I thought I’d figured out Hollywood’s prevailing attitude toward firearms. Oscar winner John Legend seemed to sum it up at an appearance in Dayton this week when he said: “The NRA doesn’t represent America,” and “we’re tired of bigotry and hate turning lethal because of easy access to guns.”
Harriet, with Cynthia Erivo in the title role, is set for release by Focus Features on November 1, though it already will be causing a stir at the Toronto Film Festival in early September. Its trailer, currently attached to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, promises an impassioned telling of Tubman’s escape from slavery, her work to liberate others via the Underground Railroad and her support for the abolitionist John Brown.
But among the trailer’s most striking features is its bold portrayal of armed resistance. Guns are a tool of the oppressors. So Tubman uses guns to defend against them, and to bring them down. In a 2 1/2-minute promo, Tubman and her allies bring an array of pistols and long guns into play at least 12 times. The heroine keeps a handgun by her side, and isn’t afraid to use it. There’s a flash in the night as someone fires on a pursuer at the 2:02 minute mark. In the final scene, Tubman and followers aim and cock their weapons as she speaks a cold command: “Ready.”
The visual message is backed up by some strong words from Focus. “She fought to change a nation,” reads the crawl. “Be free or die.”
Framed against the evils of slavery, Tubman’s right to fight back hardly can be challenged. Armed resistance was a last resort. John Brown’s execution after a failed raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, aided by Tubman, helped to fan flames that became the Civil War, in which Tubman functioned as spy and guerrilla fighter for the Union.
But tumbling into the ugly chaos of a current debate over guns and political violence, Harriet’s trailer, and the movie behind it, raise some uncomfortable questions about all that cinematic firepower. Is “be free or die” all that different from Second Amendment advocacy? If Tubman were alive today, would she belong to the National African American Gun Association? Under a background-check law, would she be red-flagged for past legal transgressions, or even because of seizures she suffered from adolescent head trauma? Would her alliance with Brown have marked her as a terrorist, and not fit to own arms?
One could argue that things were much different in the Civil War era — the overwhelming blight of slavery justified measures, and weapons, that are out of place in what should be a more benign contemporary civil culture.
But oppression repeatedly has arisen where people had no means to resist it — Stalin’s Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Idi Amin’s Uganda, you name it.
Another of this season’s films, Terrence Malick’s , reminds us of Hitler’s tyranny. That one, based on the life and death of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, describes a hero who rose above violence by refusing to fight.
But Jägerstätter was executed by the Nazis, who were defeated by massive armed opposition.
Yet another film, Universal’s now-canceled The Hunt, seems to have portrayed guns, bows and even land mines as tools of both oppression and defense in an orgy of political violence that was deemed too much after recent mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. Watching a trailer for The Hunt, you’re not sure whether it’s better to ban assault weapons or to buy one.
So, Legend’s well-meaning words notwithstanding, this gun thing isn’t simple. Not in the real world. Not even in the movies.