Transfiguring Adoption awarded this movie 1 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]
From the Cover of Harriet by Focus Features:
“Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, HARRIET tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.”
As a work of art this film was absolutely amazing from start to finish. The acting in particular was incredible, with each character being very well cast and delivering outstanding performances. I would not be surprised if the film ends up taking home several Academy Awards. Throughout the movie Harriet Tubman is portrayed as an incredibly inspiring historical figure and is an empowering role model for young girls, especially young girls of color. She overcame significant trauma and went on to become a strong and important hero of the Civil War, not only leading numerous other slaves to their freedom but also leading soldiers in several battles and to this day is one of the few women to ever have done so in the United States.
All that being said, the movie was incredibly emotionally intense, violently graphic at times, and filled with words and imagery that will likely be extremely triggering to children who have been through trauma. The film opens with an extremely emotional flashback where we see young girls being ripped away from their parents and sold to another master, screaming for their mother as the wagon rolls away. And this is just one of many such scenes throughout the film.
This movie may be appropriate for older teens or young adults who have had a chance to process some of their trauma. Harriet is an extremely inspiring character, especially for young women of color, and seeing all that she is able to accomplish during her life could be empowering. However, it is likely a better choice to view at home so that breaks can be taken as needed- it is an incredibly emotional and intense viewing experience which may be overwhelming in a two-hour sitting.
** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **
How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?
One of the central themes of this film was overcoming trauma and having to build a new life. This is something our children who have been through foster care and adoption are all too familiar with and they can likely relate to the feelings and experience of Minty (renamed Harriet Tubman) throughout the film.
There are also overarching themes about the importance of family, as families being separated and fighting to be together is a reoccurring plot point. Harriet’s main motivation for starting to work on the underground railroad was to bring her husband, parents, and siblings to live with her in freedom, stating that her life wasn’t worth living without her loved ones. These are feeling our children can likely relate to as they may wish that they could be reunited with siblings or other family members or feel guilty for being happy in their new adoptive or foster family while their loved ones may be in a worse situation.
- Being Separated from Family
We learn early on in the film that that Minty/Harriet has two sisters who were sold to another master and she has never seen them again. Often in foster care and adoption, siblings end up split up from one another for various reasons, so this is something they can likely relate to. They may have siblings they have not seen since they were very young, or even if they have some contact it may not be as much as they would like. Later, Harriet makes a choice to run away to freedom leaving her parents and the rest of her family behind. While our children did not choose to leave their biological families behind, they can likely still relate to the feeling of being in a new place without them.
- Starting Over in a New Place
When Harriet finally makes it to freedom she is in Philadelphia, a big and busy city that is a far cry from the rural farm community in the South where she comes from. Everything from seeing African Americans walking around freely, to the ocean and ships is new and surprising to her. It takes her some time to get used to all of this and to learn the expectations of how to act in this new situation. This can mirror how children feel when they come into a new foster or adoptive home. They have to learn a new set of behaviors and norms as they adapt to the environment and new living situation they find themselves in.
- Self Confidence/Inner Strength
Harriet spends the entire movie (and her entire life) fighting back against slavery because she knows in her heart that it’s wrong. Despite the fact that she is a fugitive slave and would likely be killed if she were caught, she repeatedly goes back to the South to try and bring more slaves to freedom and to stand up to the slave owners, even fighting in the Civil War. Despite being told again and again that she can’t, she believes that she is strong enough and smart enough to achieve what she sets out to do. Children, especially children who have dealt with trauma and rejection, are used to hearing about their flaws and shortcomings. This could be an opportunity to discuss their strengths, and how they were able to overcome their own trauma
- Family Separation
The movie opens with the main character’s flashback of an emotional scene of slave children being taken away and screaming for their parents. We later find out these are Harriet’s sisters whom she hasn’t seen since and we are shown this flashback several more times throughout the film. In another scene, a master threatens to sell his slave’s children in order to get her to give up information. There are also several times during the movie where Harriet says an emotional goodbye to her parents, fully anticipating that she will not see them again. These scenes could be difficult for foster or adoptive children to watch, especially if they or other children in the home were forcibly removed.
