‘Harriet’ falls prey to the dignity paradox The first major feature film about Harriet Tubman renders her as a symbol rather than a person

Enslaved is not a personality.

That’s the major stumbling block with Harriet, the new biopic about Harriet Tubman, in theaters Friday.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me) and co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, is so consumed with reverence for the patron saint of Black History Month that it neglects to make her, or any of the supporting characters around her, a real person.

Instead, Tubman falls prey to what I call The Dignity Paradox.

Harriet is the first feature film about Tubman, who died in 1913, but went unrecognized by Hollywood in the years since. Cicely Tyson starred as Tubman in the 1978 NBC miniseries A Woman Called Moses. Such circumstances create a tremendous amount of pressure on whomever is charged with telling Tubman’s story, especially someone aware of the ways that black women have historically been ignored or maligned in major studio projects. But it’s possible to overcorrect for the shameful sting associated with say, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind. The result is a portrayal that’s 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. In Harriet, Tubman gets to be determined, psychic, briefly heartbroken — and that’s about it. I daresay Tubman got better treatment in an episode of Drunk History.

Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The film opens in 1849 with Tubman lying in a field on the plantation in Bucktown, Maryland, that was her home. She’s in the midst of one of her narcoleptic spells. (Tubman was famously hit in the head with a 2-pound iron at age 12. The result was her sleeping spells.) Lemmons revisits the mysticism that made Eve’s Bayou such a richly compelling tale in Harriet. She gives Tubman the gift of The Sight, and depicts her narcoleptic psychic visions with a blue filter not unlike the one Nate Parker used in The Birth of a Nation.

When Tubman learns that her owners refuse to grant her or her yet-to-be-born children their freedom, as a previous owner promised, Tubman decides to run. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh), is free, but is afraid to run with her. So Tubman sets out alone. She doesn’t have a plan other than following the North Star and a series of rivers until she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania. She cannot read nor write. Rather than demonstrating Tubman’s cunning intellect, Tubman’s many feats of daring bravery and by-the-skin-of-her-teeth escapes from slave catchers get explained by woo-woo spirituality. Whenever enemies begin to close in, Tubman magically falls asleep and gets a vision that tells her to take a different route.

Janelle Monáe (left) as Marie Buchanon and Cynthia Erivo (right) as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The dialogue in Harriet consists mostly of Important Speechifying, not only for Tubman, but also her free black Philadelphia accomplices William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Both Still and Buchanon help the refugee Harriet get settled in Philadelphia before she begins making her famous costumed trips back to plantations and develops the nickname of “Moses the Slave-Stealer.”

At one point Odom launches into a speech about how Congress just passed The Fugitive Slave Act (here, Howard and Lemmons took some liberties with historical fact. In actuality, the act was passed in 1850. The film has it happening much later.) As Still, Odom doesn’t really sound like a person either, but a set piece in a fifth-grade textbook come to life. The same is true of Monáe and Bigger Long, the one-note slave tracker played by Omar J. Dorsey. Were it not for the fact that Erivo, Odom, Dorsey, and Monáe have demonstrated their substantial acting bona fides in other productions, one could not be blamed for assuming that the group might have a future in low-budget basic cable prime-time soaps. It’s little consolation that the film’s white characters come off as blandly evil and one-dimensional, too — is this what equality looks like?

Janelle Monáe stars as Marie Buchanon in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Harriet’s faults are not unique. In fact, they’re rather common in the biopic genre, which is littered with films that feel obligated to touch base with every major point of a person’s Wikipedia entry rather than starting with an interesting story and building from there. Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a good example of a film that bucks biopic norms and is all the better for it. She runs headlong at the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs that had an effect on his marriage, and she focuses on the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Civil Rights Act instead of King’s entire life from birth to death.

Jennifer Nettles stars as Eliza Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

In a world that made sense, there would be multiple on-screen works about Tubman, which would allow for a deep dive into the logistics of the Combahee Ferry Raid or Tubman’s time as a Union spy, or a closer examination of the 100-mile route she repeatedly took guiding her enslaved brethren and sistren from Maryland to Philadelphia. In the most disappointing turn of the film, the Combahee Ferry Raid is treated as a coda rather than a major, awe-inspiring point in Tubman’s life. It’s on-screen for maybe two minutes.

