|Source: Focus Features|
[image: Poster for the movie Harriet. A glowing
orange-brown background features three Black people,
one man and two women, in 19th century clothing.
The woman in the center is wearing a wide-brimmed
hat and has an unapologetic expression. Below them
is a smaller photo of the center woman, in profile holding
up at pistol. All-caps white text below her reads, "Harriet"]
The movie Harriet (2019) is 125 minutes (two hours and five minutes) long.
The first thing I noticed about the film Harriet was that the showing was sold out. I was eager to see the film and was simultaneously irritated and grateful that I couldn’t get a ticket. Irritated, because it meant buying a ticket for a later showing and finding a way to kill time for a couple of hours. Grateful because Harriet’s story is one everyone should know.
Harriet is the story of Harriet Tubman, the former slave who walked 100 miles to freedom all by herself when almost no one else took that journey alone. She went on to become the most celebrated Conductor for the Underground Railway, the clandestine project that united folks across race and gender lines with the focused goal of bringing captive slaves north into freedom. Tubman liberated 70 slaves, then went on to lead battles in the Civil War. She remains one of the very few women who have ever led a wartime charge for the United States military.
Harriet sustained a head injury as a young teenager that led to epilepsy and precognition. She “saw” her sisters being sold away from the plantation before it happened. In the film, she’s depicted having visions of both her own escape and her facilitation of others’ escapes. These visions, coupled with her strong faith in God, lent her the courage to become a great leader, like Moses, bringing her people out of slavery and home to the Promised Land.
I cannot review this film from the perspective of a Black person and I urge you to read other reviews that are written by Black people and other People of Color. But I would like to focus on the aspects of the film that affect neurodivergent people and people living with trauma-induced sensitivities.
No flashing lights, rapid jump cuts, or explosions
It would have been unpleasantly ironic had the film contained flashing lights or other seizurogenic visuals, considering Harriet’s own experience with epilepsy, but I have seen a documentary about cochlear implants that had no closed captioning so nothing would surprise me at this point. There were no jerky visuals or flashing lights in Harriet, though I cannot promise there are no seizurogenic sounds because I’m not familiar with all the sounds that can trigger seizures.
Overall, the sensory experience of Harriet was pleasant with nothing that triggered agitation or distress for me. I commented to a friend afterward that the movie felt a bit dated (in a good way) to me because other than the cinematography being more modern, Harriet might easily have been Roots. This is not to say that there weren’t any emotionally intense scenes, but I will cover that in another section.
From the perspective of sensory sensitivity, Harriet is gentle on the nervous system—one of the most sensorily gentle films I’ve seen in a long time. The downside of this, of course, is that it will be a hard film for those with higher sensory input needs to sit through. I did get up to use the bathroom and had an easy time returning to the film. I didn’t want to leave because the story was engrossing, but I’m pleased to report that easily distracted viewers should be able to follow the story well, whether they have to leave the room for a sensory break or whether their mind wanders at times while watching.
The audio at the theater where I watched Harriet was low-key and not painful (though you’ll want to bring ear defenders just in case since volume can vary from theater to theater). The speech was clear and not mixed with large amounts of music or sound effects, but if auditory processing is something you struggle with you’ll still want to try to find a showing with captions.
I have prosopagnosia or face-blindness so I”m always worried about whether I will be able to follow a storyline or whether I will get lost in trying to figure out who characters are. While there are many minor characters and I often wasn’t sure who they were, the film did a great job of helping the viewer to keep track of the major characters.
In the beginning, when Harriet was known as Minty and was just part of large groups of slaves working in the fields. She was easy to keep track of because slaves had one outfit they wore all the time, so Harriet was easy to spot in her tan headcloth. Harriet’s husband, John, was easy to recognize in the beginning because he was connected with Harriet: hugging her, kissing her, holding her hand. Later in the film, John was easy to spot because his left eye became badly scarred.
Two of the Black actors had grey hair and were easy to spot: Harriet’s father had longer hair and a bushier beard and Reverend Green had short grey hair. These actors stood out and were easy to keep track of. Harriet’s friend and landlady, Marie, was easy to keep track of because she wore very fancy dresses, more ornate than any other character. Among the white characters, the main antagonist was the only person with shoulder-length blonde hair making him easy to spot. Harriet’s former master was not in the movie for long before dying and his widow was mostly easy to recognize because she was the only white woman the film spent much time with and most of the time she was with her son, the man with longer blonde hair.
I found that the film did a good job of letting me know who other characters were by either always showing them in the same place so they were easy to keep track of, or clearly identifying them at the beginning of scenes. I give Harriet a B+ for face-blindness accommodation.
For many traumatized and emotionally sensitive people, violence is a major factor in deciding whether to see a film or not. There was a significant amount of violence in the film, including one scene where I could hear others in the audience gasping. I will go into more detail shortly.
There was very minimal blood in the film—mostly things like the redness of an open wound with nothing dripping from it. Blood was kept unrealistically absent throughout. For those with em*tophobia, there was no r*tching or v*mit in the film, although there was one scene where a woman was so scared that afterwards it looked like she might have v*mited from fear and held her body in a position that suggested v*miting, but she did not actually cough or v*mit.
The N-word is used often, throughout the film. I did not keep count, but I would estimate about two dozen incidents of the N-word.
A man slapped a woman. A man injured another man’s face, damaging his eye. Many people were depicted with scars from whippings or burnings and there is a scene where former slaves describe their injuries at the hands of slaveowners, some showing their scars. A man was shot in the forehead and killed. A woman was beaten to death, including being stomped in the head when she lay on the ground (this was what made the audience gasp). While all these scenes of violence were heavilly sanitized as far as blood or seeing the impact on screen, they were all heavily emotionally charged and I am feeling emotional again as I write about them. Those who are sensitive to scenes of violence should be cautious.
On a scale of 0 to 10 as far as the graphic nature of the violence, putting horror films like Hostel or Saw at 10 and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at 1, I would rate Harriet as a 5 on the violence scale. The nature of the violence—knowing that it was a portrayal of actual violence that happened countless times to real human beings who were held in bondage for generations—was much more upsetting than the level of graphic depiction the director chose to portray. The emotional intensity of the violence, knowing it depicts something very real and horrific, makes the emotional violence of Harriet off the chart—far past 11.
The aspect of this film that will most likely be the hardest for neurodivergent viewers is the heavy emotional content. I felt like the director had an even hand, and did not pile on the emotional cues or pump up the sentiment, but Harriet is a story where that is unnecessary. If anything, the emotional content was downplayed as much as a director could while still telling the story.
Any honest story about slavery will be emotionally difficult to watch. Families are torn apart, people’s lives are completely controlled with no opportunity for personal choice, babies are taken away from mothers, human lives are discussed as if they were little more than cattle—perhaps less valuable than cattle, even. People are beaten and killed. Laws are passed to increase the level of criminality of simply existing, let alone being born into slavery.
Harriet is an important story and the director has done everything possible to make the story accessible to emotionally sensitive people, but it made me cry and I suspect many other viewers were shedding tears as well. Come prepared to feel deeply emotionally moved, and take care of yourself if that’s a triggering condition for you.
With these caveats in place, I highly recommend the film Harriet. I have known the basics of Harriet Tubman’s story since I was a small child, but still learned much about her life and her grave importance to U.S. History. Harriet is a moving film and a satisfying one. Finally, one of the most famous women of the Civil War Era has a film celebrating her life and accomplishments and we are all richer for the opportunity to watch it, reflect upon it and learn from it.