Honoring The Standard

Movies about Black icons don’t miss out on greatness because of controversy, but convenience

Long before Kasi Lemmons’ interpretation of Harriet hit theaters, there was a controversy about the lineage of the movie’s lead actor, Cynthia Erivo. During the movie’s opening weekend, there were claims that Harriet not only painted a negative picture of Black men, but also emphasized the role of the “white savior.”

It was tempting to weigh in on such claims on social media, but then, I saw the movie for myself.

What I saw was a mediocre movie — not good, not abhorrent — which had the potential to be so much more.

Most of us know the story of Harriet Tubman. She was born into slavery with the name Araminta Ross in Maryland in the 1820s. She became one of the most iconic and well-known abolitionists and activists in world history. The movie emphasized her sleeping spells, her trek to freedom in 1849 and how she led the raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina in 1863.

The picture of Tubman, flanked by Black Union soldiers providing cover to a swarm of runaway slaves was the highlight of the movie. It was a powerful and profound image — which was gone in an instant when Tubman and the soldiers were prepared to shoot down an angry white mob in pursuit of the slaves.

The failure to profoundly show Black rebellion through violence — instead of merely insinuating it — is a tragedy all too familiar to these types of portrayals. It shows that even within cinema that features and focuses on Black people, the medium is still inclined to center whiteness.

It makes the movie’s failure to mention Tubman’s role in the raid on Harpers Ferry, which was led by John Brown, almost deliberate. There’s a less subtle gesture of how Erivo’s character is mentioned as either “Harriet” or “Minty.” Even when the title character insists on being recognized under her emancipated name, the plot of the movie always threatens to reduce her to “Minty.”

The movie misses out on so many intriguing pieces of Tubman’s life — how her sleeping spells derived from being hit by a metal weight as a child. The movie didn’t show the audience that devastating visual. It eschewed strategy with the likes of Frederick Douglass or William Seward and settled for gaudy speeches.

That’s not nitpicking or pettiness — it’s important because that expression of Black rage is key to a full understanding of history. It’s irresponsible to allow white guilt to dictate truth telling. 

A similar dynamic happened with the Nate Parker-directed The Birth of a Nation. A movie that also endured controversy because of rape allegations against Parker, Birth treated Nat Turner’s Rebellion as an aside to the tiring depiction of slave labor and brutality.

It’s easy to say that a movie didn’t do well because of controversy and/or public opinion. It’s more of a challenge to provide honest criticism that not only honors the icon, but also empowers the audience. That empowerment can come through education of the subject matter, to be sure. But to African-Americans, still the victims of various forms of racism and brutality, it’s clear that the subject matters to us in a more visceral way.

There’s honestly no excuse for movies such as Harriet to at least scratch the surface of that potential. There are a wealth of Black institutions and historians ready and willing to provide the unadulterated truth for a director or studio.

Some of the debate about the criticisms of Harriet suggested that we should hold movies to a lesser standard than documentaries, which are more researched and nuanced. That debate also turned into a “make your own movie” if you’re not satisfied with the current presentation. Both perspectives are intellectually dishonest.

We know about the challenges of seeing Black icons — hell, Black people in general — on the silver screen, whether due to finances or otherwise. That makes it much more important that we get these depictions right and make it real for both Black and white audiences.

We can’t afford to take liberties with people who did so much in the fight for liberty. The tagline for Harriet was “Be Free Or Die.” In the aftermath of Harriet, it’s clear that even within our own spaces, we are fighting for the right to be creatively free — unapologetically.

3 thoughts on “Honoring The Standard”

  1. Hollywood always ends up telling the story…no matter who’s story it is…the way they want people to know it. Great analysis and a great blog!


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