Sunday, January 19, 2020
The Witcher: Magic, Monsters and Medievalism
Please feel free to let me know your own thoughts about this adaptation.
Sunday, December 8, 2019
Harriet Movie – Chekhov’s Gun versus “White Savior” Trope
I saw the movie Harriet recently and I was impressed by its scope and the power of its storytelling. I wanted to share some positive word-of-mouth to assist in it being a success, but discovered quite a bit of criticism against the movie on social media. This essay is not a review of the film, but rather a discussion regarding a few aspects of criticism I feel is unfair and a misreading of the film’s dramatic intent.
Before I begin, here is a fair warning to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. There will be spoilers.
Also to give some background information about myself, I took two screenwriting classes at Wayne State University years ago. That trained me to understand the structures and functions of screenplays. I have a Master’s Degree from Sonoma State University as an Historian of Science, which gave me training regarding historical methods. I am also the author of two novels that are epic historic fantasies set in the time of Charlemagne and are adaptations from epic poems written over 500 years ago. Taken together, it means that I recognize the challenges faced with adapting source material with the concept of balancing historical accuracy with dramatic needs. This movie is not a documentary, but instead is a dramatization of the life of a real person and is closer to the genre of historical fiction which includes inventing dialogue, creating characters, and plot points to tell a compelling narrative.
There are many people who objected to the inclusion of Black bounty hunters in the movie, specifically the character of Bigger Long. He is not an historical figure, but instead a character added to this story by the filmmakers. Their criticism is based on his violence and suggesting this characterization adds to negative stereotypes of Black men.
I haven’t seen much discussion about Walter, another Black male bounty hunter in the movie.
I saw the inclusion these characters as adding complexity to the narrative. This time period is not my area of expertise, so I will defer to historians who say there were Black bounty hunters. They may not have been common, but they existed. Including them in the story demonstrates that both Blacks and whites profited from the cruel institution of slavery while at the same time there were Blacks and whites who aided in the liberation of those in bondage. It would not have been easy to recognize who was trustworthy and making a wrong choice could be deadly. Introducing the uncertainty about whether or not someone will betray you, adds tension.
At one point, Walter approached Harriet Tubman and offered his help. He had helped track her down when she ran away, but had a change of heart and wanted to work to redeem himself by assisting her.
I felt unsettled when he offered to help, because it felt like a trap. Except it wasn’t. Tension helps the audience feel engaged in stories and wondering what is going to happen next.
The Bigger Long character never had any such change of heart. He was a cruel and violent man who earned his living by the high stakes/high reward field of being a bounty hunter for runaway slaves rather than being paid low wages for menial jobs relegated for free Blacks.
Another fictional character introduced to forward the story is Marie Buchanon. She was a free born Black woman who ran the boarding house where Harriet Tubman lived in Philadelphia. Marie may not have been an historical character, but she demonstrates the differences between Blacks who were and weren’t enslaved. She gave instructions to Harriet as to how to hold herself with confidence when she went back south on missions to lead slaves to freedom. Marie also handed Harriet a gun.
That introduces the dramatic concept of Chekhov’s gun. Anton Chekhov was a famous playwright who famously held “One must not put a loaded gun on stage if no one is going to fire it.” He felt that this type of prop created a dramatic imperative. (For anyone wanting to know more about this literary convention, there is an excellent short film on Youtube.)
It is known that the historical figure of Harriet Tubman carried a gun. She reportedly used it to threaten any fugitives if they decided to turn back, telling them, "You'll be free or die."
In the movie, we see Harriet holding the pistol many times, but she resists firing it. There’s a scene after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act where her former master, Gideon Brodess, and Bigger Long are in the boarding house in Philadelphia where she lived. Harriet is hiding, but she sees the two men beating Marie Buchanon in an effort to get information out of her. Harriet is holding her gun and almost fires at them, but doesn’t. Marie winds up being beaten to death by Bigger Long.
