Harriet

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I missed this film, about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and helped many others to do the same, at the pictures.  It’s really not like me to miss a film about 19th century American history; but it wasn’t on for long, and not all cinemas showed it.  So thank you to Sky for showing it, as part of Black History Month.  All the local cinemas would, however, definitely have shown the new James Bond film next month, had its release gone ahead; and I would definitely have gone to see it, as would many other people.  I’d also have gone to see The Secret Garden, but that’s now gone straight to Sky without even being shown at cinemas.   And now it looks as if Cineworld are going to mothball all their cinemas, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vue and Odeon follow suit.  It’s very sad.  The film distributors aren’t giving them a chance.

Anyway, back to the point.  This unfortunately isn’t very historically accurate, but it does get across the message of how brutal slave owners could be, the tragedy of families torn apart, and the bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad – and just how much work and organisation went into it, at a time when communication systems were obviously nothing like they are now, and many of those involved hadn’t even had the chance to learn to read and write.

It’s quite an old-fashioned film, with an ’80s/’90s feel to it – glorious music, sweeping panoramas, elegant costumes for the slave owners and the free black characters, and a dramatic chase through the forest.  I know there was a bit of moaning that the lead role went to a British actress rather than an American actress, but Cynthia Erivo really does a superb job.  It must have been particularly difficult to portray Harriet’s belief that she was having religious visions – thought to have been linked to a severe head injury inflicted on her when she was young – but she does it very convincingly.

I’m surprised that this didn’t do better at the box office, but – very sadly for me! – American historical dramas just don’t seem to sell well these days.  I was sorry to see Mercy Street pulled after two series.   Oh well, I enjoyed it!  And it tells an important story.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross, into slavery in Maryland, and married John Tubman, a freedman.  Dramas about slavery do tend to focus on the Deep South, where marriages between slaves and free people were very unusual, but they did happen in the Upper South.  And, with Maryland bordering the free state of Pennsylvania, it was easier (in relative terms) there for slaves to escape; and we see Minty escaping, being assisted by members of the Underground Railroad, and adopting her mother’s name, Harriet – the change of name, to reflect her new status, is a powerful moment.

We then see her returning to try to bring her husband and sister to slavery, only to find that her husband, thinking she was dead, had remarried, and her sister wouldn’t leave her children, but then leading many others to freedom, returning time and again to come so and becoming known as “Moses”.  She did indeed lead many people to freedom, thought to be around 70 people in 13 trips  – and she was actually even braver than the film suggests, because this was mostly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act meant that escaped slaves, if recaptured, would be returned to slavery, whereas the film suggests that many of her missions were earlier.

The film over-dramatises it, giving Harriet a glamorous friend who runs a boarding house where she stays, and giving Harriet’s former owners, the Brodesses, a handsome son who seems to be rather obsessed with her.  It also shows the Brodesses’ neighbours all turning up at their plantation to confront them when they realise who “Moses” is, and Harriet tying up three of the Brodesses inside their plantation house as she helps some of their slaves to escape, and culminates in a dramatic chase through a forest and a showdown in which Harriet gets the better of the handsome son and prophesies the coming of the war and his death in it.   It’s a shame that it’s not historically accurate, because the showdown really is a great scene and Cynthia Erivo plays it so well, as she does another scene in which she reminds members of the Underground Railroad who were born free just how evil slavery is, and how they can’t possibly understand it in the way that she can.

It then shows Harriet fleeing to Canada, and briefly reminds that she led the Combahee River Raid during the war, in which she actually led a military expedition which rescued over 750 former slaves, but that’s all done briefly so as not to detract from the big showdown scene preceding it.

Not too many marks for historical accuracy, but the general storyline’s there – the horrors of slavery, and this brave and rather mystical woman who escapes from it and helps many others to do the same.  It’s not at all preachy or aggressive: it gets the message across through the excellent performance of Cynthia Erivo and the big dramatic, if not accurate, key scenes.  Certainly well worth watching.

 

Clifford’s Blues by John A Williams

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This is another novel about some of the less well-documented victims of the Holocaust.  In this case, the protagonist is a gay black man, imprisoned in Dachau from 1933.  He comes under the protection, of sorts, of a Nazi officer he’s met before, in return for sexual and musical favours.  The book’s in the form of a diary, which I wasn’t sure would work, but which does because it means that a huge amount can be included as notes on what he’s witnessed or heard about.  The horrific medical experiments carried out in the camp, the forced sterilisation of mixed-race people in the Rhineland, individual executions, mass executions, outbreaks of disease, deportations to “the East”, new groups of people arriving.  It also refers to so many different groups of people, many of them groups whose experiences at the hands of the Nazis tend to be overlooked.  That makes it sound really harrowing, but it’s actually very readable.