- Cultural/Racial Discrimination
Due to the nature of this film and its plot revolving entirely around slavery and the Civil War, the way African American characters are treated throughout the film may be triggering to children and adults, especially children of color. Derogatory names for African American are used freely, especially during the first half of the film. The African American characters are often referred to as property and animals, even going so far as in one scene to call them “mares and foals”. There are also several mentions of ‘papers’ and one scene where a character is asked to show her papers and quizzed on the personal information contained in them. This may be triggering to children of Hispanic descent, due to recent immigration policies and the requirement to carry proof of legality or risk deportation.
- Detailed Descriptions of Abuse/Trauma
When each new slave reaches Philadelphia, their histories are recorded. During this process the characters describe in detail past traumas and acts of physical abuse they experienced. There are also several scenes where a slave character removes their clothing and we see their back with extreme scars from beatings. These descriptions and images will likely be upsetting for children who have been physically abused, or watched parents or siblings suffer abuse.
- Graphic Violence and Intense Action Sequences
There are a number of scenes of crowd violence towards the midpoint and final act of the film as they portray the lead-up to the Civil War, though very little is seen of actual battles. However, there are a number of intensely graphic scenes, especially in the latter half of the movie. A character is beaten to death trying to protect Harriet and dies in her arms. Another character is shot in the head and another loses a hand, both of these acts are shown in rather graphic detail.
There are also many scenes of slaves running away to freedom throughout the movie, often paired with tense music and intense sequences of the slaves being chased by men with guns, horses, and dogs, and they are even shot at.
- Suicidal Themes
When Minty/Harriet first runs away she is cornered on a bridge by her master and many men with guns. She climbs onto the railing and threatens to jump. The Master tells her it is surely suicide to do so and she replies that, “I’m gonna be free or die” before jumping anyway. This becomes a catchphrase of sorts as both she and other characters repeat that mantra throughout the movie. While this is an appropriate sentiment, given the circumstances and horrors of slavery, it could be triggering in children who have contemplated suicide, especially as a way out of a difficult situation they experienced in life.
- Self-Sacrificing Behavior
There are several times in the film where Harriet risks her own life and safety in order to protect others. One of the more notable times, she sends her parents and niece ahead of her to safety and stays behind to lead their pursuers off their trail, fully expecting to die in this pursuit. She also repeatedly risks her life going back into slave territory to bring more slaves to freedom. While this is inspiring behavior in the context, it could be problematic for foster or adoptive children who may have the tendency to engage in risky and self-sacrificing behavior of their own. Viewing these actions through a ‘heroic’ lens may encourage and reward this behavior in their eyes.
Harriet tends to take on the blame for much that happens to those around her. Despite all the work she does and the numerous family members, friends, and strangers she is able to lead to freedom, she still feels like she ‘failed’ because she was not able to save her sister and states, “I failed her” when she learns that Mary died in captivity. Many children who have experienced trauma can have similar feelings, feeling like they ‘failed’ a sibling or parent that got hurt or left behind in a bad situation. Hearing these statements reflected in Harriet, who is a strong/heroic character may intensify the similar feelings in foster and adoptive children.
- Promises of Better Treatment Based on Behavior
When her Master first catches Minty/Harriet trying to run away, he tries to reason with her and convince her to come back with him. He makes false promises that if she is good and if she comes with him, he “won’t hurt her too bad.” Later, at the end of the movie he says to her, “It didn’t have to be like this. You could have stayed with us, if only you knew how to behave. You were unruly and untamed.” This line could be incredibly triggering to foster and adoptive youth as it gives voice to a fear most of these children have had at one point- the idea that where they get to live and how they are treated is directly related to their behavior, and if only they had been good they could have stayed in that home, been adopted, etc. While it is a Master speaking to his slave, rather than a parent speaking to a child, it is still an extremely harmful phrase.
- Minty/Harriet’s father gives her a small carved figurine when she first runs away. She carries this totem with her throughout all of her travels and it is always the first thing she checks for when she’s had something happen. Do you have a special item you like to always have with you? How does it make you feel? Did someone important give it to you?
