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What ‘Harriet’ Gets Right About Tubman

In the 1850s, abolitionists, including black women, fought for freedom by force.

The film excavates the specific challenges that black women faced in antebellum America by showing how Tubman navigated sexism and racism while resisting slavery. The film provides a nuanced exploration of her complicated relationship with men — her husband, father, black sailors, slave catchers and fellow abolitionists — to show how Tubman uniquely defied the patriarchal norms of the times. Most women during the abolitionist movement were pushed to the periphery of activism and even admonished for speaking in public. But Tubman was unquestionably a leader. She had little use for lengthy monologues or arousing speeches. Her success in rescuing enslaved people gave her the ability to invert social norms.

And in this, it was not just her resolve, but her willingness to use her revolver that provided results. This is the film’s most important contribution to historical understanding. It realistically depicts not just the realities of slavery, but also what it took to achieve freedom: force.

The expanded Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave black people the limited choice of fight or flight to avoid capture. This law made it possible for slave owners and slave catchers to enter any state in the Union to retrieve their property, shifting the de facto Mason-Dixon Line to Canada’s border. U.S. federal marshals were employed to enforce the law, regardless of how long an escaped slave had been living as a free person. Moreover, the word alone of a master was enough to send freeborn black Americans into a slavery they had never known. Anyone who was caught harboring fugitives could be fined and thrown in prison.

In this context, protective violence was required. The amended law forced black leaders who previously touted nonviolence to take up arms in self-defense. Frederick Douglass was met with cheers when he argued, “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers.”

The film captures this historical reality. In one scene, Tubman is running to catch a boat to flee Pennsylvania after the Fugitive Slave Law was amended. A group of men try to stop her, and instantly protective lines of armed abolitionists point their guns at her obstructers. Throughout the 1850s, abolitionists were armed, even black women. Freedom required both fight and flight — the two were inseparable. Freedom had to be forced, and often fleeing required as much fighting as standing one’s ground.