On a different note, it spends a lot of time comparing Nazi attitudes on race to those in the southern states of the US, which I believe caused a lot of controversy when the book was first published.  And it talks about the Evian Conference of 1938, at which 32 countries failed to agree to take in Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s got messages that’re worth reading, especially in the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Our guy is an African-American called Clifford Pepperidge, and he’s a jazz musician – so I’m wondering if the World on Fire scriptwriter had read this.  He’s been working in Berlin in the “Cabaret” world of the Weimar Republic … but then, in 1933, he’s found in bed with a male American diplomat.  The other guy claims diplomatic immunity and flees the country, leaving Clifford to his fate.  At Dachau, Dieter Lange, a man he knows from the Berlin scene, now a Nazi official, arranges for him to be classified with a green triangle, as a criminal, in there for drug-dealing, rather than with a pink triangle, as a gay man, which would have meant his being treated far worse, and also arranges for him to work in his house.  In return, he’s treated as a sexual plaything by Lange, his wife and her lover.  He’s also expected to play at a Nazi social club.  (Would a Nazi social club have had a black musician playing?  It does in this, anyway.)

There’s a lot in the book about the different concentration camp badges, and the different categories of prisoner which they denote, and the double triangle badges which were used to denote someone falling into more than one category.  It also talks about groups of people coming in and being moved out, and how they interacted with each other, which is quite unusual for a Holocaust novel, and makes you think.

There was no official classification for black prisoners, because, probably due to the very small numbers of black people in Germany at that time, they weren’t rounded up and sent to camps in the way that Jewish or Roma or Sinti people were, so it’s hard to know how many people were affected, but it’s thought that many black people, were arrested as alleged criminals or political prisoners.   Certainly there was a programme of forced sterilisation in the Rhineland, for mixed race children fathered by black French soldiers during the post First World War occupation, and the book does refer to that.   We also see something of how gay men were particularly singled out for ill-treatment, and as the subjects of medical experiments.

As to the comparisons with the US … much of the book’s set in the 1930s, before the very worst of the Nazi atrocities, and there are undeniably some parallels in terms of banning mixed marriages, and classifying people according to what percentage of particular ancestry they have.  It’s a very controversial area, though, and I’m not comfortable with people drawing parallels between the Nazis and any other regime.  But the author has got a point, in some respects.  And what’s said about the Evian Conference is most certainly valid.  I’m not entirely sure that a concentration camp prisoner would have heard quite so much war news, but, for the purpose of the book, the reader needs to accept that he hears rumours from newly-arrived prisoners and that he’s sometimes able to listen to the radio.

There are a few bits which readers might need to Google. I’d assume most people are familiar with the names of top black musicians and sportsmen of the 1930s, but maybe younger readers might not be. There are couple of sentences in pig Latin, which I haven’t read for years – thank you, Beverly Cleary, for teaching me pig Latin! And references to Haitian voodoo.

It’s not particularly well-written.  Although the book’s written in the form of a diary, is there really any need for quite so much swearing and crude language?  Also, the author repeatedly uses “English” for “British” and “Russian” for “Soviet”, which is very annoying.  However, it packs a lot into 300 pages, especially as regards groups of Nazi victims who do not always receive that much attention, and it gets better as it goes along.

Towards the end, when he hears about the liberation of Auschwitz and what the Soviets found there, Clifford (who, despite being in the home of a Nazi official, manages to listen to the BBC World Service in the radio, which doesn’t seem very likely but you just have to accept that, or else the book won’t work) says that now he can think about how big and how evil everything that’s happened is, and how he heard all about evil from preachers in church but none of that could ever have prepared him for this.  Maybe that’s why the focus is on the death camps, because mass shootings and mass imprisonments, even if not on that scale, had happened before, so people could get their heads round them.  But there are other stories to be told too. 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, there are still many Holocaust stories to be told, and the experiences of black people and gay people, and indeed black, gay people – this book did make a lot of reference to people with more than one “badge” – are amongst those which we still need hear more about.

And, at the end, it mentions a man who Joseph Nassy, who really existed – a Surinam-born mixed race American, working as an artist in Belgium at the start of the Second World War, who had Jewish heritage.  He was held in internment camps which were close to Dachau geographically but where the rules of the Geneva Convention were honoured, and drew many pictures of life there.  It’s a unique story.  So is everyone’s.