[Caregiver Note: It is common for children to have a ‘security blanket’ such as a stuffed animal, favorite toy, or even literal blanket when they are young. This item offers them something tangible to hold onto when they are frightened, such as in the dark or times when they may not be with their caregiver. Often in foster care, children are forced to leave many belongings behind when they move from one place to the next, so having one special item, even something small, that they are able to keep with them may have been even more important to them, especially if it was given to them by a loved one. Talking about this gives the child the opportunity to share with you what that item may be and any story behind it about why it was important to them or who it came from. If the child doesn’t already have something like this, it may be worth asking them if they would like to have a special totem to keep with them. It could even be something very small like a keychain that can go in their pocket and no one else has to know it’s there.]
- Minty has flashback episodes throughout the film which she and other characters call ‘spells’. At one point her husband argues that he needs to run away with her so he can help her if one of these spells happens. Do you ever have similar experiences to Minty? Who/What helps you during/after when they do happen?
[Caregiver Note: PTSD and flashbacks can be common occurrences in children and adults who have experienced trauma, though they aren’t always as easily recognizable as Minty’s, where she literally loses consciousness. Knowing what it looks and feels like when the children in your care are experiencing PTSD symptoms can be very helpful to you as caregiver so you are aware of what to look out for. Being able to see these symptoms in Minty might help them identify their own experiences better. If they aren’t able to vocalize what would help when these symptoms happen to them, talk about Minty’s experience and what might have helped her be safer when she had flashbacks. This might help them and you come up with a plan for when they have things like this happen.]
- William records a history of each slave who reaches freedom- their name, their families, where they are from. If someone were to record your history, who and what would you want to make sure was included?
[Caregiver Note: Asking a question like this can be a great opportunity to learn more about your child’s past if they feel comfortable talking about it, and who has played an important role in their life so far. It also gives them control over their own story. You aren’t simply asking them to recount everything that’s happened to them, you are asking them what they *want* included in their history, allowing them to pick and choose what they feel is important, which can be empowering.]
- ACTIVITY: History and Family Tree. Have children record in a ‘book’ or journal about their own history- the important people, places, and events they want to make sure are remembered. They could also make family trees (of both bio family and/or adoptive family members as appropriate).
[Caregiver Note: This activity can provide a fun opportunity for bonding and goes well with the previous question. It can also be a great alternative for a child who maybe isn’t ready to talk about what happened to them. By giving them a journal and a safe place to record their history they are still able to tell their story and can tell it when they feel ready. You can even reassure them that this is something that is just for them and that you won’t even read it unless they decide they want to share. Additionally, making a family tree can provide a similar opportunity, and can also work for children who are not able to write yet or don’t enjoy writing. Foster and Adoptive families don’t always fit into a ‘traditional’ mold, so a family tree likely won’t either. Instead, simply allow the children to include anyone in their tree whom they feel is a part of their family- whether that’s bio family members, adoptive family members, teachers, friends, or other caregivers they have had in their life. Again, this gives them control of their narrative and empowers them to decide who fits into their family.]
- When Minty reaches Philadelphia and becomes a free woman, she is given the opportunity to change her name and chooses to become Harriet Tubman. She is also later given the nickname ‘Moses’ due to her work on the underground railroad. If you could give yourself a new name or nickname, what would it be? Why?
[Names are an important part of identity- they tie us to our pasts and connect us to our families. Nicknames often stem from a special relationship either with a caregiver or friend. However, in both cases they are something that is given to us, rather than something we choose ourselves. So posing this question can be a fun way for children to give themselves a name. Encourage them to tell you why they picked that name- it may be a name they like or the name of a loved one or other figure they admire. In cases where children are adopted, there may have been a name change involved in that process, and they may or may not have been a part of that decision. This may also be an opportunity to talk about that. ]
- When Harriet makes it to freedom she is in Philadelphia. How is this environment different than where she grew up in Maryland? What new things does she encounter and how does she handle it? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like everything was strange and unfamiliar? What did you do?
[Moving is a big transition for all children, and with children who have been through foster care an adoption, chance are they have moved multiple times in their life. And not just moved, but changed families and living situations, possibly even cultures. By first identifying the changes that Harriet has to adjust to in the movie, it may allow children to better see what sorts of changes they have experienced in their lives. And if a child is new to your home, they may even feel like they are still in a strange an unfamiliar place. This can be an opportunity to talk to them about what you can do to ease their transition and make them feel more a part of the family and more like the space is theirs.]
