4I took my kids to see Harriet last weekend.  This is the third film attempt to do Harriet Tubman justice.  It is good. But as a history buff pretty well versed on her life and the abolitionist movement, I find it necessary to acknowledge the accuracies and point out the inaccuracies, some of which are of major importance and others minor.  As I’m writing about the film, I will note whether I deem the inaccuracy “major” or “minor.”  By major I mean an inaccuracy which creates a serious misconception to the detriment of the understanding of the events and occurrences.  By minor I mean those which are trivial and perhaps justified in poetic license, as I do not expect a film to simply throw history onto a paint-by-numbers canvass, but rather to generate an impression which improves the viewers understanding and sense of the history.

The first Tubman film was released in the 1960s where she was played by Ruby Dee.  I’ve never seen that one.  A second film entitled “A Woman Called Moses” was a made-for-TV film aired in the 1970s.  It was okay – maybe more historically accurate than Harriet, but poorly written and even Cicely Tyson’s talent couldn’t salvage the script.

As I expected, Harriet is a very effective film to introduce her to the younger generations, hopefully inspiring some of them to read up.  Unfortunately, some of the compromises were made to generate an action movie to include typical chases and gun fights.

You know the story.  Harriet Tubman is a slave and is going to be separated from her family as the widow slave owner has to sell off slaves to save her farm.  Tubman escapes and makes her way to Philadelphia where she makes contact with the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.  She joins the very Underground Railroad which assisted her escape and risks capture or worse to conduct 13 incursions into the south to free slaves.  Then the war breaks out and she’s a scout, spy, and possibly leads (but certainly participates) in an assault/rescue mission freeing over 700 slaves.  Then she lives in relative peace, becomes a suffragette, and dies at 91.

I seriously hope that wasn’t spoilers for anyone over 20.

What follows are spoilers as to how the latest film fills in that story.

First, let’s discuss her escape.  In history, her first escape attempt was with her brothers, but they lost their nerve and returned.  She returned with them because she was concerned that they would be beaten and reveal her location and planned passage.  She left again weeks later.  Contrary to the latest movie, nobody came anywhere close to catching her.

We don’t know the extent to which she (or her father) had contact with the Underground Railroad, but as implied in all of the movies they helped her along the way.  And according to her journals she did meet a German speaking Quaker. In A Woman Called Moses she made it to the river and he was waiting for her with a boat.  In Harriet he was a blacksmith whom she was told to approach who would convey her to the Pennsylvania border.

In Harriet she is followed by barking dogs and despite her athleticism manages to trip at least twice as she scrambles to escape.  For one thing, if you hear dogs and they have your scent, you probably aren’t going to get away, especially if you keep tripping.  I was disappointed in the cliché of the chase.  It culminates with her trapped on a bridge and as Gideon Brodess approaches her she says, “Be free or die” before doing a Harrison-Ford-as-the-Fugitive jump into the water and miraculously survives.  Didn’t happen.  She did in her life say “Be free or die” but it was in a different and more complicated context.

Pretty much once she was on her way she made it to Pennsylvania without incident.  What is remarkable is that she traveled at night, alone for most of 100 miles.  Along the way she stopped at Railroad homes, and in one instance pretended to be their slave while slave catchers might have been in the vicinity.

Sorry, but her escape as depicted in the film deserved nothing but eye-rolling.  I got that out of the way because it was a major misrepresentation.  But it’s said that you can’t make a movie without cliché-induced suspense and have a mass audience, so maybe it was necessary.

So let’s review the characters.

The owner family patriarch Edward Brodess did die and his death may have precipitated the family’s economic woes which required the selling of slaves, including Tubman.  His wife Eliza was real and history suggests that she was as nasty and crazy as depicted.  Gideon Brodess, the main villain throughout the movie, did not exist.  There was a son named John and the only thing history has retained about him is that his name was John.  He did not involve himself in chasing Tubman or any other slaves as far as we know, and all of the extensive plotlines involving the evil Gideon are pure fiction.  The scene towards the end of the movie involving a gunfight between Tubman and Gideon culminating in her speech incorporating a prophecy of his death is pure (and woefully uncreative) fiction.

The two black slave catchers are also fictional.  There were black slave catchers, but few if any likely operated in the south particularly as late as 1850 when you did not want to be a black person wandering around in the countryside with a gun.  However, in the north there were a number of black slave catchers tracking down escaped slaves in more of a bounty hunter function.

There has been some objection to these characters on the basis that they suggest that black people were part of the problem of slavery and that it somehow mitigates the racism of it.  This is where I become impatient with progressives who want to deny certain aspects of history which don’t suit their ideology.  Moreover, that there were black slave catchers, black overseers, and even black slave owners is not mitigation of the racism of slavery.  All slaves were black.  What is insidious about a social economic system of oppression is that it requires participation of everyone as their survival is entwined with it.  If you owned a farm in the south you could not compete with paid workers.  Some did try.  Slaves were huge capital which kept products cheap, in particular cotton – much of which was sold on the international market and the British who had abolished slavery continued to benefit from it in the form of affordable cotton.  Other products as well, but cotton in particular.

