End All, Be AllA Roundtable About “Harriet” and the State of Black Film Criticism

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet (Photo credit: Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

Black film in 2019 has been a rollercoaster ride: We’ve been treated to an array of films that aim to capture Black experiences, from Jordan Peele’s horror film Us to Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas’s ride-and-die romance film Queen & Slim. We’ve revisited the Rudy Gay’s complex life in the Eddie Murphy-led My Name Is Dolemite; followed Black women on journeys to find themselves in What Men Want, Little, and Juanita; and were treated to haunting films, like See You Yesterday and Atlantics, that stretched the confines of our imaginations. Through all of these films and others, Black critics have been a mainstay, offering comprehensive and honest perspectives on films that have helped guide us as we reflect on what we’ve seen.

Harriet, Kasi Lemmons’s retrospective about abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s journey to freedom and her role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was a flashpoint in 2019 for Black critics. Though the film grossed $42 million and generated Oscar buzz for lead actress Cynthia Erivo, it also received wide criticism much of which was immortalized in reviews from Black writers. As we look toward a 2020 full of Black films, Bitch brought together two Black women film critics—Gloria Oladipo and Jonita Davis—to discuss Harriet, what we continue to misunderstand about the role of biopics, and the overall state of Black film criticism.

We have been waiting a long time for a biopic about Harriet Tubman. When it was first announced that Harriet would be coming to the big screen, what were your initial thoughts or expectations?

Gloria Oladipo: I was excited about having a movie about Harriet Tubman. I was cynical about it though; I was unsure if the writers would give Tubman the proper respect and honor all parts of her legacy. I was also concerned about casting. This is pretty widely known, but the actress who portrayed Tubman had been questioned about her problematic statements concerning Black Americans. (I don’t think she’s been held accountable for her comments.) I also have questions when white producers, casting agents, etc. are involved in Black stories. So overall, while I wanted the Tubman movie to be good, I was also preparing myself to not have everything I wanted (and everything that was needed) in the movie.

Jonita Davis: I was excited to see these stories onscreen. I have kids and I want their generation to be exposed to our [past] in a way that really draws them into the history, like biopics do. Selma got my kids interested in the Civil Rights Movement. A nonfiction book couldn’t do that (I know because I bought books on Black history that they didn’t [engage with] until Selma).

My excitement in seeing Harriet also came from getting to see another film by one of my fave directors. Kasi Lemmons did Eve’s Bayou, which is a great movie for a number of reasons. However, she hasn’t directed any films since 2013’s Black Nativity. Lemmons is such a good storyteller that I wanted to see her get a big movie in post-Black Panther Hollywood and Harriet seemed like the type of story she could really step into. This is also why I was saddened when the backlash hit after Harriet’s release. So many people were claiming whitewashing and how we can’t trust the white producers, but we had a veteran Black director in the director’s seat and producing this film. None of that mattered. It was disappointing.  

GO: I agree. It’s frustrating to me how much Black storytellers have to do to make sure our mediums aren’t co-opted.

Would you credit Harriet’s flaws to the script itself, the subject matter, or something else entirely?

GO: The problems I noted were based on the script. Some of the fabrications added to Harriet and the writing itself [contributed to] these problems. I’ll also say the music was a big problem; the score felt melodramatic (very Hollywood and overwhelming) in a way that’s not needed to tell a story about slavery. We don’t need the sterotypically sad music to know slavery is bad or good music to understand that freedom is worthwhile. There’s an unspoken evilness we can’t interpret, an intergenerational trauma with slavery that’s hard to bear witness to. Maybe using silence as a tool is a better way to interpret these experiences than dictating them with a score.

With any film that concentrates on negative Black experiences, having audiences that will include white people (and mostly white people in some places) means the material will be viewed differently. White people may feel hopeful and comforted by some of Harriet’s messages and Black people watching white people watch Harriet will bring that into how they view the film. [As a critic] watching Harriet, I also thought about some of its themes—forgiveness of white people especially—can be used inappropriately later on. That’s a bias I carry that I need filmmakers to account for when writing these scripts.

JD: It was the subject matter. Any depiction of slavery is polarizing and will be picked apart because the material is triggering. It’s a traumatic viewing experience for a lot of people. It becomes easy for people viewing the film or just the trailer to wish their will upon the characters and content. We want a different outcome, despite all the knowledge we have about the time period. We want Tubman to shoot the man who owned her, despite the conditioning and white supremacy programming that would’ve prevented that from happening. We want her to find the strength within herself to make these journeys from the South to free cities, despite all the evidence that the enslaved used a hybrid of Christianity and mythicism to cope with the hardships of slavery. But no matter how hard we wish they were different, these things did happen and belong in a depiction of the time period. Erasing these unpleasantries because they’re unsettling will make us agents of our own erasure.

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Since Harriet, there’s been a lot of conversation about if biopics are even the appropriate vehicles for telling the stories of historical figures whose lives are this expansive. Is there an example of a biopic that sets the standard for the genre? What was that movie, in particular, able to accomplish that Harriet and other biopics have been unable to?

GO: This is a good question because maybe the medium itself is the problem and filmmakers are doing the best they can within the prescribed format. I can’t speak on a particularly successful biopic because I don’t watch many of these movies, but I want a successful biopic to show the richness and diversity in someone’s life—and there is a way to do that, even when centering on a conflict. For example, some people who watched Hidden Figures (which I haven’t seen yet) said how much they appreciated these movies shining a light on the struggles these Black women faced. The film acknowledged how rich these women’s lives were outside of the anti-Blackness they faced. Black people—and people who have tough experiences—have lives outside of our trauma. That should be highlighted in movies so the films can feel more universal and accessible.

