'Harriet' movie tells unvarnished story of need to 'live free or die'

Dr. Barbara Reynolds | 11/8/2019, 6 a.m.
For a nation built on truth, Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist, freedom fighter and ex-slave, should have the acclaim of a ...

For a nation built on truth, Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist, freedom fighter and ex-slave, should have the acclaim of a Paul Revere or Patrick Henry, whose courageous lines “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” guided the American Revolution.

Ms. Tubman, whose battle cry was to “live free or die,” guided another revolution. It was to end slavery, which changed the color, content and character of America today.

Through the release last weekend of the epic movie, “Harriet,” this revolutionary warrior, born into slavery in 1822 in Dorchester County, Md., has emerged from the back alley of history to take her rightful place as a larger than life action figure, a true American hero.

Unlike the heroes spun from Marvel comic strips or the Terminator franchise, Ms. Tubman is not fake, fantasy or make-believe, although her expansive accomplishments are more real than can be imagined.

Don’t think you are going to see the serene, sedate elderly Ms. Tubman of our textbooks. This is the Ms. Tubman of her youth, jaunting up rocky cliffs, jumping off bridges and even shooting a white slave owner with her pistol.

Through the skillful talent of British-born actress Cynthia Erivo, the film features Ms. Tubman not only as yesterday’s heroine, but also as a model of courage for today. Risking certain death if captured and often carrying a pistol in her waistband, she escaped from bondage on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and returned, often in disguise, to rescue more than 70 family members and others who were enslaved. She became a leader in the anti-slavery Underground Railroad and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in her long-standing struggle against systemic gender and racial inequality.

During the Civil War, she served as a nurse, scout and spy for the Union army and became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, guiding a raid in June 1863 at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina that liberated more than 700 enslaved people.

Unfortunately, her heroism did not guard her from racism, as she initially was denied pension benefits that were granted to white soldiers.

In heart-aching detail, the movie does not sanitize the horror of slavery, nor does it gloss over the power of God in her life. Scenes of blood- soaked whips, scarred backs of enslaved men and women, screaming children torn from their families to be sold by white slave owners trading them as if they were dispensing sows from a pig pen — it’s all there.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

But there is another story that shines through — one of black love, black loyalty and a determination of the enslaved to live free or die and the even- tual embrace of longawaited freedom. It’s all there.

In the movie, we see Ms. Tubman, after learning she is to be sold South, leave her family and the love of her life, her husband, John Tubman, to travel 100 miles alone to freedom in Philadelphia through the aid of the Underground Railroad.

Though the term “railroad” might prompt visions of nice cushy seats, this railroad Harriet traveled was a harsh pathway through snake-filled marshes, woods and deep rivers. Often, the flight of this woman, known to some as the “SheMoses,” was made even more treacherous as armed posses with baying hounds chased her in an attempt to collect the reward for her capture. But they never caught her. She once boasted that her railroad never ran off track and she never lost a passenger.