Had Harriet used the gun in that scene, it would have ended badly. The pistol only had one shot and there were two assailants. Had she killed one, the other would have likely overpowered her. She would then have been hauled back to Maryland facing an uncertain, but bad fate.
Besides, the filmmakers did not want to change history by making Harriet Tubman into a killer. Instead, we see the internal conflict she has with wanting to intervene to protect her friend, but knowing she cannot safely do so.
In the climax of the movie, Harriet Tubman went back to Maryland to rescue her remaining family members and lead them to safety/freedom in the North. During the time she was gathering her family to leave, there were scenes interspliced with the local slave owners who were rallying together after learning she was nearby. They carried guns and torches. Gideon’s mother, Eliza Brodess, urged them to, “Find this thief and burn her at the stake!” That signifies for the audience what awaited Harriet if she was captured.
Harriet Tubman was a high-profile member of the Underground Railroad and in the slave masters’ eyes had “stolen property” from them. She likely would have had a bounty on her head and if caught, would be subjected to torture to extract details of the Underground Railroad. They would want to dismantle the Underground Railroad by learning names of people involved, places they lived and worked, as well as the identities and locations of former slaves who now lived free in the North. And then, she would be subjected to a public execution that be both would be cruel and unusual in nature. All to send a message to those still in bondage that their hero “Moses” was gone and that they should lose all hope of ever being freed. Being burned at the stake like Joan of Arc would have been one possible outcome, and she would have just as likely been lynched like so many other Blacks were in this nation’s history. Tubman’s violent death would have been inevitable if she was caught, and most likely would have been without the benefit of trial.
Those were thoughts that likely were running through Gideon Brodess’ mind. He needed to bring Harriet Tubman back alive. He would claim the bounty before her torture and death. He would also gain fame for being the man to bring her down.
At one point, Harriet realizes that Bigger Long and Gideon are gaining on her threatening her family’s escape. She entrusts Walter to get on the small boat and take her family to safety while she distracted Gideon.
Harriet ran in the forest and scrambled up a large rock to avoid being caught by Bigger Long. They exchanged gunfire with her shot causing his hat to fly from his head.
He became enraged and said, “You goin’ die, bitch!”
Gideon was on horseback and behind Bigger. He heard the threat and rather than try to calm his hired Bounty hunter, he shot Bigger in the head, killing him. “Alive, I said.”
That action is what is being described as a “white savior” trope by critics. Matthew Hughey, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, and author of The White Savior Film: Content,Critics, and Consumption, (Temple University Press, 2014), defined the term as “a white messianic character saves a lower- or working-class, usually urban or isolated, nonwhite character from a sad fate.” One example is The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock as Leigh Ann Tuohy who brought the homeless Black teenager Michael Oher into her family, then helped him on a path to become an NFL player. Another example is The Help where the movie about discrimination against Black domestic servants in the 1960s south is seen through the eyes of a white author played by Emma Stone.
Given this definition, do I think this scene fits the white savior trope? No, I don’t. Gideon is not a messianic character, nor did he want to save Harriet’s life. He wanted her captured alive because bringing her corpse back would be far less valuable. A corpse could not be tortured to reveal secrets and there would be far less spectacle to serve as a lesson for remaining slaves.
This white man wasn’t trying to be her savior. In fact, by killing Bigger, he wouldn’t have to share the bounty.
And no one would really care about the reason Gideon killed a Black man. White men could kill Black men with impunity. There would be no punishment for his act of murder.
However, had Harriet died at Bigger’s hands, she would have had a more merciful death than what would have been in store for her had she been captured by Gideon.
The death of the fictional character Bigger Long, also allowed a climactic scene between the movie’s protagonist, Harriet Tubman, and antagonist, Gideon Brodess.
