‘Harriet’ narrates the life of an important African American historical figure, but draws polarized reception by Black audiences.
For the past two weeks, the silver screen release of “Harriet,” remains in the top 10 at the box office. With over $23.6 million in total gross, the movie is said to be based on the life of American hero, Harriet Tubman.
However, there are several streams of contention about the movie that have caused numerous disputes. From the question of who should play Harriet Tubman? To the challenge of how accurate a film described as a biopic, should be. Even an ad hoc online protest using the hashtag, #notmyharriet grew out of opposition of its production.
The split has caused such a strong reaction that the movie’s director, Kasi Lemmons addressed some of the issues in an article with Slate. Lemmons said:
“Well, I understand them. But what I would say to that is: I’m a filmmaker. It’s such an important story, and you’re looking for excellence, and you’re looking for somebody that’s going to inhabit the role. But what I’m creating is a piece of art, OK?
“I understand the importance of culture bearing and who gets to bear culture. I look at this movie, and I’m the culture bearer, OK? I feel a little bit emotional about this. I’m an African American woman telling the Harriet Tubman story. This is a film produced by two women, one of whom is African American, written by African American writers, directed by an African American woman, with an African American costume designer, African American production designer, African American composer. This is a triumph, OK? I think they’re not seeing the forest for the damn trees.
In response to that line of thinking, Sandy Darity, a Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics; as well as, director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University responded in a tweet:
“We should be well beyond the point of admiring something or celebrating something only because the producer is black or female. Our attention should focus like a laser on content.”
Indeed, there has been a record of African Americans playing prominent African figures such as Denzel Washington as Steve Biko (Cry Freedom); Forest Whitaker playing Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland); and Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard portraying Winnie and Nelson Mandela (Winnie Mandela: A Life). All the while, ‘Harriet’ falls into the crosshairs of a complicated relationship between native-born Blacks and African immigrant communities in the US within a wider conversation of narrating the Black experience in America.
On the surface, the threading conversation focuses on Erivo’s identity as an African-Brit playing Tubman who escaped slavery in her early 20s. Tubman, whose mother was said to be from the Ashanti people in West Africa, went on to help emancipate hundreds of fleeing enslaved Blacks through a chain of networks known as the Underground Railroad.
In that time, Tubman also worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and became the first woman to lead an infantry into battle. On August 27, 1782, Tubman commanded 150 Black soldiers to seize coastal Confederate territory in South Carolina at the Battle of Cohambee River. The military seizure freed 750 slaves. Until she died, Tubman’s efforts went towards emancipating and uplifting African Americans.
On using Erivo in the film, Lemmons saw that Erivo’s Nigerian background as an ideal fit for Tubman. She explained. “Moviemaking is full of illusions. What I want you to see and what you see when you look at this movie is a small, formidable, brown-skinned black woman who, by the way, has recent ancestors that are West African. Harriet was two generations from West Africa, OK? This was beautiful casting, all right?”
Meanwhile, Erivo posted on Instagram, her thoughts of playing Tubman:
“I struggled a little with whether or not to post anything about this role, because even though there is so much celebration and encouragement coming through, there’s also anger and offense spurred on by my being from the UK…..I guess there is a bigger conversation to be had about heritage and experience, also about who Harriet really was”
Whereas people reject Erivo’s current portrayal, there are actors with foreign-born parents who have played the luminary historical figure beforehand. Though, there are few movies scripted around Harriet Tubman, in 1978, actor Cicely Tyson was cast for the role in the television mini series, “A Woman Called Moses.” Tyson is a Harlemite whose parents were West Indian immigrants from the island of Nevis. Recently, Aisha Hinds, a Brooklyn-native with parents from Grenada, played Harriet Tubman in the now cancelled TV series, “Underground.”
