God showed me the way.
Harriet Tubman is such an important heroic figure in American history that she was set to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill next year (the 19th Amendment’s centennial anniversary). That she isn’t anymore (Hollywood producer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delayed the switch in a move most believe was to instead keep Donald Trump’s favorite president’s visage on the currency throughout his term) is hardly surprising since that heroism will always come with an asterisk in this country due to her being Black and a woman. It’s the same bias that’s surely blocked her story from earning a cinematic adaptation too. Thanks to director Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard, however, Tubman will reclaim her place in the public consciousness regardless via big screen biopic Harriet.
Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo won the role (before subsequently enduring controversy for being British and having a run of poor social media exchanges denigrating Black Americans’ heritage/struggles) and delivers a powerful performance as this great liberator of slaves along the Underground Railroad. Lemmons and Howard begin the film at the moment when her character is forced to confront the prospect of escape after her owner refuses to honor his grandfather’s will declaring that she, her mother, and her sisters should have been freed a decade ago. The decision to jump in here rather than at her birth is an intentional one since her trajectory towards becoming Harriet leaves Minty (her slave name) behind. We’re therefore very much watching the origin story of a superhero guided by God’s hand.
And that’s not hyperbole. Harriet proves a victim of fainting spells (caused by an injury sustained many years back) wherein she sees flashes of premonition. This communion with a power outside of her control coupled by the opportune answers to her prayers places her firmly in the belief that God speaks to her in ways that secure her safety when danger looms. For someone who holds faith so dearly, this explanation is as good as any other where traveling one hundred miles alone from Maryland to Philadelphia is concerned. Unable to read or write, she nevertheless survives intact. So when William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) tells her he can’t yet spare any “angels” to procure the rest of her family, she goes back alone to get them herself.
It’s this selfless (and perhaps crazy) desire to put her neck on the line because of God’s protection that turns her into the mythic emancipator she’s known as today. Lemmons deserves credit for never quite letting Harriet’s visions become too outlandish or overt because this isn’t some magical parlor trick—it’s a visual representation of her instincts. Why does she stop in her tracks when the way over the bridge is her only method of escape? Why does she have the courage to wade through a river despite being unable to swim? It’s a gut feeling manifested as God’s helpful gaze. So when his direction seemingly leads her astray, Harriet also finds ways to justify each misstep as a means towards something greater she wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
That’s the glory of faith and why so many wield it as strength. Harriet’s belief keeps her standing tall at all times. Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall) says fear will be her worst enemy and she ensures it never rears its head to wrestle away control. So she yells at those who dare tell her what she can and can’t do. She slaps away hands attempting to point her any direction but where her heart says to go. It’s a steely demeanor that keeps her alive and transforms her into the type of leader who can successfully command armed regiments during the Civil War. Harriet might initially push people too far as a result, but no one can deny her success. God or brain damage, she was the best.
A major point of criticism that’s thus far been lobbed at Harriet since bowing at the Toronto International Film Festival is the fact that the script is too by-the-numbers to earn true across-the-board accolades. While there’s credence to this point—the main source of antagonism is reductively and clumsily projected upon the vengeful man she grew up with (Joe Alwyn‘s Gideon Brodess) rather than slavery at-large—I’m not sure what they hoped to receive instead. It’s one thing to play with Tubman’s life and create something wholly unique after her place in our history becomes as inherently known to future generations as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but this is the first mainstream studio film that’s dared even broach the subject. Matter-of-fact introductions are exactly what we need.
I say that as someone who remembers learning about Tubman during the nineties despite not being familiar with any details of the what or how beyond her being “a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped over seventy slaves flee to freedom.” Lemmons and Allen appear to have wanted to flesh out those particulars and to that end have definitely succeeded. Little things like a sister being willing to turn Harriet in if she forced her to leave without her children or their father (Clarke Peters‘ Ben) wearing a blindfold so he wouldn’t be lying when telling white men that he hadn’t set eyes upon her face in days are authentically emotional and go a long way to express the complexity of what went on.
The same goes for other bit players who pack a punch with minimal screen time (Janelle Monáe‘s Marie Buchanon acknowledging that her being born free means she can’t quite understand what those like Harriet suffered through, Henry Hunter Hall‘s opportunist Walter siding with money before being shown something worth far more, and Omar J. Dorsey‘s slave hunter Bigger Long craving that which alliance with slave owners affords). To canonize Harriet for what she accomplished is only half the goal with exposing America’s lasting internal prejudices and fear-induced self-sabotage the other. Lemmons does well depicting the gray areas of the latter while letting Erivo excel at the former with fiery speeches and unwavering courage. When her Tubman speaks, every man stops to listen. That’s more than power. It’s respect.
[1-3] Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features