Dec 9, 2019
The movie Harriet is a biography of the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery around 1822, Harriet Tubman grew up on the Brodess Farm in Bucktown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Not only was she a conductor on the underground railroad, but Tubman also helped John Brown plan his raid on Harpers Ferry, was a spy for the Union army during the Civil War, and later in life was an activist in the suffrage movement.
A two-hour movie cannot tell Tubman’s whole story, so this film made certain choices, such as focusing on Harriet’s escape from enslavement at the age of 27 and her 13 subsequent missions to free at least 70 others, including family and friends. These choices led to a movie focused on fighting for change, instead of one focused on the brutality of slavery. The brutality and its effects are there, but it is not the focus.
What the film does show is how someone who was beaten and whipped as a child in bondage grew up to fight that very system with every ounce of her energy. And this despite having suffered a traumatic head injury as a child. The injury caused dizziness, pain and spells of hypersomnia and loss of consciousness throughout her life. She had strange visions and vivid dreams, which she attributed to premonitions from God. She learned how to make a disadvantage into an advantage. At the very least, it did not stop her.
Using the secret networks of people and sites known as the Underground Railroad, Tubman dared to escape the plantation, walking on foot 100 miles to Philadelphia and freedom—only to return to make more daring and dangerous missions to free others. This, of course, greatly angered the enslavers who put a bounty on her head.
Her own escape was fraught with danger, with dogs literally at her heels. At one point, caught on a bridge with the enemy at both ends, she jumps off the bridge into frigid water. She would rather die than be re-enslaved. This action spoke volumes not only to her militancy but also to the brutality and horror of slavery. She knew first-hand what it was like and she was having no more of it.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that Tubman would have to lead people even further north, basically all the way to Canada. The film shows the terror and chaos that this Act generated. It meant not only escapees but also free black people were in danger.
As a militant, Tubman understood this was a war. She understood why she needed to carry a gun, not only for protection against slave catchers, but, as the film pointed out, sometimes to keep the people she was rescuing in line. Their fear could have jeopardized the whole mission.
The film tells the compelling story of a strong, courageous, radical militant who is determined and dedicated to her own freedom and the freedom of her people.