass revolt is a whole lot more scary to the white establishment than the story of an exceptional individual with superpowers constantly in a state of anxious flight.

I mention these other films not to say that Harriet is bad, because I do really think it’s good, but just to remind viewers that other stories are possible. Speaking for myself, I rather enjoyed watching a superhero Tubman, constantly in motion, as if running to the theme song from Chariots of Fire. But my point is that you wouldn’t know that other stories are possible if you only watch Hollywood stuff and read the reviews in American media. You also won’t really appreciate what is unique and interesting about Harriet.

What I think is actually great about Harriet is precisely the scenes with the other members of the Underground Railroad — how the many men and women work together. Although the central story of the film is Harriet the superhero, at the same time, here and there, are scenes of solidarity, cooperation, and intelligence. And this is what I think Hollywood has actually been learning from the Marxist and Pan-Africanist cinema of the past, now that more men and women of color are gaining positions as writers, directors, and producers in the film industry and can build upon the work of past black artists and activists to come up with a better, more innovative, and more multi-voiced vision of their art. I say this because there is no doubt that Harriet is a much better film than Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad and Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, both of which focus on the exceptional heroism of white men on behalf of enslaved people rather than on the political solidarity and cultural resources within the black community. In addition, in many ways Harriet is a much better movie than Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis’s 1965 production, not just because it has a bigger budget and fancier cinematography, but also precisely because now black writers and directors can imagine (and not be prohibited from imagining by the production companies) such complicated political networks and cultural forms of solidarity, while the 1965 film was limited to dramatizing Tubman’s relationship to her family. I think we can appreciate Harriet in the context of cinema history as so many young and amazing artists, writers, and directors, now more of them women of color than ever, are able to lend their artistic vision to how the past informs our movement into the future.

Go see it for yourself, and then please comment on my blog if you think I’m wrong or have missed something important. Moreover, now that the American media industry is congratulating itself on finally making a movie about Harriet Tubman to prepare the way for her face on the 20-dollar bill, can they get to work on making movies about Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells…?


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