However, the criticisms regarding Erivo’s nationality have some roots in a 2017 interview between New York radio station hosts at Hot 97 and veteran African American actor, Samuel L. Jackson who talked about the influx of British actors in Hollywood, and specifically, Black Brits. When commenting on the blockbuster hit, “Get Out,” which starred, Daniel Kaluuya, an Ugandan-British actor, Jackson said, “I tend to wonder what would that movie have been with an American brother who really understands that in a way, cause Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years.”
“Get Out” is a comedy-horror about an interracial, heterosexual couple who visit the parents of the white girlfriend. Kaluuya, who plays the male-paramour, “Chris Washington,” ends up fighting for his life when he discovers that his girlfriend’s family lives in a white community where they steal the bodies of Black people. Then implant their brains into them while blocking the consciousness of the host.
Although, Jackson expressed support for Black Brit actors to work in Hollywood so that “they make money” and receive opportunities they do not get in the UK, he opined that African American comprehension of the racial context of “Get Out” would be different. “Some things are universal and everything ain’t,” he said.
Jackson’s comments caused a maelstrom for some and critical dialogue for others. In the back-and-forth, it became a conversation about who had the authority to talk about the Black experience. Though, far from the narrative of Jackson’s views, versions of this theme became synonymous with his statements.
Most recently, emerging actor, Kano, from Netflix’s hit, “Top Boy,” addressed the Black experience in the UK as it relates to the residues of Jackson’s remarks:
“Racism exists. Samuel Jackson was up here… people weren’t happy with what he was saying back home. He was like, trying to talk as if racism is not a thing in England… He spoke wrong. We weren’t happy about it. Because, what is he talking about? My mom that came over from Jamaica to England and moved to Canning Town, which is the White area, mad racist… you could not tell her there wasn’t racism. In those days… it wasn’t law… But you would go to a shop and on a sign it would have, ‘No Blacks, no dogs and no Irish people.’ That was the sign. So it was like, yeah, you couldn’t go in that place. I’m not saying it was a law. But that’s how everyone felt. So racism is there.”
As for Erivo, whose Nigerian parents immigrated to the UK before she was born, her ability to translate the trauma and experiences of a Black woman in American slavery became a topic, too. In a Hot 97 interview, she countered the question with a response that was in line with Kano:
“I think there’s a conversation to be had about what the experiences are of the Black people around the world.”
Erivo goes on, “I think there’s a misconception that when you’re in the UK, you get to bypass all the awful things that happened to you as a Black person, but you don’t . . . I walk into a room and the first thing you see is the fact that I’m a dark skin black girl. And when I’m in the UK, no one goes, ‘she’s Brit.’ They go, ‘she’s a Black girl.’”
At the same time, Erivo says that her ability to be cast in UK roles and her career as a singer was stymied due to racism and colorism, which corroborates Jackson’s earlier assessment. But, for Erivo, she knows “what it feels like to be othered,” and said that “as a Black woman, I feel innately connected to anyone who looks like me.”
Nonetheless, it is the position that Erivo takes, in which she embraces a pan-Black consciousness at moments in discourse about Black representation, that stand at the center of one of the biggest critiques of her personal views.
Akatas and ‘ghetto accent’
Before “Harriet” began filming, the movie was already entrenched in controversy. A debate emerged when African-British actor-singer, Cynthia Erivo, made the announcement that director Kasi Lemmons, an African American, picked her to play the lead character.
Initially, the problem raised, asked, how could a British-born actor of West African descent, who showed a history of expressing disparaging remarks against African Americans, play the role of one of the most central African American historical figures?
Erivo has been chronicled on social media to articulate a position that has been called both hypocritical and disrespectful. In a series of tweets, user @Ebopeep who identifies as an American and a descendant of US slaves, documents multiple posts of Erivo fiercely defending the accurate and positive representation of African and Black British people in media on one hand; but, encourages African Americans to share space when they express concern with Africans playing Black American roles.
Here is why Cynthia Erivo, in particular, should not play Harriet Tubman.
TL; DR: There’s a troubling pattern of Cynthia repeatedly, deliberately, selectively *choosing* to not give respect to African-American heritage – the heritage of Harriet Tubman.
