WBEZ | def jam http://www.wbez.org/tags/def-jam Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en The pop cultural trials of Harriet Tubman http://www.wbez.org/blogs/alison-cuddy/2013-08/pop-cultural-trials-harriet-tubman-108548 <p><div class="image-insert-image "><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/1478178288_c14a956fec_z.jpg" style="height: 400px; width: 300px; float: left;" title="A statue of Harriet Tubman is erected in Harlem in 2007. (Flickr/illdoggie2)" /></div>For a man who&rsquo;s had his finger on the pulse of pop culture for over thirty &nbsp;years - and in the process become almost as rich as Croesus (or Jay Z) - Russell Simons proved postively tone deaf when he put out the &ldquo;Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.&rdquo;</p><p dir="ltr">Or not.</p><p dir="ltr">The sketch came out earlier this month, via Simmons&rsquo; new YouTube channel <a href="http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/5650673/russell-simmons-announces-launch-of-all-def-digital-youtube-channel">All Def Digital</a>, a project that until then had been flying largely under the radar. Its premise is as absurd as it is anachronistic: The famed American abolitionist, seeking funds for her underground railroad, tries to blackmail her master by secretly videotaping them having sex together.</p><p dir="ltr">Horrified critics went to town on Simmons, suggesting he was abusing the image of an American idol while <a href="http://www.racialicious.com/2013/08/20/the-rape-of-harriet-tubman/">promoting rape culture. </a>Tubman&rsquo;s <a href="http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-08-21/features/bs-sc-insider-tubman-video-0825-20130821_1_parody-video-harriet-ross-tubman-slave">ancestors joined the chorus</a> demanding Simmons apologize and remove the video.</p><p dir="ltr">Simmons complied. Now, he&rsquo;s talking about making a biopic of Tubman. And as self-serving and ridiculous as that &nbsp;might sound,I actually think it&rsquo;s a good idea. Granted, Simmons may not be the best man for the job - the reaction to the Def Jam video makes clear the lines we draw around how we talk about the past - and who gets to speak, or even make fun. But he&rsquo;s not the first to do Tubman as comedy. That&rsquo;s actually been a bit of a trend recently.</p><p dir="ltr">Tubman&rsquo;s been portrayed as a <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnZagD_jBH4">Black Moses Barbie</a> and serenaded as <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5tAvZ_6t_g">The Sexiest Abolitionist.</a> In one of a series of sketches satirizing Black History Month, comedians Key and Peele imagine Tubman as <a href="http://www.comedycentral.com/video-collections/71aspq/key-and-peele-key---peele-celebrate-black-history/02tcql">&ldquo;the original free runner,</a>&rdquo; who helps runaway slaves escape through a series of parkour moves. And on the last season of <a href="http://www.avclub.com/articles/game-over,90564/"><em>30 Rock</em>,</a> Tracy Jordan tries to make a biopic of Tubman, only to be foiled by his lead, the actress Octavia Spencer, who redecorates his set in sixties modern style because she&rsquo;s not &ldquo;down with the whole cabin vibe&rdquo; and doesn&rsquo;t like Tubman&rsquo;s name because &ldquo;it sounds like a dude. Let&rsquo;s change it to Tubgirl.&rdquo;</p><p dir="ltr">Like the Def Jam sketch, the humor of these parodies is in their portayal of a Tubman wildly and wilfully at odds with her historic deeds. But what separates them from the dreck Simmons put out is instead of just sending up Tubman, the <em>30 Rock</em> sketch and others skewer contemporary culture. I mean, what could this moment do with the woman who led hundreds of slaves to freedom <em>and</em> soldiers into battle for the Union <em>other</em> than turn her into an action movie heroine or reality TV show star?</p><p dir="ltr">That&rsquo;s not such a bad thing: Pop cultural depictions of Tubman, even comedic ones, can be as effective and respectful a way to honor her legacy as memorials or <a href="http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-03-09/news/sns-harriet-tubman-park_1_harriet-tubman-park-legislation-on-three-occasions-senator-benjamin-cardin">state parks</a>. And a comedy sketch is a lot more accessible. The problem isn&rsquo;t the portrayals per se, but that there are so few of them, well-done or otherwise. We celebrate Tubman as an American icon with an incredible (some say &ldquo;<a href="http://www.badassoftheweek.com/tubman.html">bad ass</a>&rdquo;) &nbsp;story. But there&rsquo;s not one serious biopic about her (other than a 1978 <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078509/">made-for-TV movie </a>starring Cicely Tyson).</p><p dir="ltr">I don&rsquo;t believe, as some critics suggest, that&rsquo;s simply because we&rsquo;ve forgotten Tubman. I think we haven&rsquo;t quite figured out how to fit her - &nbsp;or this period of American history - into contemporary culture. That uneasy fit may explain these attempts at comedy - isn&rsquo;t laughter a way to confront or at least start talking about the things that make us uncomfortable, the things we&rsquo;d rather forget? That was certainly the case with <em>Django Unchained</em>, a film both reviled and championed that also got people talking about American slavery again.</p><p dir="ltr">That&rsquo;s one of the best powers of popular culture: Be it respectful or irreverent, salacious or studious, it has the potential to re-activate events that while still significant historically, may have lost some of their cultural force or relevance. And if the Def Jam sketch crossed the line or came <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leighann-lord/harriet-tubman-sex-tape-t_b_3782072.html">&ldquo;too soon</a>&rdquo; (a premise that feels both odd and bittersweet in the year we mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation), there&rsquo;s plenty more where it came from. A <a href="http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/7-other-slave-themed-films-for-you-to-look-forward-to-this-year-2013">veritable slew of films and tv shows </a>about slavery come out this year.</p><p><em>Alison Cuddy is WBEZ&rsquo;s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of <a href="https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/wbezs-changing-channels/id669715774?mt=2">Changing Channels,</a> a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on<a href="https://twitter.com/wbezacuddy"> Twitter</a>,<a href="https://www.facebook.com/cuddyalison?ref=tn_tnmn"> Facebook</a> and<a href="http://instagram.com/cuddyreport"> Instagram</a></em></p></p> Wed, 28 Aug 2013 09:59:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blogs/alison-cuddy/2013-08/pop-cultural-trials-harriet-tubman-108548