Harriet Tubman’s face was scheduled to be on the $20 bill next year but the Trump administration put an end to that. In May it was announced the redesign would be delayed until 2026 due to counterfeiting and… (ahem)…security features.
This means the soonest an image of a Black female can grace our currency for the first time will be when Trump is out of office, that is if he were to win a second term and survive his pending impeachment.
It also means the soonest any of us will be able to proudly pull a wad of Tubmans from our wallets instead of our current stack of twenties bearing the likeness of Andrew Jackson, a slave owning, Southern cotton plantation master who forcibly removed two major native American tribes from their homelands in the early 1800s, will also have to wait. (Note: FYI, Andrew Jackson is Trump’s favorite American president, so much so that a portrait of the former POTUS now hangs in his Oval Office).
Still, what didn’t wait and what even Trump couldn’t stop was this weekend’s release of Focus Features’ Harriet, a long overdue major studio biopic about one of the most legendary and unexplored historical figures in American history.
One can easily picture Trump reveling in the flat image of Jackson on his wall as he figures out more ways to pit various regions of the country against each other in a new 21st century Civil War.
But after watching the superbly made screen version of Harriet Tubman emerge as a sort of mainstream cinematic superhero for everything that is just and right about the world, past and present, it’s clear Trump and his favorite predecessor better take cover. A cultural shift of the tides is beginning and it’s being led once again by a petite, very dark-skinned young woman who has no difficulty in speaking truth to White Power, past or present.
It is no accident that the image of Harriet Tubman one walks away from after Harriet is one of our nation’s first female superheroes, a woman who has been historically documented to have helped many hundreds of slaves escape the South, often by using her own amazingly unerring and mystical sense of direction and focus.
Tubman herself claimed that God spoke to her and helped guide her and the many people she saved to freedom. This is literally represented in the film through images of both past trauma and future dangers right around the bend each time certain death rears its ugly head. These are also shown in other moments in the film as nothing more than possible delusions from minor brain damage she received after a slave master broke her skull when she was 13 years old and she lied comatose for several months.
At a recent screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, Harriet’s director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons addressed a question about Tubman’s real-life and cinematic feats by noting that at the very least she had prefect instincts. But her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans), who wrote the first draft of the script 25 years ago, decided early on to approach Tubman’s story not so much literally but as an action film…with a superhero.
Since Howard’s first draft screenplay, a plethora of historical records, including photographs and diaries, have been unearthed and several Tubman biographies have been written. These all verify Harriet’s seemingly superhuman abilities as an expert guide leading scores of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad as well as what she claimed to be a very specific and deep personal communication with God himself.
Of course, like any great leaders in a particular field of endeavor, especially in the past, it is difficult to know exactly how they do it and why they are able to be so exceptionally successful when the odds, and reality, were and are so severely stacked against them.
Some of us even look at Trump and wonder that very same thing, even as his Wizard of Oz-ish curtain is currently being pulled back for all of us Dorothys to see in real time, if we choose to.
But at the end of the day what’s important are results, be it a Trump, a Harriet Tubman or any particular major studio film beckoning for box-office receipts or at least a blaze of glory as its launched into the zeitgeist.
We know what Tubman achieved and what Trump did. Right now, and after just a few days, Harriet has so far managed to land the number two spot at the box-office nationally this weekend — no small achievement for a historical biopic. Yes, that’s no small feat but one suspects, like it’s namesake, its more impressive achievement will be a slow burn into the cultural conversation of who we are and where we are as a nation.
This might start with Cynthia Erivo’s riveting film debut and sure bet lead actress Oscar nomination for her lead performance, move towards the clear parallel of Civil War era 1% attitude to those carrying the torch for Trumpism today and then wander off into why the heck it took a century and a half of cinema for Hollywood to finally tell the real life Hollywood story of Harriet Tubman.
Of course, we all know why it took so long for Harriet to reach the big screen. As cowriter Howard so aptly put it, you needed Black Panther to blow the doors wide open.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t take as long for the superpowers exhibited by Ms. Tubman in Harriet to blow the doors of the Oval Office open and escort the likes of POTUS’ Trump and Jackson out for good.