Ironically, Erivo’s career in theater shows that she enjoys much of her success for playing, Celie, in the Broadway play, “The Color Purple,” which is based on a book by Alice Walker with the same name. Winning two Tony awards in 2016 (Best Actress in a Musical and Best Revival of a Musical) and a Grammy in 2017 (Best Musical Theater Album), Erivo portrays an American, southern Black woman in the early 20th Century who must negotiate power, sexual identity, intimacy and visibility in an abusive marriage.
Paradoxically, while playing an African American for most of her US career, in 2013, around the time Erivo started her role of Celie on Broadway, she referenced Black American vernacular as “ghetto.”
To date, Erivo has not apologized. Rather, she contends when talking to Complex magazine, “I love [Harriet Tubman] and I love Black people full stop. It would do me no service, it would be like hating myself.”
This year, while making the rounds for the ‘Harriet’ movie, Erivo retorted that her post was taken out of context. “It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16,” she explained.
On the other hand, Iyelli Ichile, a historian who focuses on Africana Studies urged Black Americans in a Youtube post to “find a way to find as much patience and mercy and each other as find for our oppressors” Ichile asked, “Can we find that for Cynthia Erivo? I think this role [as Harriet Tubman] for her is redemptive.”
For some, this is only the beginning of Erivo’s problematic behavior. Another issue that critics point to is Erivo’s public, close friendship with best-selling Nigerian-American author, Luvvie Ajayi, who Erivo has called her sister.
On numerous occasions, Ajayi has made stereotypical and derogatory comments regarding African Americans. Additionally, Ajayyi, who self-labels herself an “African elitist” said she would never send her child to a historical black college or institution, also jeered the legacy of Harriet Tubman.
In one post, Ajayyi uses the Nigerian defamatory word for African American, akata, a term with a loose translation of a wild, or unruly person, is commonly associated as a slang word similar to the epithet, “nigger” when connected to Black Americans.
According to research by Ishaq Al-Sulaimaini Vernon Grier, akata is also pronounced, akuta, and is a Yoruba term for a sub-group, named Ekpriri Akata, a society in the ancient Igbo nation, who were sold into slavery en masse. Their large representation as being enslaved made the term Akata analogous to slave and later, to Black American.
Ajayyi’s comments have been called out by other Africans:
To date, Ajayi has not responded to repeated requests to answer to her multiple mockeries and insults. Currently, she co-hosts, Jolof and Jesus with Yvonne Oriji, an actor-comedian who stars in the HBO series, “Insecure.”
Oddly enough, it is Ajayi, who buys out a theater this month to support Erivo’s debut as lead in ‘Harriet.’ Ajayyi made up a collective of five prominent African women who have made their careers in the US, including former Chief Brand Officer at Uber, Bozoma Saint John, who is now the Chief Marketing Officer at Endeavor.
Who is an African American?
While some may think that the concerns about Erivo are insignificant, it speaks to a longer, larger conflict between the two groups—one that has worked, and still advocates for full citizenship and equality for hundreds of years, and another who reaps the benefits of a long-fought history.
In recent years, there has been a trend in recent years of immigrant Africans identifying as “African-American.” A term introducing Civil Rights icon, Jesse Jackson, he encouraged Black Americans to use in the 1980s, as a way to connect to their African lineage.
Antonio Moore, a Los Angeles lawyer and filmmaker has been very vocal in leading a charge against Erivo’s casting, and in particular, Black immigrants who he sees as taking advantage of the rights and benefits forged by Black Americans, but not carrying the economic and political baggage. He explains that “[African-American] was coined as a term, particularly for American slaves that don’t know what part of African [that] they come from . . . so they use the whole continent of Africa.”
He continued, “Ironically, it has become a term that many people have stepped into and stepped out of, from African countries as a way to access Americanization. And I think in many ways, it has diminished the way that Black descendants of slaves access America.”
