MSU Cinema International presents "Harriet" This Week
This week, MSU Cinema International presents Harriet, a 2019 film based on the true story of iconic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. Program director Dr. Thérèse St. Paul and associate professor of history Dr. Brian Clardy speak to Tracy Ross about the upcoming screenings.
Both St. Paul and Clardy agree the 2019 film, directed by Kasi Lemmons, is faithful to Tubman's true story. The film depicts Tubman's initial escape to the North when her name was Minty, short for Arminta Ross. (She later changed her name after getting married."
The film also faithfully shows "the help that she got from some of her friends up North, the fact that she was able to make those connections to the North and was able to go back several times and get slaves. And she went back armed. She did not go back unarmed—not just to protect herself from the slave patrollers, but also any snitches," Clardy explains.
"Snitches" were part of the culture surrounding the Compromise of 1850. "There was a part of the Compromise that had a very strong fugitive slave act," Clardy continues. "The southerners saw this as a property issue. They saw abolitionists as thieves and troublemakers. The average slaveowner was going to pay over $1,000 per slave, depending on their age, their ability to work, their ability to breed. And you have these outside agitators, these northern liberals, that's encouraging the theft of their property."
Thus, snitches were enslaved individuals who would help slaveowners find or retrieve either escaped or newly enslaved people. The incentive to recapture slaves was so strong in the South that newly freed peoples had to flee even further North to Canada to avoid the "legal" theft of their persons on the grounds of the 1850 Compromise.
Harriet also touches upon Tubman's real-life head injury. "That gave her the ability to have some kind of foresight, vision—she called it talking to God," St. Paul says. "That is intriguing because what she did is incredible. She escaped by herself in the wilderness, 100 miles to the North, but went back several times and even led an army at the end of the Civil War. She's almost a Joan of Arc figure. In fact, in the movie, her former owner says, 'we're going to catch her, and we're going to catch her and burn her at the stake.' Like Joan of Arc. It's so striking to me because it is unique in history to have women leading armies."
Tubman's tenacity was deeply rooted in faith. "Like most slaves in those days, [she] closely identified with the plight of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt," Clardy says. "A lot of the songs that they sang, the spirituals that they sang, that was coded language that it was time to break camp."
St. Paul and Clardy say the film manages to capture the real-life drama of the times without overdoing it. "Her determination, fortitude, tenacity to go back was a marvel," St. Paul says. "That obviously is a real character, not just a contrivance for the movie."
Clardy adds that moviegoers will "learn a lot about her spirituality, her political connections, her political savvy. They'll learn a lot, especially toward the end, the role that she's going to play in the Union Army effort in the Civil War. She led troops and was also a spy. Some of the techniques in espionage, I'm going to assume, are still being used today."
MSU Cinema International presents Harriet on Thursday, February 10th, in the Barkley Room, and Saturday, February 12th, in the Curris Center Theater. Both screenings are at 7:30 pm and on the third floor of the Curris Center on Murray State's main campus.
The screenings are free and open to the general public. Masks are required.
For more information about the MSU Cinema International program, visit its website.