Moreover, the capital value of all of the slaves by the time of the civil war by far exceeded the entire federal budget.  Were slave owners all evil?  That’s a question I can’t answer.  The slave system itself was evil and very difficult to change, and when it did, the economic repercussions across the globe were huge.

So yes, there were black slave catchers.  It was work.  And yes, there were black and Cherokee slave owners.  Slaves were essential capital for farming, and farming was the economic staple of the south.  That’s the nature of any system – we are all part of the structure and our survival is dependent upon our participation in it.

So, there is no Bigger Long identified in history, but there were people like him.  I deem the poetic license minor in that the character was fiction, but Tubman and the Railroad did have to contend with people like him.

William Still was an abolitionist leader and successful businessman who worked with Tubman.  He’s a fascinating figure in his own right, and deserves his own movie.  He did in fact keep records detailing the lives of each slave who passed through his branch of the Railroad.  Unfortunately, when the Fugitive Slave Act passed, he was compelled to destroy most of them to cover the tracks of his subjects for fear that Federal Marshalls could capture someone in the know and torture them. But he kept some of the records, including those for people who had already made it to the safety of Canada.

Did he ever have arguments with Tubman about whether she should take the chances she took?  I don’t know.  But I’m sure she had arguments with others in the Railroad who might reasonable be concerned that her seizures put many people at risk, and the movie Stills’s concern that “you could be caught and tortured and send then right back to this office” was not without merit.  So it’s very plausible that she had such arguments with some person or persons.

Was there a Marie Buchanan who was a self-made free black businesswoman who helped transition freed slaves?  From what I understand she is fictional, and certainly no record of any interaction between anyone like her and Harriet Tubman.  But there were certainly people like her and the contrast and comparison between her was effective in presenting the character of Harriet, and essential to understand how she might have interacted with women in the Railroad movement who did not have her experiential understanding of slavery.

This comes out at a celebratory party in Canada later in which various well-dressed abolitionists of differing colors were holding drinks as she opposed a motion of sorts to shut down the Railroad in favor of advocating for war to end slavery.  “We can’t wait for the war,” she said, the timing being about a decade before the Civil War began.  The movement was about people and daily suffering.  It was a well-constructed scene – she gives a speech not in anger, but in the interests of making them understand. She sees them as valuable allies, understands that they’re all taking legal chances, and that they mean well.  But she needs them to understand that the freedom of every slave they can reach is a triumph of infinite proportion even if it’s only a few. And so she corrects those who were advocating the restructuring, even the character who is neve named, but clearly intended to represent Frederick Douglass.  Much like Marvel movies have “Easter eggs” only recognizable to comic book geeks, Harriet contains Easter eggs for those more familiar with history.  I just wish movies wouldn’t depict Douglass (who needs a movie of his own) as perpetually stern.  He deliberately looked stern in photos because he didn’t not want to present an image of a happy ex-slave.  But in real life he had a sense of humor, a soft-side (example is his discussion with white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison about his wife’s death at which the latter apologized for bringing up his own “trivial” suffering and Douglass responded, “There is no trivial suffering.”)  Anyway, Douglass was more complex than for which this background character did justice, and he did sometimes smile.

There are extras who are made to look like other figures, such as Garrison, Wendell Phillips (who would give Tubman money to conduct her rescue missions), and even a figure who looks very much like John Brown.  In the scene where the Fugitive Slave Act has just passed, and freed folk are desperately making their way to an abolitionist-owned ship to be taken up river to Canada, there is a moment when slave catchers move towards the ship brandishing their guns.  A stern big-bearded figure raises his hand and a group of men raise their rifles in unison, allowing entry onto the ship while forcing the slave-catchers to back off.

There is no historical evidence of this kind of involvement by Brown and his group.  This was 1850, and he wouldn’t organize his militia for another 5 or 6 years when he went to Kansas to fight against slave owners.  In fact, I don’t believe he even had his beard in 1850, and he was active in more mundane abolitionist activities gradually losing patience with the slow movement of progress.  But there were armed abolitionists who did sometimes use or threaten force to protect people from slave catchers and even Marshalls. So Brown would not have been in Philadelphia commanding a militia force in 1850, but others were and probably did sometimes pull out guns to tell slave catchers to get lost.  And they were probably intense scenes.

I note that IMDB lists John Brown as a character in the film, and Tubman and he did know each other and in fact he had invited her to participate in the raid of Harper’s Ferry.  But she had one of her seizures/visions in which God told her, apparently, that it wasn’t going to go well.  (God did not have to tell Frederick Douglass the same thing, as he actually tried to talk Brown out of the action).  Brown was already wanted for the killings of slave-owners and some of their thugs in gun battles and executions a few years earlier, but Tubman had been very interested as she was also losing patience and growing tired of her runs.  It may be that the friendship was explored, and ended up being edited out as the story is very complex and the movie is fairly long as it is. John Brown also needs a movie better than the really bad one of the 1940s (with Ronald Reagan playing a supporting part).  As it was presented, the movie does not actually identify the character as Brown in the verbal script, so I won’t count his presence in Philadelphia with a militia in 1850 as a misrepresentation.

