Harriet film shows the inner life of history’s best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad

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Marc Morial

 

By MARC H. MORIAL

National Urban League

 

“Harriet is the kind of instructional, no-nonsense biopic that may not take many artistic risks or sophisticated stylistic departures but manages to benefit from that lack of pretension. This is an ideal introduction – or reintroduction – not just to Tubman, but to the inhumane system that she refused to accept. Clear, linear, sometimes bluntly obvious, ‘Harriet’ is a rich, enlightening portrait – as sturdy and straightforward as the title character herself.” – Ann Hornaday, Washington Post film critic

 

The National Urban League has long advocated for greater diversity in the entertainment industry. After two consecutive years of Academy Awards voting produced no nominees of color in the acting categories, we launched a campaign to demand a clear and specific blueprint for change.  We have executed memoranda of understanding with telecommunications companies that have resulted in dramatic changes in leadership, hiring and – significantly, programming.

As a result, on screens large and small, we’re seeing more and more African American stories, created and told by African American artists.  Harriet, in theaters now, is one of the finest of these.

The story of Harriet Tubman is a staple in most American schools. Our common image of her is as an old woman, her head wrapped in a kerchief. We know her as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. But do Americans really know what that means?

Harriet shatters the stereotypes and dusty textbook imagery, bringing to life the true brutality of life under slavery and the courage it took not only to escape, but to return time and again to rescue others.

Perhaps crucial to the film’s vivid and visceral impact is the fact that it was written, directed and produced by African Americans: Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard co-wrote the script, and Lemmons directed the film.

The producer, Debra Chase Martin, was awarded the National Urban League’s prestigious Arts Award this week as part of our Equal Opportunity Day Awards Dinner, where we caught a special excerpt of the film.

“Harriet’s story shows that each of us can make a difference,” she told the website Shondaland. “She decided it wasn’t just enough to free herself, but that she was going to free other people. And in doing so, she went on to help change the course of our nation. For all of us, now, it’s empowering to remember that we can have an impact on things if we just step up and use our voices.”

Tubman was born Araminta Ross in Maryland. As with many enslaved people, the exact year of her birth is not known, but she likely was born between 1820 and 1825. Following a severe head injury as a teenager, she developed what modern scholars believe to have been temporal lobe epilepsy. The visions she experienced played a major role in the development of her profound personal faith in God.

The visions are portrayed in Harriet as stark, overwhelming and all-consuming. As Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins wrote, “It’s what sets Harriet apart from the otherwise more by-the-numbers historical treatment it often threatens to be–gives the movie a realm of spirituality and imagination to play with that stand out from the more brutal literalism of the slavery genre in art.”

The film highlights the conflict not only between slave owners and those who are enslaved, but also between Black people who were born into slavery and those born free, presenting a far more nuanced picture of history than Americans are used to seeing.

Harriet is nothing short of a masterpiece and is destined to become the quintessential biography of America’s first Black heroine. We were proud to honor its producer and urge not only viewing of the film but a robust national discussion about its meaning and legacy.

 

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He can be reached through http://nul.iamempowered.com.

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