Among the many questions Harriet leaves unanswered: What on earth were these poor souls eating as they were on the run from trackers and slave-catchers? Adrenaline is a powerful chemical, but no one is going 100 miles on foot without food. Freedom alone does not supply calories.

Omar J. Dorsey (left) stars as Bigger Long and Joe Alwyn (right) as Gideon Brodess in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Warren Alan Young’s production design is rich with detail, and so is Paul Tazewell’s costume design, but they’re not enough to convey the horrors of America’s peculiar institution in this PG-13 story. There’s no doubt that Lemmons has experience telling beautiful tales about ugly subjects. Her debut feature, after all, was about incest and the crushing disappointment that comes when a child realizes that her biggest hero is a monster. The biggest challenge about rendering slavery on-screen is actually a challenge of world-building. Conveying how vile it was requires a commitment to sinking the viewer into its horrid banality and allowing it to steep, to feel how slowly time moves, how backbreaking the forced labor is without the aid of automation, and the never-ending weariness that is accompanied by the terror of rape and the threat of the lash. Instead, this is conveyed by yet another speech that Tubman gives to an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia and a brief, darkened peek at Tubman’s whip-scarred back.

When a filmmaker attempts to protect his or her audience from the worst of slavery by simply gesturing at the possibility of violence or rendering it with dialogue alone — as Lemmons does with Tubman and her young owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the effect is too safe. Gideon likens Tubman to a favorite hog, but semantics rarely hold the same emotional weight as action.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

I realized, after watching Harriet and comparing it to 12 Years a Slave and Beloved, that films about slavery should disturb. They should give us nightmares. They should terrify us. Because they are the closest thing we have to understanding the shameful, disgusting depths to which people will stoop to enact and preserve white supremacy. What’s more, that disgusting behavior was not exceptional; it was the wallpaper of American life for hundreds of years. When we soft-pedal the everyday cruelty of slavery, it deadens our understanding of an institution built on exploiting and destroying an entire people’s humanity.

It’s understandable to want to honor Harriet Tubman. She deserves it, regardless of the short-sighted decisions of the current Treasury secretary. But when we turn away from the truth of the worst circumstances of her life, we do the opposite. To value that for which she fought, it is paramount to understand exactly from what she was running.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was snubbed in Tony nominations for best play. What a relief. Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation ignores the racist Atticus who Harper Lee described in ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was snubbed Tuesday morning in the Tony nominations for best play, thereby avoiding a disaster of Green Bookian proportions at this summer’s awards ceremony.

That sigh you hear is this writer exhaling in a mixture of both relief and schadenfreude. Since its debut in December, To Kill a Mockingbird has been showered with rapturous plaudits, suggesting it was a shoo-in for a best play nomination. Instead, the nominations went to Choir Boy, The Ferryman, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, Ink and What the Constitution Means to Me.

Mockingbird received nominations for lighting design, sound design, scene design, costume design, score and for performances by Jeff Daniels, Gideon Glick and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Bartlett Sher was also nominated for direction. But it struck out on the big prize, and deservedly so.

This new version of Mockingbird perpetuates one of the most pernicious, seductive lies in the history of this country: That racism, and all that results from it, can be blamed on a few cartoonishly evil characters. I have a name for these characters and the lie they have come to represent. I call them TROTs: Those Racists Over There. TROTs are scapegoats for racism, and they are everywhere, but they seem to proliferate in films that get nominated for awards. There’s Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy, Hilly Holbrook in The Help, Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and every Southern white person who is mean to Don Shirley in Green Book.

Thanks to Sorkin, the TROT takes up residence eight times a week in the Shubert Theatre. His name is Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), the mouth-breathing bigot who rapes his daughter and falsely accuses a handicapped black man named Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) of attacking her.

