Although there have been books, plays, operas and even one TV miniseries about the life and times of Harriet Tubman, this year’s movie simply titled Harriet, is the first movie to be based of this American hero. It’s a shame that it has taken this long.
I didn’t know much about Tubman before this movie and as it turns out, I’m not the only one. Many historical records about this historic freedom fighter are incomplete partly because she was a slave with no formal education and partly because many of her exploits with the underground railroad were highly secretive. Some authors have been criticized for possibly embellishing these stories about Harriet. But while some pieces of the puzzle may be missing, there is plenty that fit together nicely to give us a good idea of who this mighty warrior really was.
Harriet is the first motion picture directed by Kasi Lemmons since 2013’s Black Nativity and it while others may disagree, I think she was a perfect choice for the project. For what I understand, Tubman was a strong woman of faith who commented often that all she had to guide her to freedom was God and the North Star. She stresses that she has a right to liberty or death and if she can’t have one, she’ll have the other.
If given this project, some other directors would have downplayed her faith but instead, Lemmons celebrates it and does so in such a way that looks natural which is no easy task. So much so that this film feels more like a faith-based movie than a historical tale.
Harriet begins in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1849. Araminta “Minty” Ross (played by Cynthia Erivo, last seen in last year’s Bad Times at the El Royale) is married to a free man I wasn’t aware, but I understand that this was quite common back then. Since she is “owned” by a slaveholder, he can only come to visit her from time to time. Minty is shown lying on the grass awaking from one of her “spells” where she goes into a trance or blacks out. Historically speaking, these episodes were most likely seizures and the real Harriet said that she felt God spoke to her during these times giving her visions.
After a church service held outside of Minty’s slaveholder’s home, she and her husband John (Zackary Momoh) approaches Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde) with papers from a lawyer stating how she and her siblings should be free because of a previous arrangement made with her father’s slaveholder many years earlier. Brodess had “acquired” the slaves from this previous slaveholder and doesn’t honor the agreement. Minty thenprays that God would change Brodess’ heart or take him away. And then Brodess dies.
The plantation is then run by Brodess’ widow Eliza (Jennifer Nettles) and her eldest son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn) who was once a childhood friend of the slave. Now the two contemplate selling off some of their slaves to make ends meet including Minty. To hear these people talk about how much they think they can get for selling a slave is chilling.
From here, the adventure begins with Minty running for her life heading north where she could be free. Miraculously, Minty reaches the Pennsylvania border and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and it is there that she chooses a new post-slavery name, “Harriet” after her mother.
Coming to terms of becoming a free woman takes some adjusting for Harriet who is cared for by Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Born a free woman in the North, Marie is fascinated with Harriet’s stories of survival. Marie helps Harriet find work and teaches her how to keep her head up high. But after a long while, Harriet struggles being free knowing that her family is still suffering and vows to go back to rescue them starting with her husband. There is much that Harriet doesn’t know about life outside of the plantation. She can’t read words or a map, but she is smart, brave and has God on her side.
While some critics have complained that Harriet is too by-the-numbers, I found the film very moving and powerful. I love Cynthia Erivo who show’s every emotion she feels in her facial expressions. However, Nettles, who has only done a couple made-for-TV movies before this, gives Erivo a run for her money as the unraveling widow bent on finding who the colprit who is responsible for helping her slaves run free. Monáe is also very good in her role too.
Beautifully filmed punctuated here and there with heartfelt music (if you seen Bad Times at the El Royale, you know Erivo can sing) Harriet is riveting. I might be speaking too quickly, but I think the movie has Oscar potential as well. At any rate, there is a lot to learn and be inspired by this film. Harriet Tubman is portrayed to be both strong and compassionate while fully relying on God to show her the way without being preachy. It is a positive example of a black woman in leadership who stood up to men but didn’t run over them either. The story doesn’t shy away from the horrors of slavery, but it doesn’t dwell on them either. It is sad in parts without being overly depressing. Hope is always right around the corner.
People were moved and changed by this woman’s faith and dedication to do what is right. Her message is just as strong today. It should be required viewing in both public and private Christian schools.
(Main Photo: Focus Features)
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.