Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The instant it was announced that a big-ticket Hollywood biopic would be made on famed 19th Century anti-slavery liberator Harriet Tubman, it started. The “it” was variously, that the film would be a whitewash, a historical distortion, demeaning exploitation, and wildly inaccurate.
In short, it was trashed before the first scene was shot as yet another Hollywood rip-off of a revered historic Black icon. Whether any of this was true or not didn’t seem to matter. After all Hollywood and Tubman, couldn’t be any good. This might have stayed just disjointed loud grumbles and put-downs neatly confined to a few social media posts, but then matters got worse. The announcement was made that Tubman would be played by a relatively unknown Black Brit actress whose parentage is Nigerian. The grumbles got louder. But when a few of her teen tweets were dredged up that purported to put down African Americans that did it. Hashtags, boycott threats, blistering harangues exploded across social media.
I get why some might see Harriet as a historic and cinematic slap in the mug at African Americans. There is always an arguable case that can be made that the industry does have an obligation to continue to broaden opportunities in front of and behind the camera for African American actors and actresses and film personnel. The talent is certainly there. It’s not a matter of faith, hope and charity. It’s a matter of the only thing the film industry really understands or cares about and that’s dollars. Countless studies have shown that African Americans routinely pack the theaters and spend disproportionate gobs of their money on Hollywood films.
That is exactly why I and other civil rights activists pounded the Motion Picture Academy for three years demanding a ramp up in African Americans and minorities in the film business that. It kind of, sort of got the message in 2018 and 2019 with the visible increase in the number of African American and minorities bagging awards and honors at the Academy awards and other industry award events. The battle to hold the film industry’s feet to the fire though must not relent.
Harriet in a real sense is a shining result of that fight. The fact that it took years to get the industry greenlight for the film tells much. Hollywood has never been in the business of telling gritty, racially loaded stories, that depict heroic African American historic figures as truly heroic.
The same push back against Tubman was on glaring and insulting display by Trump and Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin who brashly said that if they had anything to do with it, Tubman would never replace Andrew Jackson on the U.S. 20-dollar bill. As Trump infamously said, “do you want that face on a 20.” So, no surprise then that there was resistance and foot dragging on the movie Harriet.
When the go signal was finally given, that presented yet another challenge. That is to get the best and brightest and most talented actress to play the pivotal Tubman. Yes, there are African American actresses who could do justice to Harriet, however, the choice of Cynthia Erivo to play Harriet is not an insult, or slap at African Americans. She is the kind of fresh, vibrant talent, that will bring energy, dynamism and box office draw to the film. This is not a small point since most haven’t and aren’t likely (though they should) to pick and choose for reading from the hefty volume of books and articles on Tubman. They’ll get their take on Tubman from the Big Screen.
So, the challenge was to get it as close to right as possible. But at best or worse, Harriet is still first and foremost a Hollywood film, not a documentary, and that means there’s going to be license taken to squeeze maximum entertainment value out of it. That’s OK, if that’s what it takes to ensure the theaters are packed for Harriet.
African Americans have screamed, shouted raged, protested, and gone into apoplectic fits for decades over Hollywood’s cartoon, slapstick, racially insulting films mocking Blacks. They have demanded meaty, thoughtful, honest dramatic films about the Black experience; preferably made by Blacks who have their heads screwed on right about getting it right about that experience.
Harriet is not all that it could be given the poignancy and richness of Tubman’s life, struggle, and her towering contribution to the freedom struggle, what film could ever possibly be that film? But it comes darn close to it. And because it is, there is no controversy for me about Harriet. I couldn’t wait to get to the theater to see it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.