Not Just "Another Slave" Movie: It's Time Harriet Tubman Receives Her Shine

by Kimberly Denise Williams

Hollywood’s issue with diversity is well documented—from its employment practices to the final images we see on screen. Even more, when we see black images taking center stage, they are often pre-Civil Rights Movement roles showcasing us as slaves or servants. There seems to be two strains of thought on why this is the case, and they are not mutually exclusive. For one, few people will argue against the blatant racism that existed then in comparison to the more complicated portrayals that could be included in a movie portraying the struggles Black people face today. Thus, it is easier to show racial tensions prior to the 1960s. Additionally, it is also easier for mainstream audiences to see Black people in subservient roles. This imbalance in portrayals has caused many to argue for more films focusing on contemporary representation of Black lives, and to dismiss the onslaught of movies—often greatly written, directed and acted—that focus on slaves and servants.

Knowing where the tension currently stands regarding “slavery movies” and Black media depictions, the news that phenomenal actress Viola Davis will be taking on the starring role of Harriet Tubman in an HBO film currently in development should still be met with excitement. The film is based on Kate Clifford Lawson’s biography of Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of An American Hero, and is set to offer a perspective that we have not seen before in a highly anticipated format. It’s not another slave movie, but rather another portrayal of a hero from a time in America’s history that the country still cannot fully process. Moreover, to stop showing these images would be to deny our history and the humanity of this country’s enslaved founders.

In our constant struggle to find historical images that resonate with the modern woman, Harriet Tubman is a revolutionary and inspiration for all of us today. Instead of thinking of this as yet another representation of slavery, we should focus on the story of a woman who escaped the life that was set up for her and then dedicated her life to helping others escape as well. Harriet Tubman is a role model we should strive to honor, an image we should have presented to us, and a story that needs to be shared beyond the (few) sentences of a history book.

It is also due time for Harriet to have her moment, no matter how many other stories have been told. There is a reason she was voted as the winner of the campaign Women on 20s, an effort to put an influential woman in American history on our currency. Harriet’s time for the spotlight has come. Other early national heroes have had countless films and shows made in their honor. Within the black community, men like Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner are often discussed because of their impact, and people are familiar with details of their actions and lives. While Harriet is definitely given some reverence within our culture, that nuanced attention to her actions hasn’t been given yet. In fact, the most attention that has been paid to her on a screen recently was Russell Simmon’s horrible decision to portray a Harriet Tubman sex tape. That video said way more about Uncle Russy than it did about the dangerous and courageous work that Harriet performed. According to, she performed over 19 trips to the South during a ten-year period, bringing more than 300 slaves to freedom. Any history book, Addy story, or modern film will tell you that Harriet’s trips were not for the weak in mind, body, or spirit.

Honoring Harriet Tubman is more than paying homage to a stereotype of a strong black woman. It’s more than showing another slave. It’s giving the respect that is past due to one of our nation’s hero. To not see beyond Hollywood’s faults in representation would be to do this film and the great Harriet Tubman a disservice. We should welcome this movie, and others like it that challenges us to confront our roots.

Photo: Harriet Tubman, 1895 

Kimberly Denise Williams is a Brooklyn born chatterbox with an affinity for pop culture and chocolate. You can tweet her @kimberlythinks or visit her website:

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