“Harriet” is a fantastic film about the real life of Harriet Tubman. What struck me most, though, were the themes of faith and freedom found throughout the story.
Christianity is a central theme in the movie. Near the beginning, we witness an African American pastor preaching about how slaves must obey their masters no matter what. In a stunning twist, this pastor later turns out to be part of the underground railroad–a nod to the real life pastor who did the same in Tubman’s life. As a cover, it was brilliant: who would suspect the man who preaches about how slaves will burn in hell for running away would also be assisting that very act? The fact remains, though, that many, many white pastors supported and buttressed the enslavement of fellow humans through the use of just such Bible verses. What the Civil War did with theology is its own, fascinating story, but that battle between a literalistic reading of such passages and seeing the visions of freedom in narratives like that of Moses is played out in an engrossing way in this movie.
The use of spirituals throughout the film is also intensely personal and moving. The scene showing Tubman leading a raid that freed many slaves during the Civil War towards the end of the movie juxtaposed with her singing “Wade in the Water” is perfection itself. Too often, we tend to spiritualize spirituals, along with our hymns and liturgy–even what the Bible itself says. But there is no question that there are real life applications of these verses and these words that people sang. It would be impossible for those enslaved to not see themselves paralleled in the stories about Moses–let my people go! And it would be right for them to do so as a challenge to a simplistic reading of verses that tell slaves to obey masters. These kind of deep, complex issues aren’t fully explored in the film, but the fact that even begins to raise them makes it one of the most fascinating movies I’ve seen recently.
Harriet Tubman is portrayed claiming to have visions from God, and this claim is apparently paralleled in her real life. Several historians today believe this was a condition of epilepsy or something like it that was caused by the actual injury documented in the movie from the weight being thrown at Tubman’s head. But Tubman herself saw these visions as being from God, though perhaps not quite in the way the film portrays–as they warn of specific dangers before they happen. Is it possible that Harriet was used by God in this way? It seems the answer must be yes, for her life was clearly one of fighting for justice as a life of faith. Whatever messy theological problems come from that are questions for a different time, though they are worth reflecting upon. If our theology can’t account for the real, lived experience of people who claim to be used by God and demonstrate that in their lives, it probably is in need of some revising.
Freedom is a basic human right,and throughout the film, we see Tubman repeating the phrase “be free or die” (and variations on it). This is true to the real life Tubman, as well. What is fascinating, again, is that this theme of freedom is not tied into a secular, abstract sense of freedom, but a theological, almost liturgical sense in which freedom is something that God will bring–bringing justice against the enslavers.
The constant sacrifice of the freedom of fellow humans is a theme that isn’t quite as strong in the film, but the horrible ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act are vividly portrayed. The Fugitive Slave Act is one of the most heinous laws passed in the history of our country, and its contentious nature helped drive the country towards Civil War. What is particularly fascinating is the subtle jab at the “Lost Cause” that is taken towards the end of the movie. The “Lost Cause” thesis was a rewrite of history by those with Southern interests in mind to argue the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than about slavery. (It manifestly was about slavery, including trumping states’ rights in order to save slavery.) In the film, Tubman notes that the lost cause was the enslavement of other humans–a cause which is as morally bankrupt and “lost” as it is possible to be.
There is no doubt that “Harriet” has me thinking about some of the deep questions of faith and freedom. I already put one biography of Tubman on hold at the library and eagerly anticipate reading it.
There were a few things that I did think were negatives in an otherwise excellent film. One was the character of Bigger Long, a black slave catcher. There is no direct evidence that any black slave catcher was involved in trying to thwart Tubman, to my knowledge (please point me to a historical source if you have one). It seems like this selection was made, apparently, to make it so that not every “bad guy” in the movie was a white person. Though it is true there were some African American slave catchers, they were obviously much less common than white ones. The decision to make Bigger Long an example of such is odd.
I also loved the scene with Harriet giving her speech to Seward and a crowd gathered there as they debated what to do about the Fugitive Slave Act, but was disappointed to see someone clearly portraying Frederick Douglass get scolded by Tubman as not remembering what it was like to be enslaved because he was too important now. The character of Douglass (who I don’t believe ever is explicitly named as such, but the hair styling and time he talks makes it quite clear) is shown giving a stirring call to thwart the enslavers just before this. This sensitivity on my part may be because I think Frederick Douglass is one of the most important, fascinating figures in all of United States history, rather than as a negative point. See my work reflecting on Douglass as a prophet of freedom.
“Harriet” as a whole is a fascinating, intense film that shows the evils of slavery without becoming voyeuristic about it. It also does an excellent job highlighting the difficulties with faith and freedom in our country’s history, as well as in the real lived lives of those back then. It also calls us to do better now for our society and overthrow the bonds–real or imagined–that thwart freedom and faith today.
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Engaging Culture: A brief guide for movies– I outline my approach to evaluating movies from a worldview perspective.
I have a number of ways in which I have critically engaged with culture in movies, books, and other arts in my posts on current events (scroll down for more posts).
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