For him, Erivo has reaped the rewards of Black advocacy in the US. Moore is co-founder of the American Descendant of Slaves or the ADOS movement, a group that carries a main charge to gain reparations for native-born Blacks who trace their lineages to those enslaved in the US during chattel slavery. His position towards Erivo also questions how could someone whose descendants possibly participated in the selling of Africans into slavery, portray a historical person who was a slave. “My argument is that as African Americans, as ADOS [Cynthia] needs to tell us if she [is a descendant of African] . . . slave traders . . . I don’t understand how Focus Features or Kasi Lemmons has to answer to that.”
History has shown that Africans participated in the slave trade. To what degree has been debated, but their role in selling captives or their own people is documented. Over time, this fact has caused fissures in the relationship between African Americans and Africans. Though Ghana has lead in African countries to offer a repeated apology for their role in slavery, the actions of state officials does not necessarily translate to the beliefs of the people. As well, with the history of slavery, Moore suggests that a descendant of a slave trader should not occupy an important role such as Harriet Tubman.
Furthering his concerns, Moore pointed out that Focus Features is a subsidiary of NBCUniversal, a company under Comcast Cable Communications. For him, this draws more issues because Comcast is currently in litigation with media mogul Byron Allen to stop him from pursuing a $20 billion lawsuit with claims that they racially discriminated against him. Now in the Supreme Court, Comcast’s position is to challenge the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a post-Civil War law that forbids racial discrimination in business contracts, is enforced.
“You have the company that’s trying to eviscerate the Civil Rights Act of 1866 . . . putting out a movie about Harriet Tubman,” says Moore.
To take a stand against Comcast’s attempts to dismantle how the Civil Right Act can be used, New Jersey’s, Southern Burlington County, NAACP cancelled a screening of Harriet in October.
“The branch decided to take a stand as a long standing civil rights [law] is being threatened in court by the owner of the film’s production company, Comcast,” Marcus Sibley, the Southern Burlington County NAACP’s spokesman and communication chair told the Burlington County Times.
To some, Moore’s position and in whole, his work in support of ADOS is divisive. Ray Winbush, a research professor and director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University told the Final Call in an article earlier in the year:
“They have no understanding of how the Black Diaspora throughout the planet is united. So for them to come in and try to divide Black Americans against Jamaicans, Black Brazilians, and even other Africans is ridiculous.”
To others, Moore’s work, alongside his ADOS co-founder, Yvette Carnell, the movement focusing on compensation as a form of restorative justice is critical. Cornel West, a professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, is an outspoken ADOS supporter. While speaking at Howard University’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, he praised the work of Moore and Carnell. West orated:
“Never in the history of the world, for 240 years has there been enslaved people who are been made citizens after a barbaric war and for 12 years, we do have a chance to create a multiracial democracy, but we lose it . . . and low and behold, Neo-slavery sets in for another 100 years . . . that’s a different kind of experience for Black folk who come from enslaved, Jane Crow, Jim Brow Blackness. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the distinctiveness and specificity of Blackness and still ensuring that we can come together in solidarity.”
It has been those identifying as ADOS who have led much of the charge to challenge, and even boycott the movie since July of this year.
Said one social media user @dripn2hard:
I love seeing black men & women together reject the nonsense. We’ll move forward together stronger in the fight for #Reparations
Another said @TheresaM40552544:
Oh, this @CynthiaEriVo has been talking greasy about #ADOS? Harriet Tubman was ADOS TF does she mean? FTB!! Definitely joining the boycott! Some plan to #BoycottHarriet after biopic trailer starring Cynthia Erivo is released: ‘She openly mocks our culture’
One more tweet in the summer said @BlackManosphere:
Black audiences see it as #ADOS actors being erased and passed over for RARE roles about #ados Black ICONs. Teach these arrogant ‘liberals’ by voting w/ your wallet and pulling your support #boycottharriet @THR @EW @Oscars2020s @IMDb @UniversalPics @latimes @time #flop #demdebate
‘How many more slave movies?’
