Kevin, thanks for your thoughts. All due respect, but I think calling Harriet (which evidently, you have not even seen yet) "historical junk" is a bit over the top here. Personally, I think there is a lot about the film that is admirable. But I believe that your demands for pure historicity at all costs (and otherwise, the film is junk) are unfair to popular film genres like this one. I guess, as with chicken, swallow the meat and spit out the bones, I guess.
Your strong rebuke about the black slave catchers is one of the major issues with the film, of course. Generally, I also dislike just making up a character; but in historical films, this is a fairly common narrative device.
But it turns out, since you asked, that black slave catchers evidently did in fact exist (though the numbers were small): as several articles in recent days have documented. One thing is, featuring this character (although it's not a huge role, but not many lines) does I think presents an even more complex & divided version of African American life at that time. From an article on Slate (a good article to see a number of historical questions listed):
Joshua Rothman, the chair of the University of Alabama history department, told me in an email that “there were surely black slave catchers”:
"It would be tricky for such people to operate in the South itself, because in most parts of the South, whites assumed all black people they didn’t know were slaves, and there are plenty of cases of free black people taken into custody, thrown in jail, and sold as slaves themselves. But outside of the South, or even in border states, we know that rings of kidnappers used free black people to lure in their prey, who were far more likely to trust a black person than a white one and who wouldn’t realize they’d been duped until they were en route to being sold as a slave. … And no doubt there were free black people who just decided to do the work themselves and keep all the reward money.
Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0300227116/?tag=slatmaga-20>, agreed that such people existed but suggested there weren’t many: “There were a few free blacks who were involved in kidnapping rings especially in Northern and border state cities. But they were few and far between and subject to reprisals from a fairly well organized free black community. Many more of course were involved in assisting fugitive slaves and in the abolitionist underground.”
Dr. Hal Bush
Professor of English &
Director of the Undergraduate Program
Saint Louis University
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author website: halbush.com
From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Mac Donnell Rare Books <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Wednesday, November 13, 2019 11:58 AM
To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: [External] Re: new film Harriet
The black slave catcher in the film is a made-up character, and from
what I've read of the film he's not a minor character. That's the
problem with the film. I doubt many historians would object much to
things like some made-up dialog, a wrong date, a costume or hair-style
error, and the like. But making up a significant character is a problem.
This does not mean the film can't be enjoyed for it's story or acting,
but it renders the film historical junk.
In fact, I question whether there was any such thing as a black slave
catcher--a free black who chased down escaped slaves--not just a slave
who ratted out a fellow slave. I challenge anyone to find one in the
historical record. Making up something that never existed and sticking
it in the middle of such a film compounds the junkiness.
What if Spielberg had put unicorns into the street scenes of his Lincoln
film, and made them an important part of the story?
Mac Donnell Rare Books
9307 Glenlake Drive
Austin TX 78730
Member: ABAA, ILAB, BSA
You can browse our books at:
------ Original Message ------
From: "Hal Bush" <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Sent: 11/13/2019 9:02:14 AM
Subject: Re: [External] Re: new film Harriet
>Kevin and all;
> Thanks for the responses so far. I saw the movie yesterday, it's great and often very moving. I would definitely recommend it to everyone on the LIST. It is great to have this version out there, and again, I cannot figure out why there have been so few quality theatrical releases like it? Frederick Douglass makes a couple brief appearances (I don't think he even has a line!); and I wonder: how can it be at this late date that there has never been a great film about this great American? Honestly I don't get it -- somebody should call Denzel or someone with clout to do it. I'm happy to do a screenplay, if so commissioned!
>Anyway: go see Harriet.
>Kevin's remark is a common caveat, especially from historian-types like the readers of this LIST. I get it, and often wonder in movies if a scene or incident narrated really happened, etc. Think of Selma: wonderful film, but the King people would not allow the speeches to be used (???). So the words in all speeches in Selma are written to sound like King; but are not King's words. Strange, but true...