This was the third and final scene where these two characters interacted. In dramatic structure parlance there was a beginning, middle and end to the drama between these two characters. The beginning was when Harriet was still a slave and was then known as Araminta “Minty” Ross. Minty’s husband, John Tubman a Black free man, handed papers from a lawyer to Edward Brodess that according to a will from Edward’s grandfather, Rit Ross (Minty’s mother) should have been freed years before as well as all of her children. John and Minty wanted to start a family and wanted their children to be born free. Edward tore up the papers, ordered John to stay away, and swore that Rit Ross, her children, and any descendants would forever be enslaved. Later Edward told his son, Gideon, that he should sell Minty since she was troublesome.
Later, Gideon overheard Minty praying for the death of his father. “Oh, Lord. If you ain’t going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.”
Gideon confronted Minty. He brought up her fierce faith and remembered her praying by his bedside when he was a child and struck with a fever. She refused to back down from her wishes for the death of his father.
Edward died soon afterward.
Gideon became unnerved by this sudden death of his father and decided to sell Minty. That was the reason Minty decided to run away from the Brodess farm. She had sisters who had been sold “down south” and never to be heard from again. She did not want to be separated from her family in a similar manner.
The second scene between Harriet and Gideon, (and still technically in the beginning portion of the three part dramatic sequence), was during her escape attempt when slave catchers trapped her from both sides of a bridge. She started making moves to jump into the river. Gideon tried using soothing tones to coax her into surrendering. He said he had changed his mind about selling her and wouldn’t punish her too much for running away.
She responded by saying, “I’m gonna be free or die.” This was right before she jumped in the river.
The middle sequence is when she saw Gideon and Bigger attack Marie Buchanon. Harriet saw them, but was quiet so they didn’t know she was there. It marks the dramatic middle of this antagonistic relationship.
The third scene, and the dramatic ending, is where these two characters interacted after the murder of Bigger Long. Harriet Tubman is hiding behind a tree and frantically reloading her gun while Gideon Brodess rode on horseback and slowly made his way up the hillside to her. He was relaxed and confident, while she was summoning all of her strength and faith to survive the upcoming encounter.
Gideon was surprised by Harriet who emerged from behind a tree and aimed her gun at him.
His rifle wasn’t in the position to defend himself. She commanded that he throw it on the ground. After repeating herself, he relented and threw the rifle on the ground. She shot, but didn’t kill Gideon. She wounded his hand. The concept of Chekhov’s gun worked. The prop in the story was used, but history wasn’t changed to make her a killer.
Harriet also ordered Gideon to dismount his horse. She then took his horse and rode off,
abandoning him in the woods to find his way back to safety.
She confronted a man who had controlled every aspect of her life and of her family’s life. She demonstrated how strong a person she had become and that her faith in God was sacrosanct.
Her final farewell to Gideon was saying, “God don’t mean for people to own people.”
This sequence may never have happened in real life, but it allowed for the closure of a toxic relationship and is an emotionally satisfying scene for the audience. She was the victor by not only escaping again, but by showing that God was on her side.
And then, almost as an epilogue, there’s a scene where Harriet Tubman is shown later in life as a commander of Union Troops in the Combahee River Raid in Beaufort, South Carolina. After delivering a stirring speech to the troops, she sings a song that is the signal to the slaves that the time has come to be rescued, hundreds begin running toward the ships. Then their white masters follow in hot pursuit. It is then we see Harriet shoulder a rifle and say the word, “Ready” as the soldiers get set to shoot their guns at the rebels.
At that point, Harriet’s gun likely killed someone. So the literary concept of Chekhov’s gun was fully used, even if we never saw someone die on screen from the lead character’s actions. And, it is hard to criticize soldiers for killing their enemies in a time of war.
Overall, I simply disagree with the accusation that the film makers for the movie Harriet used the “white savior” movie trope. Instead, I find their narrative to flesh out the life of an historic character to be utilizing the literary concept of “Chekhov’s gun.”
Here is the official trailer for the movie to demonstrate a few of the lines I quoted above.
Please let me know if you have any feedback. I would like to start a productive discussion regarding this topic.