My daughter worships Harriet. Literally.
Last year I overheard her praying to Harriet Tubman, asking for her guidance and courage. She was preparing for the annual second grade statue garden at her school and chose to portray Harriet. She read books, listened to podcasts, and watched a documentary about her hero. One picture book was read with tears streaming down her cheeks, thanks to the illustrations of Harriet being whipped as a young child. She kept reading and once finished, she crawled into my lap and we had a long, honest conversation about slavery and its ongoing ramifications today.
Last month when I saw the preview for the new Harriet movie, I knew I would take her to see it, no matter how Common Sense Media rated it. They rated it appropriate for kids twelve and older, by the way. This will be the right recommendation for many families. There is language unsuitable for elementary aged ears. There are racial slurs spoken and yelled throughout the entire film. There is violence against both freed and enslaved Black characters, including one brutal beating that brought my daughter’s hands to her eyes, tears slowing seeping beneath them.
And yet, I have no regrets for taking my eight and ten year old children to see this movie.
We talk about race a lot in our household. We are a white family who benefits from white privilege each and every day. We teach our kids about biases and the ways these biases negatively effect people of color. And yet, I was completely caught off guard by “the n-word” in Harriet yesterday. Of all our conversations about colonial and antebellum times, about reconstruction and Jim Crowe and the Civil Rights Movement, this word has never come up. Rather, I’ve never brought it up. This is a word we will address and unpack in the weeks to come.
The most profound takeaway for all of us was Harriet’s relationship with God. She was raised in a household devoted to their faith. After sustaining a traumatic head injury as a child, Harriet experienced seizures for the remainder of her life. During these “spells” she appeared unconscious to onlookers, but Harriet herself felt that in these moments she was most connected to God. She learned to trust what God showed her during these spells, even if she didn’t exactly understand the message.
The film depicts Harriet’s deep faith in ways that captivated my children and me alike. Multiple times we see her pause the journey along the Underground Railroad to kneel in prayer and listen for God’s direction. With her passengers hovering behind her, shaking with fear and uncertainty, Harriet remains calm. She channels Jesus waking from his slumber at sea to calm the roaring waters. Jesus waking early to pray on his own in the first chapter of Mark or climbing a mountain to pray through the night two chapters later. Harriet makes the time to pray before all major decisions in her life.
Just as I caught my daughter praying to Harriet last year, this year I except to find her praying like Harriet. In times of distress or uncertainly, I envision my daughter ceasing whatever it is that she’s doing to ask God for help. Even though we read the Bible regularly, I know that Harriet Tubman’s example will resonate with her more than Jesus’. Harriet is a brave, intelligent woman who states clearly that she doesn’t take orders from anyone but the Lord. Harriet will not allow a single person to tell her what she is or is not capable of doing in her life. And yet, even with this confidence and courage, she continues to ask God for help.
This movie will not be for every child. Read the reviews. Ask questions of trusted friends who have seen it. Perhaps do some fact checking about where the movie strays a bit from the truth, if that’s the type of moviegoer you are (ahem, that’s the moviegoer I am).
If you do decide to take your family, here are some “car ride home” questions to ask.
- How did you feel when you saw the way Harriet and her family were treated by their enslavers?
- Where do you think Harriet found the courage to escape?
- Why do you think she risked her life coming back to Maryland over and over and over again?
- If you had been there, what is something you could have done or said to help one of the characters?
- When have you prayed to God for help or guidance like Harriet did in her life?
- Do you think the violence and racist language was needed to tell Harriet’s story? Why do you think the director wanted us to see and hear it?
- What parts of the movie were the hardest for you to watch? What parts filled you with the most hope?
- What did you learn from Harriet Tubman? What was the movie trying to teach us?