The Debunking of the Stereotypes of Blackness in Harriet

by Sonal Faruque

  1. Introduction

 In the long run of American films produced in Hollywood, Minority representation has been in a controversial debate for decades in the film industry. Especially when it came to producing films representing African Americans, it would instead be depicted negatively or stereotypically. Back in the late 1900s, the Hollywood industry was also known as “Old Hollywood,” and was led and powered by white male producers, executives, writers. It tends to create a negative representation of minorities like African Americans (Smith, 780). At that time, the films did not have an African studio director in the ’90s. In the white male-dominated film industry, there were no rooms owned by black-owned studio companies and always were a part of exclusion because of the white privileges occurring in the sixties. Kasi Lemmons’ Biographical film Harriet is a prime example of how Hollywood in our current society is presented; the production team of the film is not white male-dominated as the director, writers, and executives are all African American teams.

Harriet is a Biographical American film directed by Kasi Lemmons in 2017, and this film is based on an American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. This film captures the period of 1840s in Maryland, where Araminta “Minty” Ross was born in the world of slavery and had no access to freedom. Minty later took the new name of Harriet Tubman. Harriet was always reminded by John Tubman, a free man, that she is still going to be in slavery with no freedom. Harriet was someone that did not want to be apart of this permanent slavery has later escaped from Maryland by traveling to Pennsylvania, where she was a free woman. She then joined the Anti-Slavery Society and became a conductor of the Underground Railways continuing her journey by helping free hundreds of slaves.

This essay will explore how the film Harriet was an empowering film debunking all the stereotypes and accurate representation during the era of slavery. Firstly, the essay will argue that the representation of Blackness during the Old Hollywood Era consisted of stereotypes portrayed in American Films how Harriet debunked stereotypes by describing the true story of African American and freedom. Secondly, the essay will argue the political aspects of minority representation and how director Kasi Lemmons created adaptation through a crucial American figure Harriet Tubman in representing freedom and slavery, using the films to educate and shape the minds of society.

          2. Representation of Blackness through Sociological Lens

 In American culture and Hollywood, the racial representation of African Americans has been a debated and problematic topic of discussion during the old Hollywood era (Haas, 292). When Black actors represented in American films during old Hollywood, they would be underrepresented in movies and depicted as stereotypical stock characters. Like appearing to be lazy and unintelligent, also referred to as “Coons.” Most times would be represented as violent and loud attributes to character portrayal in films (Haas, 292). Kasi Lemmons has proven to show an accurate representation of African American characters by not stereotyping black people and provided an accuracy of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet. As it shows, Kasi Lemmons did not portray this film to be the struggles of African Americans during the slavery era or make the main focus. It showed that this film was Harriet Tubman’s journey of showing also her struggle, but the main focus was her freedom and empowerment. An example in the film it showed after Harriet escaped from slavery and escaping to Philadelphia to start her journey as an activist, help hundreds of people that were still in slavery.

Women in films in the old Hollywood era, young black women, tended to be hyper-sexualized in American cinema (Pinkowitz, 872). In general, women are perceived to be “sexual objects” in American films. However, black women tend to rope into roles that portray them to consider “sexual objects,” for example seeing black women play the roles of stripper and sex workers. As Harriet, there was no depiction of women in the film being sexualized. Instead, it should be the true friendship between Harriet and a black woman named Marie, where she risked her security in helping her fellow black people in society. This film did not sexualize any black women but instead showed the dedication Harriet Tubman had to face to become a free woman.   

When viewing through a sociological lens when viewing through American film and media, what thou see is what shapes an individual mindset and follows through with the mindset in your everyday life (Goff and Schroeter, 5). When creating or generalizing an identity, it is interpreted through racial stereotypes and behavior, which is engraved in our views and beliefs. (Goff and Schroeter, 5). That is considered a practice of imagining and foraging societies—an example Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith has encountered many racial stereotypes and prejudice in his films by giving character portrayals to black actors and playing roles as “violent savages.” Not considering giving lead roles instead make them a part of recurring roles to avoid any censorship violation (Haas, 292). For example, in the film, there was a character Gus was portrayed as aggressive, and his appearance was dirty and not put together; there crosscuts in the scene implying that the sexual violence portrayal of Gus is a racial depiction of African American men. These types of films can shape the eyes of society, portraying African Americans as villains.

