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A New Glimpse at a Timeless Heroine: “Harriet”

Caitlyn Scherger '22

Features Editor

The "Harriet" Poster featuring Cynthia Erivo. Photo Courtesy of Universal.

On Oct. 31, the Ashland Theater held a special release showing of the new movie “Harriet” that was open to Randolph-Macon College students and faculty, as well as citizens of the Ashland community. R-MC’s Provost’s Office, Black Studies and Film Studies Departments as well as the Office of Student Life all specifically extended invitations to the students within those programs to come out and experience this unique viewing before the movie was released nationwide. Many students and faculty, as well as townspeople, took advantage of this offer, and filled up almost every theater seat available.

The movie tells the story of Harriet Tubman, a former slave who freed herself and then risked her life multiple times in order to rescue and free many other slaves. She led them all through the Underground Railroad (a route that is known to slaves but unknown to outsiders), which contains houses and citizens that helped hide and protect the runaway slaves as they made their way from the South to freedom in the North. The movie begins with Harriet planning her escape, and then illustrates the challenges and difficulties that she and many other slaves faced while trying to reach freedom.

This isn’t the first modern day historical movie to be released on the national level. “This is [part of] a series of a number of films we’ve had lately out of Hollywood where they’re examining the lives of the individual people involved in Civil Rights or freeing themselves from slavery,” said Dr. Thomas Inge, a Film Studies professor at R-MC. “But this is not groups of people. This is focused on the very important figure in African American culture and history who, for reasons I perhaps don’t understand, has not been paid much attention to.”

This movie hopes to change this lack of attention towards an instrumental figure of African American history. Not only does it center around and tell the story of Harriet Tubman, but it also was released shortly after the decision was made to postpone Harriet’s printing on the twenty-dollar bill to 2028.

“One of the options we are offering people is to have their $20 bill stamped with an official Harriet Tubman stamp,” said Professor Alphine Jefferson, an R-MC Black Studies professor. “This is part of a national movement that’s been done all over the country. It is an attempt to make the administration rescind its decision.”

This early showing wasn’t just trying to create change nationally. It was also looking to bring together the town of Ashland and Randolph-Macon College. Although R-MC is physically located in the town of Ashland, there haven’t been many opportunities for the two groups to come together, but this experience aimed to change that. As mentioned earlier, this movie drew in a huge audience, not just of R-MC community members, but also of Ashland town members.

This was exactly what Professor Jefferson wanted to see with this special viewing. “It’s a unique opportunity for the college and the community to come together with a film that represents diverse perspective,” he said. “Afterwards, we [had] a talk-back so it [gave] us an opportunity for people who would never encounter each other to have a civil, community conversation.”

Unfortunately, while the citizens of Ashland flocked to the movie in support, the same response was not felt across the nation. Before and on the day that “Harriet” came out, the film generated controversy around the nation. The first outrage occurred before the film’s release and was about main actress Cynthia Erivo, who plays Harriet Tubman. She is from London, which led some people to complain that Harriet Tubman should be played by someone who is African American, which Erivo is not. However, once this disapproval dissipated, on the day that the film was released, some viewers were furious that the slaveowners were not really shown in a negative light. Some viewers saw it as an attempt by the filmmakers to draw sympathy for the slaveowners.

Director Kasi Lemmons explained the decision. “I really felt that I wanted to speak about a different kind of violence which was family separation,” she said. “Which I hadn’t seen as much of but is very much the Harriet Tubman story and what she was motivated by.”

Despite these controversies, “Harriet” still went on to perform amazingly at the box office, making $11 million on opening weekend. It was also well-received by R-MC students, staff and faculty. And this hopefully won’t be the last experience like this available for Ashland and R-MC residents.

Professor Jefferson, who is also on the Board of Directors for the Ashland Theatre, doesn’t want this special showing to be the last one.

“I will work my hardest to make sure there are many opportunities like this so that we can continue to improve town-gown relations,” he said, with ‘town’ being the citizens of Ashland and ‘gown’ being the college.

If you missed this experience, you still have a chance to see “Harriet” because it is still in theaters. Additionally, keep your eyes peeled for more experiences and special viewings like this, as there are definitely more to come!

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