“God don’t mean for people to own people,” declares Harriet Tubman to her enslaver as she holds him at gunpoint in the new biopic-meets-action flick Harriet. Here, co-writer and director Kasi Lemmons’ (Eve’s Bayou) new film invites us to go deeper than the sanitized versions of Tubman’s life that we may have picked up in high school history classes. The first Hollywood-backed feature about Tubman, the film and its star Cynthia Erivo received a standing ovation after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. It reveals the inspiring yet complicated story of one of the nineteenth century’s most lauded, yet often misunderstood American women, born Araminta “Minty” Ross.
Early reviews of the film were tepid, describing it as formulaic, on-the-nose Oscar bait. There are indeed a few too many didactic Tubman speeches, and at times Lemmons gets too wrapped up in teaching history, seemingly fearful of confusing viewers with the film’s fast-paced unfolding of chronological events. That the film deploys Terrence’s Blanchard’s slightly generic but passable orchestral score almost to the point of overkill doesn’t do it any favors either.
But when it comes to the movie’s genre-melding depictions of enslavement, the film is a noticeable step forward for American Cinema. In it, the enslaved are far more than the oppressive system under which they live, they are dreamers and freedom fighters on a deeply mystical and heist-like mission to get free or die trying. A year after she escapes to Philadelphia, Tubman returns to the Maryland plantation for her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), only to find that he thought she had died and has since remarried. Harriet is heartbroken — it’s Erivo’s rawest moment in the film — and so is John, clearly still in love with her. Refusing to focus on the physical brutality of enslavement for shock value, here Lemmons leans into the emotional instead. It is a brilliant thematic set piece throughout the film, that makes viewers sit with the horror of how slavery ravaged enslaved families.
After realizing her marriage is over, Tubman ends up leading half a dozen slaves back to Philadelphia with her, and thus begins the liberatory path she’ll follow for the rest of her life. We’re not used to thinking about Tubman as a young woman in love. Lemmons clearly wants us to see her as a real-life superhero, but she also renders her as a human being who was just as moved by the basic human impulse for love as anyone else.
As much as Harriet is a multi-dimensional character, so too are the many different “types” of Black characters in the film, and that’s actually a big deal when you consider the canon of slavery-themed cinema, from Roots to 12 Years a Slave. There’s the villainous slave catcher Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) who allies himself with white people in power. There’s William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) of Philadelphia’s Anti-Slavery Society, a free Black man born to enslaved parents who never spent a day of his life in bondage. There’s also Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae in her strongest film performance to date) a free Black woman who uses her wealth to help newly freed enslaved people transition to freedom. There are enslaved people who choose to stay on the plantation, like Harriet’s sister Rachel who won’t leave her small children behind. There are also free Black people, like Harriet’s father (Clarke Peters), living alongside enslaved ones like Harriet’s mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway). While Harriet does succumb to some of the pitfalls associated with biopics, through its insistence on highlighting the socioeconomic and regional differences that existed among Black people at that time, it also transcends them.
Instead of that soul-crushing feeling I often experience after seeing a “Black struggle film,” Harriet sent me out of the theater feeling empowered. The film is uplifting without ignoring historical facts or relying upon familiar slavery tropes. It’s fitting that Harriet arrives in 2019 as we mark the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the American colonies. While several projects have been made about American chattel slavery for the big and small screen, one that focuses on the coordinated resistance of enslaved people fighting back is long overdue. (Misha Greene’s excellent, although prematurely canceled television series Underground excepted, with Nate Parker’s Sundance indie Birth of a Nation being a less successful example)
With Harriet, Lemmons manages to tell a specific Black story that is also universal, prompting reflection on the true meaning of freedom in America. And perhaps that’s Lemmons’ greatest achievement here; she simultaneously rescues the real Tubman from never-ending historical cliche, while effectively canonizing her as one of the key shapers of the American story.