08 Nov 2019

Hollywood’s “Harriet” Comes to Chatham After Community Backlash Featured

Given that so many places in southern Ontario played such a key role in Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad network, you’d think it would be a no-brainer for the newly released Harriet film to screen in a place like Chatham-Kent. A city where some of the first early Black settlers landed, that was once home to several thriving Black settlements and that now boasts three Black History museums. 

But that wasn’t the case. 

The call for the movie to screen in Chatham started earlier this year when Sam Meredith, the executive director of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society started encouraging people to email Cineplex in hopes of getting included on the release roster. Those calls went unheard until recently when Sam tweeted: Extremely irritating @CineplexMovies #ChathamKent was home to many Black settlements, many of those people came here via the #UndergroundRailroad and we don’t get the movie here - where we have three #BlackHistory museums. Sad! 

The same sentiment was shared on social media by other museums and activists. When ByBlacks contacted Cineplex via email, they promised to share our concerns with the film’s distributors. But two days later, a turnaround. Cineplex replied saying they would indeed be adding Chatham-Kent to the screening list. 

President of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society Dorothy Wright Wallace was pleased to hear the news and said, "Our community needs to come together more often to make changes. They have tried to divide us for so long that we haven't been able to come together, but it is time for us to unite and make changes for the future generation." 

Dorothy says that although executive director Sam Meredith is white, she is a resident of Chatham, and the history is as much hers as it is for the Black community. "White people have been our allies forever; the first abolitionists in Canada were Caucasian and allies to the Black community. The division between races is a reflection of the incorrect history being taught," she said.

Chatham-Kent was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, and just a few hours away in St. Catharine’s, is where Harriet Tubman herself lived from 1851 to 1857. 

The town offered employment opportunities to escaped enslaved people. Many of the former fugitives settled there, including her own parents, brothers, sisters and their families.

Harriet’s role in the Underground Railroad movement was one of the many inspiring accomplishments of her life. She was an activist in the abolitionist movement, worked as a nurse in the Civil War, and served as a spy for the Union Forces in South Carolina.

In total, Tubman is thought to have helped more than 300 people, her own family included, to freedom in Canada. Remarkably, she always eluded pursuit and never lost a passenger. (Canadian Encyclopedia)

"I wouldn't trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought'em clear off to Canada," she later said." - Harriet Tubman.

"Harriet Tubman stepped up and did something that no one else was doing. She didn't get enough credit in Canadian history for her contributions to the Underground Railroad. We have been left out of Canadian history books,” says Dorothy. 

In her role at the museum, Dorothy often channels Harriet Tubman during historical re-enactments for visitors. The museum is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the history of Chatham-Kent's Black Community and their influence across North America. In particular, the legacy left by early Black pioneers and refugees who helped to build the city, which was once called the "coloured man's Paris".

While Chatham residents will be heading out to support the film, now that they have a chance to revel in seeing their history on the big screen, not everyone is happy with the Hollywood version of Harriet. There are concerns that too many creative liberties were taken with Harriet’s story and that the narrative leans heavily into the white saviour trope.

The Harriet biopic brought in $12 million in its first weekend in U.S. theatres earlier this month, landing in fourth place at the box office.

Harriet opens in Chatham on Friday November 8. 

Kezia Royer Burkett is a creative freelance writer with a degree in communications and multimedia from McMaster University. When she is not writing she is finding inspiration living life, raising her son and spending time with friends and family.

Read 638 times Last modified on Friday, 08 November 2019 15:10
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