Harriet Tubman and the Power of Movies

 

A couple weeks ago I, along with two colleagues, took a group of our high school students to see the movie Harriet. We were in the middle of our Road to the Civil War unit so the timing of the film’s release was perfect. I reminded the class before we went that, even though the film was based on the exploits of Harriet Tubman, movies are made to entertain more than inform. Creative license could be claimed by the writer and director to tell the story they wanted at the cost of historical accuracy. As a history teacher and a true believer in the power of stories I was very pleased by the movie and even more enthused by the conversations with my students following our viewing. Here’s a summation of my conversations with the three classes I brought to the movie theater.

 

Harriet Tubman was fierce! Determined! Strong!…

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One of the first comments all my classes made was how ferocious they found Harriet Tubman. The film left the teen viewers with a clear sense of Harriet’s indomitable will. That alone was worth the price of admission. As a teacher I can have the students read primary source documents extolling her character or explain the perilous nature of her quest, but the experience of seeing those attributes brought to life so effectively on the big screen is something I can’t replicate. This aspect of storytelling was driven home by another exchange in class.

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“Now I get…”

Prior to the movie I taught the students that the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) was devastating to abolitionists, runaways, and conductors of the Underground Railroad. The film had a scene which highlighted this reaction. Two of my classes had students who confessed they were “glad” the scene was in the movie because it “made what you taught make sense.” Seeing the anger and frustration caused by the Fugitive Slave Act played out on the screen strengthened a lesson from class. As a teacher I couldn’t ask for much more from a movie. 

Building Empathy

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Students are taught, around the sixth-grade in my neck-of-the-woods, about the horrors and injustice of slavery. By the time they get to 11th grade there is a little complacency set in about the topic. This attitude is not dismissive of the horror, mind you, but is fueled by the power of teenage confidence in what they know, as in, “Yes, slavery is bad…duh.” 

Harriet, with its PG-13 rating, delivered enough violence, threats, tragedy, and suspense to shake many of my students. In particular they were amazed by the make-up artists. In various scenes people were shown with old scars masterfully and shockingly rendered by the team working on the movie. As one student said, “I didn’t have to see how the scars got there; I pictured it in my head.” Students across the classes shared that reaction, sharing the fact the movie pained them but “in a good way…if that makes sense.” 

It Takes a Team

The students also liked the fact the movie made it very clear how organized and expansive the Underground Railroad was. We had discussed this in class via a documentary but the film was far more memorable. The students particularly liked a scene when Harriet approached her goal of Philadelphia and received unexpected help. They liked it even more when she arrived and, rather than take the city by storm, was portrayed as overwhelmed by the experience of being “free” in a cityscape. She was given directions to an Underground Railroad station and sent to the safe haven with the encouragement, “Walk like you belong here.” Sometimes a single line communicates so much. 

I used these scenes where minor roles in the movie assisted Harriet to discuss how people can sometimes feel overwhelmed and out of place during the journey of their life. At times like these keeping a heart and mind open to helpful voices can be equal parts challenging and rewarding. Heroic actions can be taken by members of the supporting cast. Sometimes the moment of heroism is shown by supporting others on their quests. We are all navigating rivers…maybe we could afford to help our fellow travelers just a touch more than we sometimes do. Wouldn’t it be nice if that lesson stuck? 

 

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