(for thematic content throughout, violent material, and language including racial epithets)
Released: November 1, 2019
Runtime: 125 minutes
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Henry Hunter Hall, Omar J. Dorsey, Zackary Momoh, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jennifer Nettles
Harriet lays the melodrama on pretty thick, but the integrity of who she was – a gun wielding, God-guided slave emancipator – boldly remains.
The temptation for any modern biopic, especially now in the activist atmosphere of our times, is to mold its subject into a figure that stands for contemporary hot topic social issues (while expressing those stances through recognizable Talking Points) as much as for the ones that made them historic. That’s done, in part, to help emphasize their relevancy, but can also be born of a given filmmaker’s own soapboxes.
It’d be easy enough, then, to turn Harriet Tubman into a strictly secular icon of African-American liberation, choosing to emphasize the humanist universality of her heroism while minimizing (or even completely ignoring) the Christian faith that drove her. For a studio hoping to give a movie the broadest appeal possible, it’d even be tempting.
But director Kasi Lemmons refuses to do that.
If anything, she doubles-down on what could be considered Tubman’s wildest claim and makes it the inciting force behind everything she does, all anchored by a fierce performance from Cynthia Erivo (Best Actress in a Musical Tony Winner for The Color Purple).
Born into early 19th Century American slavery, Araminta “Minty” Ross grew up to be a woman who was the antithesis of her short physical stature. Her indomitable character was forged through whippings and beatings by various masters that began in early childhood.
Lemmons’ script forgoes those formative abuses (ones that are, after all, safe to assume) and begins instead in Minty’s early adulthood when she reaches her final breaking point. In danger of never seeing her family or loved ones again, she escaped her captivity through a high-risk process that Lemmons depicts in detail. Once safely in the north, Minty Ross took on a new free name as was the custom: Harriet Tubman (her mother’s first name, and the last name of her husband John, a free black man).
But for Tubman, her own freedom wasn’t enough. Defying the wishes of the abolitionists who helped her settle into her new life (played by Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe), Tubman began making the treacherous journeys back to rescue those she left behind, a course that led her to become (as she was dubbed at the time) the “Black Moses” of the Underground Railroad.
The film’s opening act is rote and conventional, depicting slavery in the broadest, most obvious strokes; slave masters are little more than cruel caricatures and nearly every moment is wrought at its most wrenching emotional extreme. As appropriately harrowing as it all is, Harriet initially doesn’t distinguish itself from the kind of slavery story you’re expecting, and begins to feel more like a history lesson modeled for a middle school curriculum than an unsparing 12 Years A Slave styled gauntlet.
But by staying true to what Tubman proclaimed, Lemmons elevates Harriet above its familiar conventions.
Tubman driven by a righteous call, not just anger. Through visions and dreams that she ascribed as being from God himself (that Lemmons stylistically visualizes), Tubman claimed that her mission was in direct response to a call from the Lord. And not just a general call but actual specific instruction, with some dreams even proving prophetic. The more her efforts were challenged or doubted, the more Harriet affirmed her claim that they are Divinely ordered.
This is what Tubman professed, and so it’s the Tubman that Lemmons and Erivo give us. The veracity of those claims is left for us to decide, but credit Lemmons for representing Tubman as she (and witnesses) represented herself.
In doing so, Lemmons give Harriet its own distinction from other slavery stories, and does so through glasses that are faith-affirming but not rose colored. Thematically, we see a God that plants hope in a heart, of a kind that can be mistaken for a promise. When a perceived promise goes unfulfilled, heartbreak results. But that hope is what summons courage, stirs action, and leads to destiny, and its fruit often reaches far beyond the limits of the promise we initially clung to and hoped for.
Two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) gives the action a rich, cinematic sheen, while the music of Spike Lee’s go-to composer Terrence Blanchard imbues the real-life legend with poignant heroism.
Being the Moses of her moment, Tubman was blessed to actually live on into her Promised Land. To do so, the epilogue touches on other valiant efforts which Tubman led that are truly staggering, ones that almost seem too amazing to be true and could serve as individual films of their own.
Sure, Harriet may be overdone at times, but who she was is never watered down.