Note: contains spoilers for Harriet
There’s been a lot of talk and controversy over the film Harriet. The biopic has had a love-it-or-hate-it, take-it-or-leave-it effect on audiences. Many in the US opted out of seeing it altogether due to star Cynthia Erivo’s controversial comments about black people, as well as her heritage (Erivo is English born – still, a better choice than Julia Roberts).
Still, given the historical significance of Harriet Tubman, there was much anticipation for the film.
Harriet got a USA age rating of PG-13, and 12A in the UK. How a film with such heavy subject matter can garner such a family-friendly rating is, well, puzzling to say the least. However, it isn’t the first film to sanitise horrific events.
Life is Beautiful tells the story of the Holocaust, yet also received a PG-13 rating. In Harriet’s case, the downplay of violence in a country that already whitewashes its history is disingenuous.
The most violence that we see on the screen isn’t from the overseers who kept slaves in line, or even from the masters who owned them. White violence is only alluded to. At one point, Harriet’s master Gideon (Joe Alwyn) captures her first husband, John (Zackary Momoh). When the film cuts back to John, he is still captive and beaten badly around his eye.
But we never actually see the violence happen. In fact, the most severe violence shown on screen is at the hands of a fictionalised black bounty hunter, Bigger Long (Omar J Dorsey) and delivered to a black woman.
In a climactic scene where the Fugitive Slave Act goes into effect, Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae) is questioned by Harriet’s master, Gideon Brodess (Alwyn) and the bounty hunter who is aiding him, Long. Brodess asks the questions, but it is Long who beats Buchanon to a pulp. Brodess says there’s nothing there and they should leave, walking out. But Long makes sure to get one final hit in, a killing blow. There were no cutaways for this violent scene.
One emphasis of the film was on Harriet’s visions from God, a phenomenon that only happened in the wake of her horrific childhood head injury. How did she get it? An overseer cracked her head open with a two-pound weight.
We hear Harriet give a brief rundown of the encounter, but the audience never sees the incident in question. Of all the violent encounters that could have been shown, this incident was clearly a pivotal one, integral to Harriet’s story and contributory to her motivation to rescue slaves.
And yet instead of showing us, of letting us feel it viscerally, the film opts to tell it to us away from the mess, the gore, the brutality of it.
It’s important to note that we’re not championing white-on-black violence in cinema here – there’s more than enough of that already – this is about balance. For a film to gloss over this act in favour of one dealt by the hands of a fictional black man is both mind-blowing and asinine. The narrative presented by this whitewashing was clear: slavery is awful, but ‘black-on-black crime’ is a hell of a lot worse.
Upon Harriet’s initial flight from slavery, her husband John is captured for questioning, and nearly loses an eye due to the violence of a white man, only by sheer luck not losing his life. Still, that is something that the audience doesn’t bear witness to. The ugliest thing a white person does in the movie is to say the word ‘n***er’ and speak of their slaves as property.
The very real violence that occurred during that time, a violence that is still inflicted upon black people and black bodies today, was erased from the movie.
If Harriet meant to bear witness to the atrocities of the past, and by doing so shine a light on the present, that light faltered greatly when it comes to this part of the story: showing the historical brutality of slavery and putting the responsibility for the violence in the hands of white men and women.
It’s hard to understand how they could make a movie about Harriet Tubman, whose courage, ingenuity and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history, without showing the story of the violence that put her in that position in the first place.
Harriet is out in cinemas now
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