OPINION: Don’t believe the hype, real Black men do stand up in ‘Harriet’
Although Kasi Lemmons’ latest film, Harriet, bested industry expectations with a $12 million opening and has received a nearly 100 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not everyone is pleased with the film. Some of those cynics have been extremely vocal.
Antonio Moore is one of them. In his November 6 video post on theGrio, the Los Angeles-based attorney and Emmy-nominated producer of the Al Jazeera documentary, Freeway: Crack in the System describes Harriet, the first ever big screen film about Harriet Tubman’s life, as being “very dangerous.” For Moore, this danger largely derives from “how it mischaracterized the narrative of slavery and the role of Black men.” What’s most egregious to Moore is the character of Bigger Long, a Black slave tracker on Tubman’s trail played by Omar Dorsey, most well-known as Hollywood from Queen Sugar, fictionalized for the film. Moore, who admits to not seeing the film, claims that Harriet “feeds into America’s disturbing stereotypes of Black men.”
But Moore is not alone. There are many other people who have not seen the film who believe that Bigger Long is its sole representation of Black men. And that’s unfortunate because the Black men in the film are overwhelmingly positive. Ben Ross, Tubman’s father, is played very lovingly by Clarke Peters. Vondie Curtis-Hall’s Reverend Samuel Green helps her run away. Her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) is a free man who marries her and tries to free her before she resorts to fleeing. Leslie Odom, Jr’s William Still, the grand conductor of the Underground Railroad, is very supportive of Tubman. The film even highlights Black seaman, known as Black Jacks, helping her on numerous occasions. Many Black men step up for Tubman in the film and, unlike Bigger Long, they are real historical figures.
Bigger Long is admittedly problematic. During a guided tour with Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson (Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero) courtesy of Focus Features, she addressed Bigger Long. According to Larson, a consultant on the film, Black slave trackers, though rare, did exist. In the Slate article, “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Harriet”, Joshua Rothman, the chair of the University of Alabama history department, and Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, echo Larson, noting that money was a likely driver.
Consider, for instance, that the only known Tubman reward announcement (which I saw during the tour) issued when she and her brothers, Harry and Ben, first fled in 1849 was for $100 each. According to the inflation calculator, that $100 is worth over $3300 today. And that was when she was known as Minty. So, yes, a Black slave tracker is plausible, but it should also be noted that Henry Hunter Hall (son of Kasi Lemmons and Vondie Curtis Hall) plays another Black slave tracker who later becomes an aide to Tubman.
While claims that Long’s existence would be highly unlikely in that era due to white people’s fear of Black uprising are well-founded, it doesn’t mean that he couldn’t exist. If Tubman, a fugitive slave, had a gun, then it’s reasonable that others had guns too. In Maryland, there were laws in place generally preventing free Black people from carrying guns, but there were exceptions. Subsequently some free Black people did own guns during this era.
While Tubman’s actual slave owner Edward Brodess did have a son, his name was not Gideon. So his presence in the film is also fictional. The assertion that Gideon kills Long to save Harriet Tubman’s life burning up social media is not completely true. From the beginning, the directive is to bring her back alive and Long violates that. In that era, making a public example of a defiant runaway slave would not have been uncommon. Some have also objected to Tubman not killing Gideon in a critical scene when there is no record of Tubman killing anybody during her missions.
Harriet is by no means a perfect film. I, myself, waver on not injecting fictional characters into true stories on the magnitude of Harriet Tubman. But that doesn’t make Lemmons’s Harriet unsuccessful. With its broad and complex Black community, Harriet achieves what few films tackling this era, including 12 Years A Slave, have rarely done. Even with added fictional characters, Harriet is historically rich, widely representing the many different roles actual Black people played in dismantling slavery. Janelle Monae’s Marie Buchanon, who helps to feed and house Tubman in the film, is not an actual historical figure, but many Marie Buchanons existed. William Still, who is very real, is almost never given a starring role in any production about abolitionists when he is arguably one of the greatest among them.
The film not only debunks the myth that enslaved Black people were waiting around for somebody white to free them, it also challenges the lie that Black men were not there for Black women during slavery. Yes, the film has a Bigger Long, but her father Ben Ross, Reverend Samuel Green, William Still and the numerous other Black men who did nothing but support her far outweigh him. This is what makes Harriet worthy viewing.
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