Imagine going to see a movie, and then telling the world what you think about it?
Thankfully, plenty of people have done that with “Harriet,” the now-controversial biopic about the life of Harriet Tubman. Soraya McDonald from The Undefeated said the movie is “so safe, so unwilling to take risks, and so earnest in telling its audience that Tubman was an American hero that it forgets to give the woman a personality.” Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act honed in on the movie’s use of the supernatural to dehumanize the titular character: “And by hyperfocusing on the superhuman elements of Tubman, as Harriet does, ironically, the impact is to further separate this icon from her humanity.”
Kellie Carter-Jackson at the Washington Post had a different take, stating that the lack of focus on white violence allows the movie to focus on Black liberation: “the film captures the historical reality of how women challenged slavery by every means necessary, a story that popular culture has previously missed.”
I say all of that to say that there are very thoughtful, honest, and brilliant takes on “Harriet” floating around the internet from people who actually saw the movie. This article isn’t about the movie itself. It’s instead about the narratives that have surrounded the movie and how fake accounts, agents of anti-Blackness and online hysteria have shifted the narratives around a movie, and why all of these factors should scare the hell out of us as we head into a Presidential election in exactly one year.
As stated above, there are some very real, very pertinent reasons to criticize “Harriet.” Not the least of which being the casting of Cynthia Erivo. Initially, the controversy started over the fact many felt an African American should play Harriet. But then the concerns were compounded by Erivo’s past comments about African-Americans.
However, a new firestorm of controversy started over a series of posts spread across social media stating that the main protagonist of the movie was the fictionalized character, Bigger Long, a Black bounty hunter hired by a slaveowner to track down Tubman. This is a choice that is definitely worth interrogating especially in light of the fact that these Black bounty hunters were extremely rare if they even existed at all. That, compounded with the reportedly limited displays of white folks committing acts of violence against Black people in the movie offers to let white racial violence off the hook. Again. Valid criticisms that deserve interrogation.
But the tweets claiming that Long is the main villain or that there is a white savior narrative are patently false. If you do a quick Twitter search you’ll see that the fans’ descriptions of the movie largely come from Twitter accounts that have either started up in recent months or have very few followers; signs that they are either white people posing as Black folks or trolls used to incite racial tension. The other person spreading this false narrative is Tariq Nasheed, famed agent of anti-Blackness and renowned hater of Black women. Listening to a single word he says is a betrayal of every Black person you know.
Then there are the calls to boycott the movie in solidarity with Byron Allen’s fight against Comcast and its discriminatory practices. Focus Films is owned by Comcast, so boycotting “Harriet” is apparently now a cause to take up despite the fact Allen’s legal fight started in 2015 and dozens of Focus Films movies have dropped since then. It’s all just baffling.
What’s scary is that so many people are falling for these ploys, despite the fact the movie opened to a promising $12 million weekend. I can’t tell you how many Facebook posts and tweets I’ve seen echoing these made-up storylines. It’s the same tactics that were used and largely succeeded in 2014 after Ferguson and 2016 to help elect Donald Trump. It’s absolutely frightening that it’s still working in 2019, 12 months from when we have to vote again.
I hope that nobody takes anything I’ve said as a defense of the movie. I’m not here to do that or even suggest you go see the movie. I’d even go so far as to say that the people trying to shame Black folks into seeing the movie are using the same silly, disingenuous narrative tactics as those making up plots about the movie. Don’t put the onus on Black folks to change the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood by making it like we have a moral obligation to go see a film. So go see or don’t go see it. That’s not really the point here. The point is that we need to be more discerning, more truthful and more responsible about the information we absorb and repeat. This November it’s about Bigger Long and a movie that will be gone from theaters in a few weeks. Next November, it’ll be about American bigots and whether or not they will stay in power for four more years.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.