JD: The biopic genre has always been confused by audiences; that’s the problem. People go to the theaters and see a compelling story about people and places in history and believe it’s true. It doesn’t help that biopics must have the sexy, powerful look of a mainstream film in order to succeed. Anything too dry is boring and is relegated to the status of documentary or educational film. And, despite what they say, most audiences who flock to biopics will not sit through a dry, historical telling of the same material. If that was true, biographers like Stanley Nelson (Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool and Tell Them We are Rising) would be pulling Marvel movie numbers regularly.

But the blame for this confusion is not on the audience. They just consume what they’re given. The biopic description needs to be redefined by critics, creators, and studios. There needs to be talk of degree of truth in differentiating biopics from narrative (fiction) film. The discourse surrounding degree of truth is much more productive than asking if the biopic works. Biopics do serve a purpose. They work to introduce our history to younger generations underserved by the public-education system and by people outside our culture who need to understand that our history is American history. Selma is an example. When the film came out, my oldest two girls were in high school and not the least bit interested in the Civil Right Movement. We saw Selma, and they immediately wanted to know “what really happened.” Suddenly, the books I’d bought them about Black history were being read and our family movie nights were reserved for documentaries about that infamous church bombing that kicked off the film. Biopics are not supposed to be completely factual. However, they do spark interest so that people will go searching for the truth on their own.

There’s been a dustup, recently, about how Black critics handled Queen & Slim, another film that was questioned by Black critics. What do Black critics owe films created by Black people and targeted toward Black audiences?

GO: It’s so annoying when people say that Black film critics need to go “easier” on Queen & Slim or have more grace for it. Black critics (and critics generally) have a responsibility to audiences and also an obligation to call out poor aspects of a film. Black critics have an additional obligation because they’re a small intersection that can address some of the problematic social dimensions in a film (especially since white critics mishandle this a lot). Black critics are having the dialogue about movies like Chiraq and the play Slave Play and bringing attention its problematic aspects. Black people partially create films to [offer] a new dynamic on a social problem; Black critics are well within their rights to add to that dialogue, even if it means taking issue with the film itself.

We need to give critics space to ply their craft without pitting them against the films, the audiences, and/or each other.

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What is the biggest misconception that people have about Black film critics? Is it possible to combat those misconceptions, outside of simply doing the work?

GO: The misconception is connected to Black audiences. People treat Black critics as if they’re saying things just to mess up a film’s performance at the box office, but the Black critics I follow approach media critically because the movies we watch aren’t being covered enough. If a Black critic, especially the veteran ones that were commenting on Queen & Slim, had issues with a film, that’s meant to be a dialogue starter, not a denunciation. Filmmakers should treat these critiques as conversation starters. I recognize that this is hard considering the pressure on Black creatives to make perfect art within limited opportunities. Moreover, a big misconception that people have about Black audiences is that we don’t pick up on the issues of Black films. When Chiraq came out, many people who aren’t professional critics talked about their issues with the tool of withholding sex to stop violence. Black critics aren’t just pushing forward their opinion; most of the time, we’re speaking on a community thought that we agree with and feel some people will resonate with. Alternatively, we’re saying an opinion that will have enough dissent and start a dialogue. For the most part, we have good intentions, and want to better our artistic mediums.

JD: This has been on my mind a lot lately. Too much is read into our critiques. We’re not stopping the audience from viewing a film that we don’t agree with; we just want to start a conversation about the film. Black critics have done the same for Black film for decades. I recently saw several people quoting Harlem Nights in honor of Redd Foxx’s birthday. So many Black people can quote a line from that film, but when it came out, the critics dragged it. Desson Howe reviewed the film in 1989 for the Washington Post, listing the many scandals that were dogging the film’s director and lead actor Eddie Murphy at the time. This includes his anti-gay and very sexist stand-up routines. Howe wondered if Harlem Nights was anything more than a vanity project for Murphy. His blistering critique didn’t stop the film’s cult following. However, his words contributed to the conversation at the time about how much social responsibility Black comedians have when performing their art.

Black critics are also not the defining voices of the culture. We may not all agree and that’s okay. No one expects all white women to have the same feelings about a film, and we certainly don’t require this of white men. People forget that Black critics aren’t all cranked out of the same mold. We all come at this work from very diverse backgrounds. Some of us are journalists too and others solely critique film. Some are trained in film criticism and others, like myself, are based in literary criticism. These backgrounds produce some very different takes on a film. For example, Shadow and Act’s Brooke Obie wrote a moving review of Queen & Slim that focused on the tragic ending. She pulled from her cultural literary criticism background to give her view on the film. For her, the ending of the film was both painful and triggering. I don’t agree with her view, though the review is well-written and it’s very important work that resonates with so many people.

My view of the same scene comes from a literary background as well, but mine is narrative criticism. I look at the same scene that Obie wrote about so poetically and I see an ending that was inevitably foreshadowed by visual and rhetorical cues that start in the opening scene. Neither of us are wrong. In fact, we’re both right in pointing out that the ending of Queen & Slim is important and worth further discussion. We need to give critics space to ply their craft without pitting them against the films, the audiences, and/or each other. As Howe did 30 years ago, Black criticism opens a dialogue that we continue, hopefully for decades to come.

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by Gloria Oladipo
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Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman freelance writer; she is also a rising junior at Cornell University. She enjoys writing about all topics, including mental health, race, gender, politics, and pop culture. For more of her writing, follow her Twitter, @gaoladipo and her Contently.

by Jonita Davis
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