“Harriet” Movie Fails to Honor Historical Accuracy

For some reason, there had not been a feature film about Harriet Tubman, arguably the most famous abolitionist, until “Harriet” was released this year. “Harriet” follows the origin story of the important historical figure from when she decided to run from her slave master’s farm in Maryland towards freedom. 

The movie begins with Tubman’s husband receiving his freedom papers and asking Tubman’s master if she could be rightfully freed along with her mother and siblings. When this is denied, Tubman is determined to run off to the north by herself to achieve freedom. After being taken in by a free woman who owns a housing facility and then living and working in Philadelphia for a while, she decides to return to Maryland to bring her family with her.

During Tubman’s adolescence, she was hit in the head with a weight when she went to the store. As a result of this incident, she received a dent in the head and experienced what could be interpreted as seizures. Historians hypothesize that she may have had brain damage, narcolepsy or epilepsy because of her injury. Tubman claimed that after this incident, she felt closer to God, and thatThat God would speak to her and lead her and her accompanying travelers through to freedom. The movie emphasized this and her visions throughout the movie, emphasizing that her visions helped guide her and other runaway slaves to freedom. It is incredible to think that, although she suffered physical and emotional abuse and turmoil during her entire life, she was still very successful and giving.

After many successful trips of leading runaway slaves to the north, Tubman became famous among the enslaved, becoming known tothem as “Moses,” as she would sing the gospel song “Go Down Moses” near the fields where slaves worked to indicate that she was there to lead them to freedom. 

I appreciate the core of this movie. Rated PG-13, it is not filled with terrifying scenes of slaves being whipped that will fuel young children’s nightmares. Even so, the sense of bruatality of slavery is not smoothed over. But, I do have a problem with the historical inaccuracies that filled the movie. The movie producers added a substantive sub-plot between the son of Harriet Tubman’s slave master. They renamed the son Gideon and had him hire a black slave catcher named Bigger Long to capture Tubman. The pair confronted Tubman, and they had a faceoff in which Bigger Long died and Tubman shot off Gideon’s fingers. In reality, the slavemaster’s his real name was Johnathon and barely anything is known about him. There was no record of a slave catcher hired by the family to specifically catch Tubman. Also, while there were black slave catchers in existence, there were few. And it would have been very rare for black slave catchers to be prominent in the south (as Maryland was considered the south at that time). 

My point is, history should not be misrepresented to make it more interesting or suitable for the big screen. When I went to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, my attention was fully captured by the interesting and full life of Harriet Tubman and her accomplishments. Having a fictional black slave catcher as a villainous character in a movie that is meant to celebrate black excellence is counterintuitive and detrimental. Harriet Tubman has done wonders for American history and should be represented the most honorable and accurate way possible.

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