“Be Free or Die”: Teaching Harriet (2019)

By Sabrina Völz

It’s not easy to make a biopic that pleas­es the crit­ics. And, to some extent, Har­ri­et, direct­ed by Kasi Lem­mons, falls into that cat­e­go­ry. Har­ri­et weaves togeth­er facts about Har­ri­et Tubman’s life into a com­pelling sto­ry, but some crit­ics are not so enthu­si­as­tic about the film’s aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties. In Har­ri­et, there are no tru­ly unusu­al com­po­si­tion of shots or cam­er­a­work the likes of 12 Years a Slave, and the phys­i­cal hor­rors of slav­ery receive almost no screen time, lead­ing some to won­der if audi­ences are sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to fill in the gaps. The audi­ence sees, for exam­ple, the scars of bru­tal beat­ings with­out any sup­port­ing dia­logue. Thank­ful­ly, Lem­mons resists the temp­ta­tion to take an over­ly didac­tic or ‘preachy’ approach. Any aspects of slav­ery – and there are sev­er­al – that the film does not cov­er can be dealt with as film prepa­ra­tion. It is unre­al­is­tic to believe that one film can show all there is to show about slav­ery. It’s not the focus of the film any­way. This is in, the words of its direc­tor, a “free­dom film.”

Both of these so-called lim­i­ta­tions that I’ve just men­tioned, how­ev­er, make the film acces­si­ble to audi­ences of all ages and back­grounds. They fur­ther make Har­ri­et, rat­ed PG-13, an excel­lent film to explore with EFL stu­dents in upper-sec­ondary schools, espe­cial­ly since teach­ers are deeply con­cerned about the impact of media vio­lence on young peo­ple. Let’s face it, some scenes in 12 Years a Slave, rat­ed R, may over­whelm or trau­ma­tize teenagers. Before out­lin­ing fur­ther rea­sons for using the film in the (Ger­man) EFL class­room and pro­vid­ing some orig­i­nal teach­ing mate­ri­als for this action-packed film, let’s pre­view the trail­er and get a taste of the experience:

Sim­ply put, Har­ri­et is a film beg­ging to be taught in school. First, in a recent blog, I explored the con­tro­ver­sy of plac­ing Har­ri­et Tub­man on the twen­ty-dol­lar bill now set for 2030. The cur­ren­cy redesign is an open invi­ta­tion to study Har­ri­et Tubman’s life and con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can soci­ety. While Black His­to­ry Month is a won­der­ful time to explore African Amer­i­can achieve­ments, it also is cru­cial to delve into these top­ics at times oth­er than in Feb­ru­ary. Sec­ond, the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the eman­ci­pa­tion of African Amer­i­can slav­ery on June­teenth – now a fed­er­al hol­i­day in the U.S. – makes the film more rel­e­vant than ever. Har­ri­et def­i­nite­ly cel­e­brates the life of its pro­tag­o­nist. Third, Har­ri­et rein­tro­duces one of America’s icon­ic heroes to new gen­er­a­tions of all ages. One can nev­er have enough role mod­els, espe­cial­ly since the pres­ence of African Amer­i­can female ones in his­to­ry books or pop­u­lar cul­ture is extreme­ly lim­it­ed. Close­ly tied to this point is the debunk­ing of the ideas that Abo­li­tion­ists were only White and that slaves were only vic­tims. Har­ri­et high­lights numer­ous Black resis­tors, both male and female, their con­tri­bu­tions, and the sac­ri­fices they make for the cause. Fifth, Lemmon’s film also poignant­ly shows the harm­ful effects of slav­ery on the fam­i­ly, fos­ter­ing empa­thy for Blacks. And final­ly, Har­ri­et cen­ters on becom­ing moral­ly coura­geous, tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for oth­ers, and fos­ter­ing social change. These are fun­da­men­tal tenets of cit­i­zen­ship in a democ­ra­cy. The times we live in con­stant­ly remind us how del­i­cate democ­ra­cies around the world are. In Har­ri­et Tubman’s words: “Every great dream begins with a dream­er. Always remem­ber, you have with­in you the strength, the patience, and the pas­sion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

Let’s now take a look at a few free teach­ing resources to get the class­room dis­cus­sion going. Apart from com­pre­hen­sion ques­tions that can be found on Qui­zlet, there are two won­der­ful web­sites with a pletho­ra of ideas: David Forrest’s post on the Nation­al Coun­cil for the Social Studies’s web­site and Teach with the Movies’s work­sheets on his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and cin­e­mat­ic effects. I’ve also attached my work­sheet that pro­vides a def­i­n­i­tion of biopics and offers stu­dents prompts, such as char­ac­ter names, film quotes, themes, and more as a means to dis­cuss aspects of the film they are inter­est­ed in. Over the years, I’ve learned that we don’t have to ana­lyze every aspect of a film to have a mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion. Less is some­times more.

This approach may be some­what more chaot­ic than tra­di­tion­al method­ol­o­gy as stu­dents don’t have to dis­cuss the film in chrono­log­i­cal order and can skip over top­ics that seem obvi­ous or less per­ti­nent. In oth­er words, stu­dents have the free­dom to con­cen­trate on the top­ics they find impor­tant, con­fus­ing, or aes­thet­ic as a means to dis­cov­er a pos­si­ble essay top­ic. It puts them in charge of their learn­ing. Of course, stu­dents should be prop­er­ly intro­duced to the film’s direc­tor, the top­ic of slav­ery, and the Fugi­tive Slave Act of 1850 before watch­ing the film, but I’d keep the intro­duc­tion to Har­ri­et Tub­man short. If stu­dents know too much about her before watch­ing the film, the sur­prise of her super­hero-like qual­i­ties may be lost or seem anticlimactic.

There’s nev­er a one-size-fits-all approach to teach­ing, and this film is both long – 205 min­utes to be exact – and imper­fect, but the advan­tages by far out­weigh the dis­ad­van­tages. The cur­rent cur­ricu­lum is full of mate­r­i­al that focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on the hor­rors of slav­ery. It’s time to turn our atten­tion – in hon­or of our new­ly estab­lished fed­er­al hol­i­day – to a “free­dom film.”

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