- Several times during the movie people tell Harriet that she can’t do something. She replies each time with “Don’t tell me what I can’t do”. Has anyone ever told you that you couldn’t do something because of your age/race/gender/size? How did that make you feel? How did you handle it? (If they did not handle it well, this could be a good time to discuss how they will handle this situation if it occurs in the future).
[Caregiver Note: We all experience times where someone tells us that we can’t do something. Children experience this frequently, and children in foster care experience it at an even higher rate, because there are a lot more rules and regulations that govern where they go and what they do, and it can make them feel very powerless. This question can be used as a jumping off point to talk to the youth about their inner strengths and also when it’s okay to push back when someone tells them no, and when it isn’t. This can be a hard line for children and especially teenagers to learn. When to follow the rules, and when rules can be negotiated. It is also important to make the distinction of who it is that is telling them what they can’t do (a peer who is discriminating, versus a teacher or caregiver who is trying to protect them).]
- At the end of the film Harriet finally confronts her former Master and has the opportunity to kill him, but chooses not to. Why to you think she stopped herself? Do you agree with her choice?
[Caregiver Note: After watching all the awful thing this man does to Harriet and her family throughout the movie, as a viewer we are almost rooting for him to die and for Harriet even to be the one to make that happen, so it may come as a surprise and even a disappointment when that isn’t the outcome. We don’t get the neat and tidy ‘good guy defeats bad guy’ resolution that we often crave in books and movies. But life isn’t usually that black and white, and this can lend itself to a discussion of how hurting those who hurt us won’t make what they did go away or heal our trauma, even though it may be satisfying in the moment. It is important to talk to youth about revenge and the feelings we all have when we are hurt to hurt back but how there are other options and ways to express our anger and pain besides violence. And while Harriet ultimately chooses not to kill her abuser, she does hurt him in self-defense. So this question may also lend itself to a discussion of when it is sometimes okay to hurt someone in an effort to get away or protect ourselves. This is an especially important topic of conversation if children have been in a situation where they fought back against an abuser and may have lingering guilt about it.]
- When Harriet goes back for her sister, her sister decides to stay on the plantation and does not want to run away to freedom because she feels like it is too dangerous. Do you think she made the right choice? What do you think contributed to her decision?
[Caregiver Note: As with the previous question, children may have been in situations previously where they were abused and feel like they should have done more to stop the abuse, fight back, or run away but were scared. They may feel like it’s their fault they were abused, or that abuse continued because they were too scared to tell someone what was happening. It is important to remind them that nothing they did or didn’t do caused the abuse and that none of it was their fault. In the film, Harriet’s sister was afraid of getting caught and ending up in an even worse situation, and also wanted to protect her children. These are both valid reasons for her character to not run away with Harriet and that she didn’t do anything wrong by staying. This can also be a time to talk about the youth’s inner strength and how they have survived the trauma they experienced. It can be easy to look back on choices we make and wish we had done something different, but in the moment it can be much harder.Everything they did (or didn’t do) during their trauma was an appropriate and adaptive choice at the time because it got them to where they are today.]
- ACTIVITY: Map Making. Harriet’s first few journeys involved her traveling from Maryland to Philadelphia, but later after the Fugitive Slave Act they had to move all the way into Canada. Help children find these locations on a map and outline these journeys to help them understand how far Harriet traveled each time. As a follow-up, children could also make a map of their own journeys, plotting different places they have lived.
[Caregiver Note: This activity provides a fun bonding opportunity for you and the children in your care that relates to the movie. It can also be a helpful way for younger children to visualize just how far Harriet and the other slaves had to travel, as ‘100 miles’ isn’t necessarily a tangible concept to kids. If children choose to make their own maps, this can also be an opportunity for you to learn more about them and the places they have been and for you to share your own story about places you’ve lived.]
About the Author: Jenn Ehlers
Jenn is a central Virginia native who received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia in 2012. Since then she has worked for a local mental health agency and the Department of Social Services in various capacities and has been involved in her community’s efforts to create a Trauma Informed Network. Currently Jenn works in vocational rehab and mentors youth in foster care. When she isn’t working, Jenn enjoys writing stories, anything and everything Harry Potter, and spending time with her niece and nephew.
**Transfiguring Adoption is a nonprofit organization seeking to nurture growth in foster and adoptive families by giving a HOOT about their families. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its review to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.