In October, actor Tyrese Gibson began to market his movie, “Black and Blue,” a film on police corruption that opened around the release of ‘Harriet,’ he posted a commentary that directly stung the pending release of, ‘Harriet.’ He emphasized, “We don’t need anymore slave movies?”
He continued, “When you support these movies that highlight us about things that happened in our history; yes, is that the sum of what you know about Black people? How many more? How many more nannies? How many more butlers? How many more slaves? How many more movies that’s going to project this energy onto us, as if that all we ever was?”
The recent Hollywood releases of slavery-themed movies or TV series have drawn ire. Titles like, “12 Years a Slave;” “Birth of a Nation;” “Free State of Jones;” “Underground;” and the remake of “Roots” received were heavily promoted productions.
“It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype,” said Kara Brown in an opinion piece in Jezebel when the movie Birth of Nation was released in 2016.
She went on: “Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way. I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story.”
In explaining his position in another interview, Gibson said that “‘Black and Blue’ is shedding light.” However, Gibson auditioned for a role in Quentin Terrantino’s slave movie, “Django.”
Nonetheless, Lemmons countered Gibson’s grievance by characterizing ‘Harriet’ as a “freedom movie.” No matter, Gibson’s sentiment is shared. One Twitter user who identifies as a first generation British-American posted:
Y’all notice all we got is slave movies? There’s a new movie out about an Indian queen who fought the British in 1857 called #warriorqueen of jhansi…. where are our movies on heroes, kings and queens…do all we get is fake trash like #Harriet? Slaves? Where’s our kings? Mansa?
Is anyone else tired of all these slave movies?! Nothing against my girl #Harriet, but damn can we tell some stories of the bad ass black women who we can relate to. I haven’t watched a slave movie in years. Django was the last one for me and I don’t plan on going back
Contrastingly, there were those who interjected Gibson’s assertion. Says Dwight Bullard in a Facebook post:
I want to start by saying that I’m an ardent supporter of various forms of Black creativity. I refuse to use FB as a tool to be critical of Black art, even when I disagree with it. I’m frankly blown away at the criticism of Harriet, so I needed to say something.
- Harriet is not a “slave” movie. You literally cannot tell the story of Harriet Tubman (or Nat Turner) without talking about their shared goal of liberating enslaved people.
- Criticizing the kind of Black person cast in the leading role is like criticizing Denzel Washington for playing Julius Caesar or Hannibal (he has or wants to play both) because he’s not Italian or North African. Harriet Tubman should be cherished by the diaspora!!
- Be forthright in your criticism. Meaning if you want to criticize Hollywood for producing too many “slave” films, but don’t have that same energy for the (much larger) number of films depicting Black people as drug dealers then your argument is moot.
- I question the discernment of Black “social media critics” that advocate for the complete dismissal of a film that features a dark brown skinned woman in a position of power where she is not being sexualized, nor is she reliant on a dominant male character for her salvation. All while being brought to you by a Black female director and majority Black cast. Yes I’m talking to you “super woke” hashtag users that can listen to trap music and buy black, but somehow can’t handle that slavery is part of the Black narrative as much as afro-futurism (Black Panther) is.
Regardless of Moore’s or Gibson’s discontent with “Harriet”, when it hit theaters, there were numerous praise and a call for people to see it.
Fiction versus Fact
At the same time the movie enjoyed praise, a visible outcry of disapproval of the historical inaccuracies in the movie. Specifically, the role of the character, Bigger Long, who plays a Black bounty hunter and one of the main antagonist of Tubman, and a white character poised as what has been critiqued as the white savior.
“The presence of a Black bounty hunter obfuscates historical reality and allows white viewers to not deal with the trauma of escaping enslavement,” said Irma McClaurin.
Another commentator argued @commaolivia, a PhD student at University of Michigan:
Saw #Harriet. My big takeaway: If you’re going to make a “biopic” that has little to do with the historical record, then the least you can do is have the courage to turn her into a proper disabled action hero.
