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The History And Humanity Of Harriet Tubman, Beyond The Big Screen

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger (age 8) in "Harriet," a Focus Features release. (Glen Wilson/Focus Features)
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger (age 8) in "Harriet," a Focus Features release. (Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

The new movie about Harriet Tubman. Historians tell us her real life was more incredible than what’s shown on the big screen.


Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. Author of “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman.” (@ericaadunbar)

Kasi Lemmons, award-winning director, writer, actress and professor. Co-writer and director of “Harriet.” (@kasi_lemmons)

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From The Reading List

Excerpt from “She Came To Slay” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

She couldn’t remember how many times she had risked her own life to save others. To date, every fugitive she agreed to help escape she had conducted to safety. Her record was sterling. Much was required for the journey—fearlessness, first and foremost. You had to learn to disregard the night creatures, endure the mosquitoes and humidity, and move forward even when a hound’s violent bark pierced the night. Driving snow and pounding rain could not intimidate, neither could bruised and bloody feet, nor pitch-black forests. Her resolve and strength were tested each time she traveled back to Maryland on a rescue mission, but she believed in herself and in her God.

It wasn’t just Harriet who would need grit. Her fugitive followers would need it too. We can only imagine the orientation Harriet gave the runaways. How she prepared them for what to expect. Her methods had to have been effective, because on her  previous trips nothing had gone wrong. But this time, one runaway lost his nerve.

A group of fugitives followed Harriet into the cold swamps of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where they hid during the daylight hours. At night they traveled north, all the while trying to ignore their empty stomachs and deteriorating faith. The journey had taken its toll on the group, but one man in particular was broken by the terror and fatigue. He announced that he would return to the farm and take his chances on the punishment he would likely face. He refused to listen to the other fugitives in his party who begged him to continue on with them. The frigid nights, the wet clothes, the fear, and the thirst wore the man down. He refused to move another step, provoking a standoff between himself and the group’s leader. Harriet could not let one man endanger the lives of the entire group. He was the weak link in the chain of coconspirators who now knew the route that Harriet used to rescue her fugitives. She was certain that severe punishment could easily pry this information from his lips. Harriet said, “if he was weak enough to give out, he’d be weak enough to betray us all, and all who had helped us; and do you think I’d let so many die just for one coward man?

She had to protect herself and the others, so she did what needed to be done. Harriet approached the man, aimed a revolver at his head, and told him that he had a decision to make. He could keep moving or he could die. Harriet would kill this man before letting him jeopardize her operation. Not only did she have the well- being of the other fugitives on her mind, but she also thought about the other family members she had yet to rescue. If she had to, she would kill him and bury his body in the woods.

The terrified fugitive knew that Harriet meant what she said. Her eyes warned him not to test her. He made the wise decision to continue on with the other fugitives and to follow his conductor, as others had before him and as others would do after.

Excerpted from SHE CAME TO SLAY by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Copyright © 2019 by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Reprinted with permission of Atria Books / 37 Ink, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Vulture: “Harriet Can’t Conjure the Humanity of Its Iconic Lead” — “There is power in a name.

“Early into the film Harriet, not long after its lead makes the 100-mile escape from slavery to freedom on her own, the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) asks Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) whether she’ll take on a new name. Erivo’s eyes scan the room, as if trying to conjure the right answer out of the air: ‘Harriet Tubman,’ she says, offering up a name we’ve certainly heard before. It’s a moment meant to make the heart swell — to commemorate the fact that she holds her destiny in her hands now — but instead, it lands with a thud, with Erivo communicating a resolute hopefulness and little else. Despite the talent in front of and behind the camera, this scene, like so many others in this mostly by-the-numbers biopic, plays out like a hollow turning point, stripped of the weight we know it could possess.

“Harriet unfurls like a beefed-up Wikipedia entry as it charts the titular character’s journey to freedom, from the compound of her former slave master (played with bland malevolence by Joe Alwyn) to the echelons of the Underground Railroad, where she becomes a conductor of high regard — so high she eventually helps to command an armed expedition in the Civil War. The script hits the notes (triumphs of will, rousing speeches, obvious turns of fortune) we’ve come to expect from a film genre angling for award traction, but it’s bloated with clunky, expository dialogue. The score is increasingly saccharine, approaching Hallmark movie territory; the visual landscape of the film is brimming with basic shot decisions. In the end, Harriet demonstrates none of the curious, perspicacious abilities of Kasi Lemmons, who burst onto the scene with the beguiling Southern tale, Eve’s Bayou. But Lemmons does add to the story of Harriet’s life in one less expected way — namely by making her a psychic.”

BuzzFeed News: “OK, Fine. Let’s Talk About ‘Harriet.’” — “It is not unusual for dramatic license to be taken when a writer or director is creating a narrative based on actual events. However, with Harriet, the recently released biopic of the iconic historical figure Harriet Tubman starring Broadway star Cynthia Erivo and directed by Kasi Lemmons, such creative license has come under scrutiny.

“The inclusion of a fictional black bounty hunter named Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey), as well his death at the hands of Harriet’s ‘master,’ Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), has upset a faction of Twitter users who believe these creative liberties were in poor taste. They have called for people to refrain from seeing the film, using hashtags like #NotMyHarriet — which, at first, stemmed from a controversy surrounding Erivo’s casting in the title role of a black American hero (the actor is British, born to Nigerian parents). Now the hashtag has become a vessel for the brewing conversation around the film’s supposed white savior narrative.

“Calls for the movie to be boycotted because of that purported trope highlight some thorny topics, like the purpose of biographical art — and its responsibility to the truth — and whether someone can critique art without having first seen the project they are assessing.

“Lemmons, who previously directed 1997’s Southern gothic classic Eve’s Bayou and is herself a black woman, spoke with BuzzFeed News at length about the controversy in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. She called the film’s white savior criticism ‘completely ridiculous.’ ”

IndieWire: “‘Harriet,’ Fact v. Fiction: ‘Of Course I Embellished. I’m a Screenwriter.’” — “You know a biopic is gaining traction in the awards race when it’s hounded by claims of historical inaccuracies. Last year, films like ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and ‘Green Book’ came under fire for presenting distorted or incomplete depictions; this year, Focus Features’ ‘Harriet’ runs the gauntlet. However, writer-director Kasi Lemmons isn’t having it: She firmly believes that it’s impossible to operate as both a first-rate screenwriter and a first-rate historian.

“‘Of course I embellished, I’m a screenwriter,’ said Lemmons, who wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard. ‘I added to the story because anybody that’s a writer that approaches a real story has to embellish.’

“Since Tubman never learned to read or write, details about her life come largely from first- and second-hand accounts. Lemmons’ primary sources were Tubman biographies, including ‘Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman,’ written in 1869 by Tubman’s abolitionist friend Sarah Bradford. Written to raise money for Tubman and her cause, the book often embellished Tubman’s stories to make them more thrilling and therefore marketable.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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