Despite the controversy surrounding it, I went to see the film “Harriet” about the life of Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave from a Southern plantation who became one of the most remarkable freedom fighters in all of human history. That her biography is not already widely known testifies to the racism & misogyny of history as it is written & taught. You could tell that Blacks played a major role in the making of the film because it lacked the more egregious features of the white savior genre. But there was an episode in the film where the director took artistic liberties not based on the experience of Ms. Tubman & which dramatically stood out like a sore thumb. Blacks & others who saw the film object to that episode as an outrageous compromise with white savior crap.
The episode which is not reported in Tubman’s biography is when she was being chased by a Black bounty hunter & the plantation owner. According to some historians, there were Blacks who collaborated with the slaveocracy by serving as bounty hunters for runaway slaves just as there were Native Americans who scouted for the US Army in the wars of extermination. (Collaborators have an ubiquitous presence in human history.) But since there is so little reputable history of slavery or the wars of extermination, there isn’t much written about the role of collaborators. More to the point, they don’t play a prominent role in Tubman’s remarkable biography which needs no artistic license to improve upon. Why the director included that peculiar episode is an issue since there is no report that it happened, dramatically it bombed, & politically it stunk to high heavens of white savior stuff because it showed the vicious plantation owner shooting the Black bounty hunter who was about to shoot Tubman. In an incident that didn’t happen, the white slave owner saved a runaway slave from a Black hireling. It reeks of white savior compromise & racism.
There is so much about Tubman’s life that could have, should have been included in this film (like her leading a regiment in the Civil War) that adding in the white savior thing that never happened is truly regrettable. But if it makes us seek out more information & the truth about the extraordinary Harriet Tubman, then the film will have been worth this colossal lapse in cinematic & political judgement. She went on to play a role in women’s rights & in the welfare of the elderly. Everyone should know who she was & honor her for her monumental contributions to human freedom.
(Photo is portrait of Harriet Tubman)