“They made a movie about Harriet Tubman that includes a Black male slave catcher when there were not Black male slave catchers and you walked out of there and said to other people to go watch it. You have issues,” said Moore when speaking to Yvette Carnell in a Youtube stream of his show, Tone Talks.
Carnell added. “You cannot go ahead create a whole character that weighs down and doesn’t make any sense . . . that character was awful to Black men.”
In another light, there are favorable readings of the Harriet film. Micky Scott Bey mentioned:
Saw the movie Harriet w/ my little bro tonight. It is a beautiful, wonderful, largely accurate and deeply touching film. Harriet is the hero. There is NO white saviorism. PLEASE go see it. It needs & deserves our support.
@tristrillion stated after seeing the movie: I cannot believe people saw #Harriet and honestly thought the plot was a white slave master saved her life. Even though the same white man threatened to sell her, put a bounty on her head, and went to Philly to bring her back to Maryland. Y’all are tripping #notmyharriet.
In a Facebook post by Dana Dennard, he saw critics as being baseless:
So yea, I saw this film …. & almost every criticism was/is based in lies, or at minimum, deeply skewed perceptions. There is no white savior, there is no gay scene, & yea, the brotha bounty hunter is perfectly placed (they did exist ofcourse) as any body in tune with the struggle knows that negro traitors are hired all the time & help to wreak havoc on the strong ones. Then, like now, you never know who’s who by outer appearances of color, religion, place or prestige.
A good portion of a very dynamic & full life packed into just 2 hrs. Acting was very believable as well. A good dose of the whole damn truth. Of course it was even worst than portrayed in this film, but we all get the point. Folks like to critic from the sideline & haven’t made one film. Yea, there is definitely a planned effort to trash the film, with some silly negro rabbits recruited to push that agenda. Naw, go watch the film for yourself. Prepare to shed some tears.
Final notes on representation
Within the debates of the ’Harriet’ movies is also a history of Black representation. “I fought for the role of Celie, and spilled blood sweat and tears playing her, the same applies for every role I’ve earned, this will be no different,” said Erivo in an Instagram post announcing her role.
While Erivo speaks of her journey to play Harriet as an individual, the fight for total inclusion of African Americans in Hollywood has been a collective struggle since the turn of the 20th Century. Often African Americans were blocked out of acting, and when they made their own movies, Hollywood created barriers that made it difficult for Black filmmakers to maintain their own production companies. Rather, they preferred to cast them in disparaging roles such as slaves, domestics, and various caricatures.
Oscar Micheaux, who is noted as the founder of the film genre “race movies” worked from 1910 to 1950 to make movies that spoke to African American audiences, and presented their daily lives. He ended up dying poor with most of his movies lost or neglected to be preserved.
In another case, Black owned theaters were often given movies that had been in white theaters months before with stipulations that if they ran independent Black movies like Micheaux’s than they would be removed from distribution. When products were green-lit, something that started to happen in the late 1960s and is still limited today, they were sorely underfunded, though high activity periods of Black filmmakers resuscitated Hollywood the film industry several times. Like the Blaxploitation era that put Hollywood in the Black after almost going bankrupt from putting out a series of overpriced, underwhelming big productions in the 1950s and 60s.
Oscar Micheaux known as the father of Black cinema.
Even, Spike Lee had to raise money when his productions ran out of the limited funds budgeted for the historical depiction of Malcolm X in the 1992 film. Celebrities such as Janet Jackson, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Michael Jordan and Tracey Chapman ended up investing in the film. Even as recently as Tyler Perry, who opened his studio, admitted in an interview that Hollywood has not fully embraced him.
The legacy of fighting for inclusion and equity in Hollywood is evident, and often seen as a collective struggle rooted in the African American experience. Erivo’s performance, in the bigger scope, is because of the lineage of African Americans who fought for a place, rather than singularly working hard to nab a good role. Yet and still, that is something that Black Hollywood still works to carry out.
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