>I've also heard some strong, alternative responses from film people and screenwriters, who feel that what they are doing in historical big screen film making is somewhat less constrained by the "facts on the ground" than purely fictional writing. So I look at Harriet and I do wonder, are those black slave catchers based on real or imagined characters, or just types? Are the purported visions and prophetic insights of Harriet (which occur at least 6-7 times, so her spiritual connections with God become in fact a major motif of the movie) based on real dreams & visions she had? You know, Joel chapter 2 - type stuff? etc.
>PS: one of the gold standards for the historically detailed approach was Spielberg's Lincoln. I heard a lecture once by the screenwriter Tony Kushner, about how painstaking Spielberg was about historical fact. Actually, obsessive: even things like accents, or the ticking of Lincoln's pocket watch. As a Lincoln aficianado, I actually once published a panel of Lincoln historians, in Cineaste magazine, talking about that movie's historical reality. All of these great Lincoln scholars agreed on how accurate it was: people like Mark Noll, Allen Guelzo, and Michael Burlingame.
>Cineaste, “What Historians Think About Spielberg’s Lincoln,” 38.1, 13-19
>Dr. Hal Bush
>Professor of English &
>Director of the Undergraduate Program
>Saint Louis University
>[log in to unmask]
>author website: https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://halbush.com__;!euKmGKuCglU!du9J94WeK3QJCJY_gklhZtjARRqb_-WDmp2Nmb7LvQoHEej5FDF_kdWKHy6jzas$
>From: Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Mac Donnell Rare Books <[log in to unmask]>
>Sent: Saturday, November 9, 2019 10:16 AM
>To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
>Subject: [External] Re: new film Harriet
>Speaking only for myself, when a movie is based on a historical figure I
>do so wish the movie-makers would stick to the historical facts as much
>as possible. Hollywood is the home of myth, legend, and fantasy, and if
>a director now and then inserts a historical figure into a
>non-historical movie, well--no harm, no foul. But "enhancing" the drama
>by inserting a fictional character into the middle of the action in a
>film centered around a historical figure is misguided and insulting.
>Even if the drama in the story is somehow enhanced, it is still a
>disservice to historical truth. Most movie-goers will accept it as true,
>or at least as truthy. The Adventures of Mark Twain comes to mind. Jack
>Warner sent crews out to Hartford, Elmira, Hannibal, and other places,
>where they took hundreds of photos documenting Twain's homes,
>belongings, etc., but when it came time to film they pretty much ignored
>their own research and presented a highly fictionalized version of his
>life. For decades there was the fake version of The Mysterious Stranger
>infecting the healthy tissue of Twain's writings. Bad enough that
>historical evidence was rejected or ignored in favor of movie-maker
>fictions, but some editors could not resist fictionalizing Twain's
>fiction. Surely there is a ring in Hell for that.
>Well, thank goodness the pages of Twain studies are not contaminated
>with myths, legends, hoaxes, and non-historical blather!
>Mac Donnell Rare Books
>9307 Glenlake Drive
>Austin TX 78730
>Member: ABAA, ILAB, BSA
>You can browse our books at:
>------ Original Message ------
>From: "Hal Bush" <[log in to unmask]>
>To: [log in to unmask]
>Sent: 11/9/2019 8:58:22 AM
>Subject: new film Harriet
>>folks, I believe some of you will be interested:
>>Perhaps this is predictable (it's really, really hard to depict these histories to everyone's satisfaction at the current moment): but the controversy over the new film Harriet is for real (even though it has a full 99% audience-like rating on rotten tomatoes).
>>& ps: I have encouraged my own students to see it (they all read Uncle Tom's Cabin & Douglass' Narrative this semester): I'd love hearing anyone's thoughts about the film, as either a teaching device or just an aesthetic/historical account.
>>Dr. Hal Bush
>>Professor of English &
>>Director of the Undergraduate Program
>>Saint Louis University
>>[log in to unmask]
>>author website: https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://halbush.com__;!euKmGKuCglU!f6j9JLEBTADMMXqHhT-tZ-KhgadCZ5TXw87MPgVfsfSLUvdY5zOdZFkr0G3RlwQ$