I’m not even going to mince words: I didn’t like Harriet.
Harriet has gotten mixed reviews since its release. Before its release, the film was embroiled in controversy; as if the casting of British actress Cynthia Erivo did not raise enough eyebrows, old tweets of Erivo’s — ones with anti-Black-American sentiments — started to resurface. Then Janelle Monáe, one of the film’s other stars, got dragged by Black people on Twitter when she hopped on there to suggest that someone should put voter registration booths in Popeyes locations so that Black people could register to vote while waiting for their chicken sandwiches (Erivo cosigned that tweet, and promptly got dragged as well. )
Despite all of the commotion surrounding it, I didn’t go into the movie with the desire to dislike it. I actually really wanted the movie to work; I was hoping that things weren’t as bad as I’d read or heard. After all, it’s a movie about Harriet Tubman co-written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, who wrote and directed my favorite movie of all time, Eve’s Bayou. In theory, there should be no one better to tell the story of Harriet Tubman than her.
That’s in theory. In practice, though . . .
I had numerous issues with the movie; everything from the acting to the writing to the score bothered me. There was a moment during my viewing experience that I audibly wondered what the hell I was watching.
What bothered me the most — what I’m still thinking about nearly two weeks after having seen the movie — is how Harriet managed to dehumanize Harriet Tubman, stripping her of her humanity and imagining her as some supernatural being. Harriet very nearly deifies Harriet Tubman; not only does the movie show her doing the impossible tasks of escaping slavery with relatively little trouble, but the movie also transforms Tubman’s physical ailment — namely, epilepsy — into a supernatural ability.
Harriet seems oddly uninterested in the physical journey Harriet Tubman would’ve taken to liberate enslaved people. Apart from a few scenes of her running through the woods and eventually jumping off of a bridge into a river, we don’t see much of her first trip. When she arrives in Philadelphia, Leslie Odom Jr.’s character William Still tells Harriet (and the audience) that she’s traveled 100 miles to freedom on her own, a journey that has never been completed by a single enslaved person before.
That sounds like an incredible trek, and it’s a moment that’s supposed to fill you with awe and admiration for Harriet. Except, that “100 mile” journey literally only lasts a couple of minutes in the movie. We don’t see Harriet actually navigating through the woods for however many days or weeks it would’ve taken. We don’t get to see watch her survive. We don’t see anything that would’ve reminded us that Harriet Tubman was a woman who did the impossible on her own. We’re just told that she did it.
This depiction of her journey only gets more frustrating when Tubman begins leading groups of enslaved people from plantations. We see these trips in montages, each scene showing Tubman returning to Philadelphia with more and more people. Tubman looks infallible here; she always returns with the same stoic, determined look on her face, dirty, but hardly a scratch on her. This montage just made me wonder how she managed to bring so many people on this hundred-mile trip on her without losing anyone, and the more I had to wonder about it, the more irritated I became. Why couldn’t we see her doing this? How did she do it? What struggles did she face? What would’ve been the harm in showing us her struggle?
The movie gives Tubman a couple of spots of vulnerability; she cries when she finds out her husband John has remarried, she mourns when her sister dies, and she cries when her friend — Janelle Monáe’s Marie Buchanan — is murdered. However, each moment of vulnerability is quickly followed by Tubman essentially sucking it up and getting back into action. It’s as if even the movie is saying, “You don’t have time to be sad, girl. You gotta keep working.” And that is not a message I would’ve expected from a movie that’s supposed to humanize Tubman.
As much as I’m gripping about the way her journey is depicted, that pales in comparison to the way her epilepsy is depicted. Many sources say that Harriet Tubman developed temporal lobe epilepsy after an overseer struck her in the head with a weight at the age of either 12 or 13 years old. There are also sources that claim that Tubman had “visions” as a result of the injury, and that she claimed the visions came from God.
I don’t mind the inclusion of the visions because they are a part of Tubman’s story. My problem is that the movie includes the visions without including the actual seizures or headaches she reportedly suffered from. Throughout the movie, Tubman would feel faint, have an extremely convenient and specific vision that tells her exactly what to do to avoid trouble, and then she’d wake up and continue her journey. Every time Tubman runs into trouble, God is there to give her a vision. They’re like a cheat code.
The movie spends absolutely no time interrogating how the seizures, headaches and/or fainting spells would’ve impacted her trek from Maryland to Philadelphia. It’s hard enough to imagine her making this trek at all, but to think that she did it while also suffering from epilepsy is incredible. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the filmmakers would be more interested in these supernatural visions than a more grounded view of Tubman’s journey and faith. That would’ve been far more compelling to watch than the blurry, blue-tinted visions we’re given.
Almost everything about Harriet tells me that someone, somewhere was more interested in this mystical, nearly superhuman version of Harriet Tubman than they were in the actual woman. The movie ends up flattening Harriet Tubman, making it so that she’s more character than human.
It is inherently dangerous to deny the humanity of anyone, but it’s especially insidious to do it to a Black woman. So much of our media loves to portray Black women as pillars of unwavering strength, never to succumb to any emotional, psychological or physical distress. People tend to think this depiction of Black women is flattering, but it’s the exact opposite; it means that you don’t see us as human.
Because real humans feel things: they feel pain as well as joy, uncertainty as well as confidence, fear as well as courage. And maybe I shouldn’t have assumed that a movie about a Black woman, directed by a Black woman, would have understood the dire need to humanize someone like Harriet Tubman.
But I did make that assumption. And I was wrong.