Frederick Weller as Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Julieta Cervantes

The TROT exists in a symbiotic relationship with another trope: the white savior, who relies on the TROT so that he or she may be defined as noble, principled and morally unblemished. (Or at least, not so blemished that whatever ails them can’t be remedied by the end of the story with the aid of a psychological helpmeet. In Mockingbird, whatever perspective Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) may be lacking, his domestic, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), dryly provides.)

But the lie that white people can be divided into distinct groups of TROTs and saviors is one that Mockingbird’s original author doesn’t believe, as evidenced by the information Harper Lee introduces about her legendarily heroic country lawyer in Go Set a Watchman.

Set 20 years after the fateful summer in which 6-year-old Scout Finch witnesses her father defend Robinson, the 2015 sequel to Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel provides a complicated and less flattering picture of Atticus than the one Sorkin valorizes through Daniels. While Lee’s Mockingbird supplies a picture of a man as seen through the admiring eyes of his young daughter, her sequel removes Scout’s rose-colored glasses and subjects Atticus to the scrutiny of a grown woman realizing that her father is not a superhero after all.

Most children discover their parents are not as perfect as they once thought. But in adapting Mockingbird for the stage, Sorkin ignored Watchman. He’s still holding fast to the notion that education and liberalism somehow flush out racism in white people like a detox tea. Sorkin’s Atticus refers to the Ewells and people like them as “ignorant citizens stuck in the old ways.” They’re easy to identify, condemn and distance oneself from.

This Mockingbird reassures the Good White People that make up its audience that they are, in fact, good. Should they need to outwardly telegraph their goodness, the production offers hoodies for sale in the basement of the Shubert that simply say “TRAYVON.” More than anything, the play encourages them to see themselves in Atticus, even after the woman who created Atticus told us his goodness was a lie.


LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Calpurnia (left) and Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch (right) in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Julieta Cervantes

Atticus Finch was never as perfect as Sorkin made him. Lee told us so in Go Set a Watchman. He used to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the same organization that Sorkin’s Finch looks down on Bob Ewell for daring to fraternize with. In Mockingbird, Lee wrote that Finch was a descendant of slave owners. In Watchman, the same man who vigorously defended Tom Robinson is also a bigot who despises the NAACP and refers to its lawyers as “buzzards.”

“The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people,” he says. He asks the adult Scout, who goes by Jean Louise, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

Sorkin, then, creates Finch from a position of willful ignorance, which proves useful for avoiding feather-ruffling and culpability. Atticus was always racist, and Watchman provides an opportunity to see how individual racism provides the building blocks for structural inequality. But Sorkin’s Mockingbird reduces structural racism to little more than a figment of the imagination. Somehow, despite the fact that Sheriff Heck Tate, Judge Taylor and Tom Robinson’s own attorney, Atticus, all seem to agree that Ewell is clearly lying, their hands are tied and Robinson is doomed. They are utterly blameless for it.

In a recent talk at the Public Theater, White Noise playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and director Oskar Eustis shared their thinly veiled opinions of Mockingbird.

“There’s a piece of fiction that’s being staged uptown, and it posits that in a small Southern town in the ’50s or early ’60s, that in a small Southern town in that time, that the top lawyer in town [the white lawyer], the top judge in town and the white sheriff in town are all unbelievably enlightened and progressive on the subject of race relations,” Eustis said. “That only the poor white trash hate the black people.

“You sit there watching this critically acclaimed piece and you just go, ‘What world is this describing where the problem of racism is solely the problem of poor white people and the town’s white power structure had nothing to do with it?’ I mean, forget now. We’re talking about the South in the ’60s!”

Sorkin has been repeatedly praised for updating To Kill a Mockingbird for a modern audience, though I would question just how modern. It is the sort of play that either seems to be for white people who love Martin Luther King Jr. but who’ve never read Letter from Birmingham Jail or who cannot imagine that it is they who are being excoriated in it.

[Mockingbird] is describing the desire of people of means to point to impoverished white people as the problem,” Parks said. “This is exactly what’s happening now.”

In the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck includes a quotation from James Baldwin about the Birmingham of the 1960s clinging to Jim Crow.

“White people are astounded by Birmingham, black people aren’t,” Baldwin wrote. “They are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still, less act on the belief, that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country.”

