With the biographical action film Harriet, director Kasi Lemmons brings to the screen one of the most significant African American figures in American history—Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery, Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo) escaped by making her way North to freedom. As the only female conductor with the Underground Railroad, Tubman risked her life often to return to the South in order to rescue other enslaved people. From saving others to leading an armed contingent during the Civil War, Tubman stood up to injustice and fought oppression everywhere she went. As The Guardian points out, “Lemmons’ achievement is to tell a story that does not accept slavery as a tragic and immutable fact, and to dramatize the people who took action against it.”
If, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Tubman’s fight against incredible odds pushed America towards a more just future. With Harriet in theaters on November 1, we showcase four other stories of people whose refusal to back down created a better world for us all.
Race | An American hero
Stephen Hopkins’ Race dramatizes the remarkable life of the runner Jesse Owens (Stephan James). At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Owen won four gold medals, exploding the racist mythology of his Nazi hosts. While an American hero in Germany, Owens found a different reality when he returned home. As James points out, Owens “came back to an America that was still very flawed. So him being so famous didn’t mean anything: he was still black.” At one point, he was forced to enter through the back door to attend a dinner thrown in his honor. “It would be decades before Owens was invited to the White House, and decades more for this engrossing film to get out the word," notes NPR.
Loving | Eyes on the prize
In Jeff Nichols’ historical drama Loving, the title couple, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, were married in 1958. But it would take nearly a decade before the Supreme Court declared their vows legal. The landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage, allowed the couple and their children finally to return to their Southern home without fear of being arrested. While the Lovings—he a white man, she an African American woman—made history, it was, as, The New York Times points out, “the absolute ordinariness of their love that defined them, and that made the fight for it into an indelible story of this country.”
Talk to Me | Speaking truth to power
In 2007, Harriet’s director Kasi Lemmons made Talk to Me, a film about an unlikely and unforgettable American figure. In the 1960s, an ex-con named Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) wheedled his way into becoming a deejay at a popular Washington, D.C., radio station. For years, his madcap antics and shock-jock repartee made him a must-listen entertainer for the city's commuters. In 1968, as his city was on the verge of a riot, he found a more serious purpose for his charismatic personality. As Time Magazine remembers, “in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, Petey took to the air and, in a marathon broadcast, helped calm the city.” For Salon, Petey Greene gets “to the heart of what being an American ought to mean."
BlacKkKlansman | The past as prologue
In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee recounts the extraordinary true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a Colorado Springs police detective who in the 1970s infiltrated the KKK with the help of a white colleague (Adam Driver). At one point, Stallworth even befriended the Klan’s Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone, making history by becoming the racist group's first African American member. As crazy as Stallworth's story is, Lee—who won an Academy Award® for Adapted Screenplay–is ultimately less interested in exposing the injustices of the past as warning us of racism's insidious nature. As Slate succinctly notes, “BlacKkKlansman uses history to illustrate how we’re repeating it.”