On a cold Wednesday afternoon, my wife and I saw a matinee movie that was anything but joyful. The story line described a despicable time in American history.
The cold air that greeted us on our way to the car failed to jolt us from cinematic pathos.
“Harriet,” the movie about the renowned Harriet Tubman, raised as a slave in Dorchester County, transfixed us. Incredible bravery, mind-numbing fear, unspeakable cruelty and unshakeable faith in God were the North Stars that guided a woman responsible for rescuing 73 slaves from slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
She continued to risk her life, as she made several trips to the Eastern Shore to free family, friends and many others. As her notoriety increased, so did frantic attempts by angry slaveowners to capture her and her followers. She was not dissuaded from a dangerous quest.
The story is well-known. Her use of the Underground Railroad—actually a route of escape through woods and via rivers, aided by compassionate co-conspirators during the tortuous journey—was uncanny.
Direction of the movie was tight and focused. While violence was prevalent, always lurking in the lives of slaves, the movie employed it sparingly, but effectively.
The Tubman character was dominant, as expected. Her performance was riveting.
So was God, who guided her, often to the exclusion of potential violence when a voice instructed Tubman to take another route to freedom.
And the character of the young plantation owner, fighting to preserve slavery and economic success, could not resist the evil demons that underscored enslavement. At times, he seemed overwhelmed by the pressure to retain an economic and social model that only generated resentment and a yearning for freedom.
Another key player in this Tubman biopic was the plantation, a place that at first glance seemed peaceful. It was anything but.
The slaves wanted to be free. That was total heresy to the Broadus family. The plantation raised crops and oppression in equal measure.
I expected, of course, to be impressed by Tubman and repulsed by the slave conditions. Tubman was relentlessly determined; she would accept nothing but freedom for herself, family and others seeking to shake the physical and mental shackles of involuntary servitude.
Treatment of the slaves was degrading, often inhuman and unconscionable. The movie portrayed a cruel and decadent culture. In some ways, the slaveowners were enslaved by a way of life that blinded them to the iniquity of slavery.
While “Harriet” had some Hollywood touches, it seemed historically accurate to the long-told story of an unlikely but effective freedom fighter.
Some movies should not be missed. This is one.
(As Thanksgiving approaches in two days, we can feel grateful that the institution of slavery no longer infects our American society. Unfortunately, prejudice is still alive and well among White Nationalists in our country. It’s shameful. Harriet Tubman serves as a vital reminder that resistance to bias fraught with violence requires a Tubman-like passion.)
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.