“I’m going to be free or die.”Harriet Tubman
What does it mean to be free in a globalized world with ever-evolving, often conflicting, notions of freedom? If nothing else, it’s the realization that each of us is hostage to personal biases and experiences. They inform and shape our perspectives, as history and creative artists do, helping us to suspend them long enough for us to literally entertain new insights.
Consider the lives of Harriett Tubman and Louisa May Alcott. Both women changed history by fearlessly challenging the dominant ideas of their time. Two Hollywood films featuring Tubman and Alcott, Harriet and Little Women, reimagine freedom in different ways. Harriet celebrates the uncharacteristic courage of a woman who exercised free choice to tear down injustice versus Little Women, which challenges us to look at the subtler ways we limit our own freedom in deference to prevailing social machinations.
I loved writer/director Kasi Lemmons’ take on Harriet Tubman. She pulled from real sources in history to piece together the life of a woman who rejected enslaved life and the notion that she belonged to others. Harriet is proof of the monumental idea that we have control over what happens to us. She is truly one of the greatest American freedom fighters who helped galvanize a movement and achieved the impossible.
Beaten and whipped by her masters under threat of death if she tried to escape, Harriet experienced strange visions and premonitions from God. Kasi, who co-wrote and directed the Harriet movie, masters the dangers of Harriet’s harrowing escapes and unwavering commitment to help more than seventy enslaved people. In visually stunning cinematography, we run ninety miles with Harriet in 1849, as she leaves Maryland and heads for Philadelphia.
Miraculously, Harriet continued to thwart slavery thirteen more times, convincing others on repeat trips to follow her to freedom. Kasi herself takes a page from Harriet by cutting through the notoriously homogenous Hollywood fifedom as one of only a few women successful directors – let alone a woman of color.
I applaud Kasi for blazing a path towards equality like Harriet, who also wore the nickname Moses. Harriet worked with a network of activists who bolstered the Underground Railroad and, over time, empowered the engines of change by shaping change and greater freedom for all women and men.
Harriet never stopped pushing these boundaries even after abolition. She worked as an armed spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and later, as an activist for the women’s suffrage movement. Harriet’s dying words speak to a lasting legacy beyond her death in 1913, encouraging us to conquer fear and bias:
“I go to prepare a place for you.”
In many respects, Louisa May Alcott picks up where Harriet left off. Her novel, Little Women (1868), is set during the Civil War. The central character Josephine (Jo) doesn’t really address the enslavement of Black people, but instead examines the inequalities of gender and class structure.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig recreates this heartwarming story of four sisters who grapple with genteel poverty and social expectations that limit women. While the movie lacks the gripping action and the enormity of the injustice done by slavery and racism, Little Women shines a light on a different group of women during the same time period as Harriet.
At first glance, it seemed like a white and trivial version of a privileged class hoping to reclaim the proverbial promised land. But the deeper concepts of what it means to be a woman slowly emerged as I fought off my inclination to dismiss the importance of Greta’s work. Women were told what to believe, who to be and what to expect. Words in Greta’s screenplay are taken directly from the novel to show how they too are enslaved in a much different way. The economics are certainly less harrowing, but they do shed light on persistent parallels in our current world.
Jo describes the most pressing need for women as “… deciding between being an ornament to society and an accomplished something – a writer or artist.” Greta sweeps us into this world. As a viewer I find it hard to step away from the conventions that suggest, “there’s not much in between [an ornament and being an accomplished woman].
At first, I want Jo to marry until I come over to her side to understand why she resists, saying “I’m just a woman. As a woman there is no way for me to make my own money. If I did, my money would be my husbands. Marriage is an economic proposition.“
Yes, much has changed for women in the workforce and opportunities available to women. But we still grapple with inequities, power and freedom in relationships. Many women would still agree marriage is an economic proposition, especially when it comes to childrearing.
Freedom is a sliding scale. There’s no doubt that racism, sexism and many forms of discrimination will continue to threaten equality and human progress because of our fallible nature. But the individuals can move the dial to collectively strengthen the stronghold against these impediments, and pave the way to a better world.