Over Thanksgiving break, I went with my sister to see the film Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo. After we left the theater, my sister asked, “why did I find that so disappointing?” Her point was that it is a compelling story – Harriet Tubman has one of the most exciting and significant lives in American history, after all – and a great cast of actors, so why wasn’t the film better? Overall, the film suffered from stilted dialogue and bafflingly fast pacing to get through Tubman’s narrative at the expense of interesting character development. However, the more glaring problems I had with the film really rested on its somewhat lukewarm historical treatment of real persons. The film wasn’t brave enough to be more fictional, and not precise enough to be truly historical. The result, in some cases, was an ethical lapse on the part of the filmmakers.
Floating around the margins of the film are two interesting figures: Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Both are seen, but never heard from, or even identified (I double checked the credits to make sure these characters were in fact who I thought they were). In the case of John Brown, he is seen briefly corralling people when there is some chaotic movement out of Philadelphia in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act being passed. For Brown, one of the most significant abolitionist fighters of the era, to be seen as an afterthought is a curious decision – why even put him onscreen? Tubman and Brown did meet in real life, but the film never shows or even suggests this. Perhaps this was a case of the character being left out in editing, but his appearance adds nothing except a mild sense of confusion. A much worse fate befalls Douglass.
Frederick Douglass escaped enslavement in a fashion not dissimilar to Tubman: he walked away from the Maryland plantation where he was in bondage and made his way to the North. Afterward, he wrote several slave narratives and memoirs, and went on speaking tours, advocating endlessly for abolition. He did all this at some risk to his safety at times, but deliberately; Douglass wanted people to see a Black man as a fully human being. This is partly why he became the most photographed man in the world in the 19h century. He wanted people to see in him the humanity of Black persons.
However, in the film Harriet, Douglass is framed as a do-nothing, elitist who has forgotten where he came from. In a fictionalized scene, Harriet Tubman is confronting those who suggest it would be more prudent to wait for civil war to break out, rather than continue to lead enslaved persons out from the South. As she speaks, she looks directly at the (silent) Douglass and says something to the effect of: “Some of you been free so long you don’t remember what it’s like to be a slave.” I found that choice unconscionable.
Frederick Douglass, who devoted his life to the eradication of the institution of enslavement in this country, never “forgot” what enslavement was like. He wrote in graphic detail about his life and the lives of the other enslaved people he knew. He wrote about why enslaved people were afraid, why it was hard to escape, and why the country’s racism was so encompassing. His sons all worked for or served in the Union Army during the war – this is hardly a person who neglected his roots. Additionally, the historical record clearly demonstrates Douglass’ immense respect for Tubman. While it is possible they met, there is not enough evidence to prove it. But Douglass did write about Tubman, and this can be easily found in the most basic of sources – Harriet Tubman’s Wikipedia entry. Douglass wrote the following in a letter to Tubman:
Rochester, August 29, 1868
Dear Harriet: I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony for your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.
Frederick Douglass(Full letter can be seen at: http://www.harriet-tubman.org/letter-from-frederick-douglass/)
For Harriet Tubman to ask Douglass for a letter in support of her story, and for him to say he instead needs one from her indicates a strong mutual respect. For the film to suggest otherwise is not only ahistoric, but downright irresponsible. In the film, Douglass never speaks or responds to Tubman’s criticism – you can only tell who it is by the characteristic Douglass hair on the actor. There was no need to pit two heroes of American history against one another like this, to suggest that only Harriet Tubman was the “real” freedom fighter. It is a dangerous practice to assume that historical figures (or any of us, really) live in a vacuum, abstracted from community or other ties. Tubman walked alone many times, but even she noted that she also “walked with the Lord.” No one is a solitary hero, and it is unethical to suggest otherwise, particularly when the historical record shows otherwise.