“Harriet,” the first feature-length film about liberator and abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman, emphasizes the prophetic nature of her extraordinary gifts.
In school I learned only a few brief facts about Harriet Tubman: she escaped from slavery and then, bravely, went back repeatedly to lead others to freedom. “Harriet” dramatizes the life of a remarkable woman guided by God, called the Moses of her people.
The movie does not show her childhood. She was born enslaved on the eastern shore of Maryland. Starting around age six, along with siblings, she was hired out to work as a servant on other plantations. By age 13, she was working in the fields. One day, she stepped between an overseer and an escaping slave. A two-pound metal weight hurled toward the one who was fleeing hit her in the forehead.. The resulting injury was nearly fatal. Young Minty (as she was called then) survived, but ever afterwards had narcoleptic spells, falling suddenly into a sleep-like state, in which she often had visions and heard the voice of God.
The movie begins with her falling into one of these spells and seeing a traumatic scene from her past that haunts her: two sisters being carted away for sale “down South.” Her memories and the guidance that comes in visions are central to her story; so is her prayer life. For dramatic purposes, the screenwriter highlights her relationship with Gideon, the son of the plantation owner. As a child, he had been sickly, and Minty had prayed for his health. In return, the boy had asked his father to keep Minty when he sold her sisters. When Minty and her husband, a free man, seek to enforce a will in which her mother, she, and her siblings had been granted freedom, the slavemaster is enraged and warns his son against having a “favorite slave.” When the man dies suddenly, Gideon swears to sell Minty. Those sold South never return, so she decides to escape.
In a moving scene, from the edge of the plantation, the young woman sings a good-bye song, her way of letting her family know she is leaving. In secret, the locations and names of some people involved in the Underground Railroad are revealed to her. With courage, persistence, and divine guidance, she manages to outrun and outwit pursuing dogs, trackers, and the slavemaster’s son.
It was 1849 when she escaped to freedom, walking 100 miles, through Delaware and then into the free state of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia she found the office of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. From there she was taken to a boarding house and helped to find a job as a servant.
It was quite remarkable that she emancipated herself with so little help from others, but that is not the reason that the freedom name she claimed, Harriet Tubman, is widely known today. She was not content to live free in Philadelphia while family members remained in bondage. Against the advice of others, Harriet went back to the plantation where she had been enslaved. She made numerous extremely perilous trips down south and led 70 enslaved people to freedom. Following divine guidance, she eluded capture again and again, in spite of increasing notoriety and a higher and higher price put on her head. Often dressing as a man, she became known as the Moses of her people. None of those she led out of slavery were captured. During the Civil War she served as a scout and spy for the Union. As we see in the finale of the movie, she commanded black Union soldiers on the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, which freed 730 slaves. Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead a U.S. military operation.
“Harriet” is visually very beautiful. The moment when she crosses the border into Pennsylvania–the moment of entering a free state–is filmed at sunrise, with golden sunlight streaming onto her face and upon the fields and hills around her. Much of the movie was filmed outdoors, in woods and fields, along rivers, on bridges, under sunny and starry skies. The elegant period costumes worn by the free people who work for abolition and participate in the Underground Railroad are beautiful, in contrast to the ragged clothing worn by enslaved people. But however they are clothed, whether free or enslaved, the beauty of all the black people in this film shines clearly. The movie highlights their strength, determination, courage, and love for each other. We see scarred backs and faces, mere hints at the horrors of slavery and at the twisted psyches of those who enslave others. Considering the subject, the violence shown is limited. The movie has a PG-13 rating. The most violent scene is the beating to death of a free black woman who had given assistance to Harriet.
The director, Kosi Lemmons, a woman, co-authored the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. In shaping the drama of the film, they made the choice to emphasize the prophetic nature of Harriet Tubman’s call. “God don’t mean people to own people,” Tubman says in a climactic scene when she and Gideon, son on her former slavemaster, meet each other face to face in the woods, after years of his furious pursuit. She is like Moses not only because she led enslaved people to freedom, but also because God speaks to her and guides her in a remarkable, direct way. Like a Biblical prophet, Tubman sees the future that is coming, the terrible Civil War fought by those trying to preserve the evil institution of slavery. She also sees the end of slavery and the freedom God intends for her people.
The portrait of Harriet as a prophet guided by God is not an invention of the screenwriters. A contemporary, Quaker Thomas Garrett, whose Wilmington, DE home was a station on the Underground Railroad, said of Tubman in 1868, “I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken directly to her soul…and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great.”
“Harriet” gives testimony to the courage and indomitable spirit of a gifted woman and of a beautiful people determined to be free. It is also gives witness to the fact that God desires freedom and dignity for all and that the inward voice of God leads people on the path of liberation. This movie recounts history, but it is a story for our time.
© 2019 Marcelle Martin
Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey describes the transformational spiritual journey of the first Quakers, who were inwardly guided by God to work and witness for radical changes in their society. Focusing on ten elements of the spiritual journey, this book is a guide to a Spirit-filled life, designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. Our Life is Love has been reviewed by Marty Grundy in Friends Journal, by Carole Spencer in Quaker Religious Thought, and by Stuart Masters on A Quaker Stew.
A Guide to Faithfulness Groups explains what faithfulness is and how it can be cultivated by small groups that practice ways to listen inwardly together for divine guidance, a practice that holds great potential for supporting individuals of any faith in allowing the work of the Spirit to become manifest through them and their communities.
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To read an overview of how early Friends experienced the powerful transformation that resulted from faithfully following the Light of Christ through this spiritual journey, see my 2013 blog post entitled The New Birth.