I’m struck by how many (left-wing, engaged) people I know haven’t heard of 19th century slave turned anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Hopefully Harriet, the new film about a crucial decade of Tubman’s life, will help right that. She was one of the most remarkable of many remarkable figures in a world-altering social and political upheaval, the civil war and revolution that destroyed slavery in the US. Though not a socialist, she is firmly in our broad tradition.
Despite the dark subject matter of slavery, the makers have told Tubman’s story as a pretty easy to watch action-adventure film. At a few points it is so “Hollywood”, it made me cringe. (If you’ve seen The Strike, part of ’80s comedy series The Comic Strip Presents..., remember when Arthur Scargill, supposedly played by Al Pacino, goes to Parliament and wins it over to support the miners? “Stratford-upon-Avon says aye!”) However, the incredible story and central character shine strongly through.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross to enslaved African-American parents in the state of Maryland, probably in 1822. The only grandparent we know about, her maternal grandmother Modesty, had arrived on a slave ship from Africa.
Maryland was one of a middle-tier of states where slavery existed but less prevalently and securely than further South. Tubman’s home was – very relatively speaking – a short journey to Pennsylvania, the closest of the free states of the North. It was conceivable and, at very great risk, possible for slaves to flee over the state border to win freedom. The famous black activist Frederick Douglass, who Tubman went on to work with and who appears peripherally here, also escaped from Maryland, in 1838.
In this area it was not unusual for black families to include both free people and slaves. “Minty”’s father had been manumitted by his owner in 1840 (but continued to work for him), and her husband John was free too. The family discovered that Tubman’s mother (Harriet, whose name she took after she escaped) should also have been freed, but as the film shows they were unable to do anything about it.
The sheer amazingness of Harriet Tubman’s life starts simply with the fact that she was one of the tiny minority of slaves before the civil war rebellious and confident enough to flee her owners. It continues with the fact that, very unusually, she made the extremely dangerous journey to Philadelphia alone. She did this despite the severe headaches, seizures and bouts of unconsciousness that plagued her continually throughout her life after a skull fracture inflicted by an overseer when she was thirteen.
Harriet runs from from Tubman's escape in 1849 through the 1850s crisis over slavery to the eve of the war as the decade closes. A big chunk is focused on the escape and the first of her many trips back, initially against the advice of leading Philadelphia activists, to lead others to freedom. Tubman lived to 1913, campaigning for women’s rights and women’s suffrage as well black rights long after the racist reaction following the overthrow of slavery had triumphed. It’s a shame, but I think the decision to stay limited to the pivotal years of the 1850s was probably right.
The way the story is told is in some respects superficial (for instance very little about racism in Northern society) and in others questionable (I thought the decision to have a black slave-catcher was noteworthy). For the most part, however, it’s informative, gripping and moving – and occasionally funny. It’s a strong cast and British actor Cynthia Erivo is good as Tubman.
The over-the-top Hollywood moments at several turns threaten to spoil things, but what saved it for me was knowing the most incredible and implausible bits actually took place.
At the end of the film we jump forward to 1863, after the North’s war took a more radical turn towards destroying slavery. Tubman, now a spy and guide for the US army, leads black soldiers in a raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina, rescuing many hundreds of slaves in one expedition. And it happened! She was the only woman to lead troops during the civil war.
Harriet also shows - as well as could be expected in a film like this - that Harriet Tubman escaped alone but developed to her full stature as part of a growing activist political movement to overthrow slavery and transform US society, Abolitionism. After decades of beleaguered organising and slow growth, Abolitionism and those influenced by it became decisive in the revolutionary crisis of the 1850s and ’60s.