So bringing it back to Tubman herself, in real history she made 13 trips sometimes with associates.  Sometimes they traveled together, and sometimes they would rendezvous.  The Railroad did get word to slaves of her target plantations (there were others who led expeditions as well, but according to legend she was the only one who never lost a person to sickness or slave catchers), sometimes through white abolitionists masquerading as slave owners with free black associates pretending to be slaves.  And she really did sing code songs as she rode by, most often “Steal Away to Jesus” which told them to leave at night.  Most of her trips took place in the winter when the darkness was longest.

There is one inaccuracy in the film I want to address which I would call “major.”  Again, in the movie she says to the fictitious Gideon Brodess, “Live free or die” just before jumping off the bridge.  It was a slogan of hers, but not in that context.  She said it whenever one of the runaways in her group attempted to leave the group, either to return or go it alone because they didn’t trust a woman to lead, or didn’t feel right about her decisions.  On several occasions she pulled her gun on someone and said the thing.  She had to be hard about it, because if they got caught it put the whole group into danger, as well as Railroad contacts. She said that she never had to shoot anyone, but would have if they didn’t comply.  In the movie, she pulls a gun on her brother.  I am not aware that it happened (as noted her brothers had lost their nerve in the initial escape attempt not mentioned in the movie).  But it did happen with others.

And yes, sometimes she and her female associates traveled dressed as men and, obviously, pulled it off.  She traveled on trains on the way down – as the movie noted correctly there wasn’t generally much concern about black people travelling south such that ID was scrutinized.  By her account, on several occasions she would see former owners or others who might recognize and reveal her.  She was illiterate, but she would pretend to read newspapers to obscure her face.  In that the filmmakers obviously thrive on suspense (which is often lost on me because I usually know the outcome), I’m surprised that they passed up on that opportunity for a scene.

And another opportunity was lost.  In the movie the Fugitive Slave Law passes and they note that the trip from Maryland (most of her rescue missions went there as she grew to know the pathways very well) grew from 100 miles to Philadelphia, to 600 miles to Canada.  And then she takes one last trip.  It’s really strange, because at this time she had only made a couple of trips in her two years of freedom.  Most of the trips had yet to take place over the decade between the FSA and the war.  And yes, they were 600 miles long, through New Jersey and then New York.  The movie might have covered one of those trips.  I mean, in a way the movie sells the extent of it short.

What is really important to understand is that the Railroad was vast.  It extended all across the south and moved through pretty much every state to the east of the Continental Divide.  Mostly it took people to Canada on foot or in wagons, but they also went to Mexico, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Although the ports were watched closely, many of the white Railroaders carrying forged slave ownership papers to get onto ships either privately owned or as passengers on transit ships (the former was obviously preferable so they were scrutinized more closely).  We could use a movie which covers all aspects of the Railroad recognizing that Quakers were the initial backbone organizationally.  The Abolitionist Movement in general was basically the proto-left, from which arose suffragists, socialists, and other reformers/revolutionaries.

That’s touched upon in Harriet by the depiction of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in a very nuanced image of the movement in all of its virtues and shortcomings.  These “societies” were the first of their kind in terms of the model of organizing – the notion of a grassroots multifaceted pressure movement.  Aside from the unions, what is being depicted is a concept in its infancy.  And while similar developments took place around the world as politics became more universal, the form of the movements as depicted are/were uniquely American.  The film does an excellent job of presenting these images as background to her story.

Last topic.  Her final trip to Maryland (pre-war) was indeed to rescue her sister.  I don’t know why the filmmakers decided to write Rachel as refusing to leave when Tubman offered the opportunity.  What actually happened is that she arrived to learn that Rachel had died, and her two children had been sold off. She attempted to rescue the children, but it failed to reach them.  Saddened, she regrouped and freed some others.

Legend has it that Tubman had visions during her seizures which gave her direction, sometimes literally.  Was God guiding her, or did she simply have uncanny judgment which she experienced in subjective spiritual fashion?  The movie takes the superpower-from-God side of it, probably out of respect for Tubman’s own religiosity, but in her interviews Cynthia Erivo, the actress who played Tubman, embraced her own beliefs about God in order to present the character.  Tubman was Christian to the core.  The film is not from a secular perspective, nor should it be.

As historical movies go, I think it does its job to present an audio-visual of one of the most important figures of American history.  Someone who never held an official position of power or direct influence; who took enormous chances and made great personal sacrifice to defy and bring down one of the most evil institutions in the last few centuries; and whose example has inspired and benefited generations of activists and will inspire and benefit for generations to come in the foreseeable future.  I do hope we reach a cultural point in twenty years or so when it is no longer necessary to fill up a film of such importance with action and suspense.  Maybe we also won’t have to hire gorgeous actors and actresses to play all the main parts.  And maybe the next film will take more care with poetic license and pay more attention to the actual history.  However, it’s a pretty good film and essential American watching.  Don’t miss it.