         3. Recognition of Minority Representation through Political Lens

The 1960s were a significant era when it comes to minority representation during the Old Hollywood Era (Haas, 293). There was recognition by the audience and were popular when race films were presented during screening and deemed profitable (Haas, 293). It gave the audience an under-representation of how African Americans are during the many years of Civil Rights Activism that occurred, shaping the viewer’s mindset (Haas, 293). Kasi Lemmons represented Harriet Tubman’s Journey and wanted to give recognition to how the slavery era during Harriet’s time was. The main motive of this film was to represent that slavery was not a choice instead of forced. The film represented that Harriet Tubman was the true hero in freeing black people from slavery and showed through the film her locating and navigating through the Underground Railroad it showed she had determination and patience as there were no short cuts through this journey. Although Harriet had the patience in the underground railroad but did not have the patience to wait around for war to be freed, she needed to confront her fears and take action, which she did. Just like there was a representation of minorities in the 1960s, Lemmons wanted to give the representation of African Americans through the slavery period and how it took an African American female to bring justice.

Lemmons ventures out the form of Autobiographical film to venture out the under-representation of African Americans in Slavery. By exposing the world to the journeys of Harriet Tubman to address the issues of race and slavery and attempted the form of realism. There would be many ways and exposure to race and slavery. However, Lemmons was confident in choosing a real American figure to give more recognition to the audience and the history of slavery. It provides the audience with a deeper connection with the American Figure and offers reasons to research more about the period of the slavery era. That gives a chance of educating and shaping the audience’s mindset.

For the adaptation of the film, Lemmons has used the adaptation of music by creating a soundtrack to represent the freedom and dedication of Harriet Tubman. The Original soundtrack consists of 35 composed songs that are lyrically based songs and instrumental score songs as the music was the central part of the story that had musical lyrics that resonated in the current scenes and character. A prime example of a song in the film is “Stand Up,” which is the original score sung by the main actor that was portrayed as Harriet Tubman. The song is represented and depicted to be Harriet’s theme song and her fight to make sure her people are freed; the lyric “I do what I can when I can while I can for my people.”. That is stating her main focus is her doing everything she can by helping her people be free from slavery instead of waiting and doing nothing. As mentioned, Lemmons made sure to make the original soundtrack the main central focus of the plot, as the action of the music speaks louder to the message needed to convey.

        3.  Conclusion

            To conclude, the representation of minorities during the Old Hollywood Era was not accurate. There were many acts of stereotypes that were portrayed in American Films that ultimately shaped the audience’s minds. Films like Birth of the Nation prime examples of films viewing African Americans as the bad people of society and make the audience develop their mindsets that African American men usually perpetrate sexual violence. Kasi Lemmon’s Harriet was the perfect and accurate representation of how African Americans, as it is based on the true story of American Figure Harriet Tubman and her journey from escaping slavery and helping free many of her African American community from slavery. As of right now, Race Films are a popular film genre as it helps educate viewers on the struggles and achievements African Americans went through. It helps shape audiences’ mindset that even though you may see an African American cast does not mean it is an accurate representation. It is essential to ignore the negative stereotypes adopted from film production. Harriet is the precise representation of empowering the rights of black people and minority representation.

Work Cited

Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics : Political Messages in American Films, Routledge, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=2011203.

Goff, Loretta, and Caroline V. Schroeter. “Screening Race: Constructions and Reconstructions in Twenty-first  Century  Media.  Editorial.” Alphaville: Journal  of  Film  and  Screen  Media  12 (Summer 2017): 1–12. Web. ISSN: 2009-4078

Pinkowitz, Jacqueline. “Revising Slavery, Reissuing Uncle Toms Cabin: Interracial Sex and Black Resistance in the Black Power Era Slavery Exploitation Film Cycle.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 52, no. 4, 2019, pp. 862–889., doi:10.1111/jpcu.12823.

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