This is the purpose of the TROT: to reinforce the delusion that the Bob Ewells of the world are Martians so that everyone else can tell themselves they are Atticus Finch (or, at least, who we thought Atticus was before the release of Watchman). The soothing blindness of works such as Sorkin’s Mockingbird, and the absolving embrace they offer to Good White People, is popular. It’s lucrative too. At the end of April, the show broke its own weekly Broadway box-office record for the fourth time. Its total grosses have topped $36 million since previews began in November.

But there is a cost to TROT art and the comforting lie it perpetuates, one that is borne by millions of real Tom Robinsons that America continues to persecute, in ways large and small, personal and structural. Good for the Tony voters for recognizing as much.

The 2019 Tony Nominations

Best Musical

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations

Beetlejuice

Hadestown

The Prom

Tootsie

Best Play

Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac

Ink by James Graham

What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck

Best Revival of a Musical

Kiss Me, Kate

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Best Revival of a Play

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons

The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley

Burn This

Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein

The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Brooks Ashmanskas, The Prom

Derrick Baskin, Ain’t Too Proud

Alex Brightman, Beetlejuice

Damon Daunno, Oklahoma!

Santino Fontana, Tootsie

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Stephanie J. Block, The Cher Show

Caitlin Kinnunen, The Prom

Beth Leavel, The Prom

Eva Noblezada, Hadestown

Kelli O’Hara, Kiss Me, Kate

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Paddy Considine, The Ferryman

Bryan Cranston, Network

Jeff Daniels, To Kill a Mockingbird

Adam Driver, Burn This

Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Annette Bening, All My Sons

Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman

Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery

Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet

Laurie Metcalf, Hillary and Clinton

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me

Best Book of a Musical

Ain’t Too Proud, Dominique Morisseau

Beetlejuice, Scott Brown and Anthony King

Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell

The Prom, Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin

Tootsie, Robert Horn

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

Be More Chill, Joe Iconis

Beetlejuice, Eddie Perfect

Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell

The Prom, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin

To Kill a Mockingbird, Adam Guettel

Tootsie, David Yazbek

Best Direction of a Musical

Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown

Scott Ellis, Tootsie

Daniel Fish, Oklahoma!

Des McAnuff, Ain’t Too Proud

Casey Nicholaw, The Prom

Best Direction of a Play

Rupert Goold, Ink

Sam Mendes, The Ferryman

Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ivo van Hove, Network

George C. Wolfe, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

André De Shields, Hadestown

Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie

Patrick Page, Hadestown

Jeremy Pope, Ain’t Too Proud

Ephraim Sykes, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Lilli Cooper, Tootsie

Amber Gray, Hadestown

Sarah Stiles, Tootsie

Ali Stroker, Oklahoma!

Mary Testa, Oklahoma!

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Bertie Carvel, Ink

Robin De Jesús, The Boys in the Band

Gideon Glick, To Kill a Mockingbird

Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This

Benjamin Walker, All My Sons

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Fionnula Flanagan, The Ferryman

Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird

Kristine Nielsen, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Julie White, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Ruth Wilson, King Lear

Best Choreography

Camille A. Brown, Choir Boy

Warren Carlyle, Kiss Me, Kate

Denis Jones, Tootsie

David Neumann, Hadestown

Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Orchestrations

Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, Hadestown

Larry Hochman, Kiss Me, Kate

Daniel Kluger, Oklahoma!

Simon Hale, Tootsie

Harold Wheeler, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Robert Brill and Peter Nigrini, Ain’t Too Proud

Peter England, King Kong

Rachel Hauck, Hadestown

Laura Jellinek, Oklahoma!

David Korins, Beetlejuice

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Miriam Buether, To Kill a Mockingbird

Bunny Christie, Ink

Rob Howell, The Ferryman

Santo Loquasto, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Jan Versweyveld, Network

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Michael Krass, Hadestown

William Ivey Long, Beetlejuice

William Ivey Long, Tootsie

Bob Mackie, The Cher Show

Paul Tazewell, Ain’t Too Proud

Best Costume Design of a Play

Rob Howell, The Ferryman

Toni-Leslie James, Bernhardt/Hamlet

Clint Ramos, Torch Song

Ann Roth, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Ann Roth, To Kill a Mockingbird

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Peter Hylenski, Beetlejuice

Peter Hylenski, King Kong

Steve Canyon Kennedy, Ain’t Too Proud

Drew Levy, Oklahoma!

Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown

Best Sound Design of a Play

Adam Cork, Ink

Scott Lehrer, To Kill a Mockingbird

Fitz Patton, Choir Boy

Nick Powell, The Ferryman

Eric Sleichim, Network

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Kevin Adams, The Cher Show

Howell Binkley, Ain’t Too Proud

Bradley King, Hadestown

Peter Mumford, King Kong

Kenneth Posner and Peter Nigrini, Beetlejuice

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Neil Austin, Ink

Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Peter Mumford, The Ferryman

Jennifer Tipton, To Kill a Mockingbird

Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden, Network

‘Black Panther’ costume designer Ruth Carter talks dreaming big and her journey into film The design vet takes time out of her busy film career to encourage parents and children

ORLANDO, Florida — Moviegoers are fascinated by the fictional African nation of Wakanda, home to Marvel Comics’ superhero Black Panther. Just a little over a month ago, the comic book phenom burst onto the big screen, with Black Panther raking in more than $1 billion and is now inspiring a deeper dive into the film, including a look at the costuming of actors Chadwick Boseman, Angela Bassett and Lupita Nyong’o and others. Not that close attention is new to Ruth Carter, the woman behind the looks.

When the Oscar-nominated costume designer arrived on the campus of Hampton University in 1982, she did not realize she’d depart with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts. Starting out as an education major and switching gears as many students do, she now boasts a career of more than 40 films, including Amistad, Malcolm X, Do The Right Thing, School Daze and plethora of others.

“I started out in education,” she said. “I come from a legacy of teachers and I wanted to be a special ed teacher and then halfway through college I changed my major to theater arts. And my mom said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do the news.’ And I thought no, I’m going to do costumes. When I came out and I was doing backstage work in the theaters, my mom said, ‘You went four years to college to do laundry,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m still on my path, mom.’ ”

Carter was as an intern at the Santa Fe Opera in Springfield, Massachusetts, until moving to Los Angeles in 1986 and meeting director Spike Lee.

“Once I got to Los Angeles I met Spike Lee and he was telling me ways that I could get a career and get experience in film by going to some of the big colleges in Los Angeles like USC and UCLA and signing up for film thesis projects,” Carter said. “So that’s kind of what I did … She’s Gotta Have It, when I saw that, I was like, ‘what, it’s one girl walking through Brooklyn, who can’t do that.’ It’s a medium I had to learn. It’s a huge medium …”

Carter’s advice to children is to keep dreaming and dream big. She spoke to 100 students at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy in Orlando last week.

“I think it’s important for Dreamers to know that you can be successful and it starts with your dream,” she said. “And it starts that dreaming just makes everything blossom into the rest of your life. I don’t want them to dream as if they are going to be something in the future. I want to dream about who they are right now and empower themselves with that dream.”

She also spent time with parents and guardians at a private event withalongside ABC’s The View co-host Sunny Hostin and Mikki Taylor of Essence magazine.

(From left to right) Mikki Taylor, Sunny Hostin and Ruth Carter discuss parenting and cultivating the goals of children at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy.

Kelley Evans

“My mom was curious about what the heck it was I had done with my life and my education, but she was patient with me,” Carter said. “So my advice to parents is to be patient. Your kids are going to find their path, they’re going to blaze their trail. Do not do the helicopter mom thing.”

Carter’s journey includes the designing of costumes for Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Four Brothers, Sparkle (2012), The Butler, Selma and Being Mary Jane.

“The hardest part of my journey is management,” Carter said. “I think that I’ve got the costume design thing. I can do that. I can dress almost anybody. But I have to bring artists into my group, into my team and to tap into their minds. So the management part of the creativity is really the hardest and I think once they understand what you want, they flourish. But it’s not until you get to that part does it work.”