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Free or Die!

God did not mean [for] people to own people.

Vicar for Communications, Fr Robert Christo reflects on the movie Harriet.

Harriet is an exceptionally powerful, engaging, suspenseful true story about one slave woman, ‘Minty’, who is renamed Harriet Tubman. This historic biography is of the life of Harriet from the South who before the American Civil War saved thousands of slaves and brought them to freedom from American’s original sin of slavery—“the next thing to hell” as Harriet describes it.

Harriet, portrayed by actress Cynthia Erivo, is married to a free man and she longs that her children be born free, whilst she is on the path to freedom herself. Harriet’s white plantation owners consider her property, so she flees with a charm (a wooden handheld sculpture of her father’s head which he himself had crafted) and follows the North Star (akin to the three Wise Men).

She parts the seas like Moses, *wading through the water of the Red Sea and leaves everything behind as she walks, runs, rides and swims with God. After reaching freedom, she decides to return to the South to free her family and thousands of slaves. Her return trips are numerous and chillingly adventurous, demonstrating that Harriet is indeed a missionary disciple.

Harriet has an intensely strong Christian and moral worldview. The courageous and charismatic Ms Tubman constantly seeks guidance from her pastor who preaches in support of slavery but ultimately shows he never believed in it.

She listens to God whom she believes speaks through her broken skull —the result of severe blows from the slave masters, an injury which ironically becomes her spiritual gift.

The depiction of the Christian God could seem like mysticism at times and Harriet’s relationship with God is complex, yet very real. She experiences visions, spells, blackouts, and many miracles, giving credit for these to the Lord.

When asked by an abolitionist if anyone joined her on her 100-mile escape, she replies, “it was just me and the Lord …God spoke to me, but it was my feet that did the walking…”

Practical and faith-filled, Harriet is not the only character driven by faith. The slaves give powerful, rousing renditions of modern Negro spirituals about the promised land which provide much hope on the journey.

A key leader in the freedom movement tells Harriet to “Trust in God” for safety on her trips down South. Harriet held on to her faith concluding that, “ …there was one of two things I have a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted …”

For Harriet, freedom or death were her only options. On one of her return trips, prior to leading soldiers to rescue 700-plus slaves in a raid, she appears equipped with fake identification and chillingly threatens her charge who was resisting freedom with, “Free or die!”.

Freedom did not elude her for she says, “I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight, and that’s what I have always prayed for ever since.”

Harriet’s determination to pursue freedom is demonstrated in myriad ways but on two occasions, in the attempted rescue of her husband and her sister, God’s ways were not hers.

After her first harrowing escape, Harriet believed that God wanted her to go back and rescue her husband. However, on her return, her husband is married to another woman—now with his child. Devastated, Harriet comes to believe that God had instead sent her for the sake of others.

Later, Harriet also attempted to rescue her sister but even under the threat of a gun, her sister resisted her rescue efforts, her call to freedom. Through her sister’s refusal, God spoke to Harriet, “like a slap in the face”.

In this movie, although violence is visible in the scars of the slaves, the whippings and kicks they receive— it is the invisible scars meted out by slave owners which resonate in the film.

In both the film poster and the trailer, Harriet clutches a single big gun and appears to support violence but this gun is not a symbol of violence, but the instrument of choice to preserve and defend life and secure freedom of her thousands of charges.

Harriet is not a cartoon nor part of an action movie franchise; it is an eye-watering and serious look at history which puts a real hero on display.

There is an adage: Pick a dead person for your hero because they cannot disappoint you. I nominate Harriet Tubman—Moses in  the 19th century.


(*Wade in the Water – is a popular African-American spiritual mix with song-sermon, gospel song and holy blues. It is also Alvin Ailey’s signature dance piece which explores slavery, freedom, the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.)