The story of Harriet Tubman may sound vaguely familiar but like most history concerning people of color, it isn’t covered much in detail in most school curriculums. She has, however, not been forgotten. We know her as a powerful woman who led slaves to freedom and a fighter for women’s suffrage. She was slated to not only be the first African American to be placed on US currency but the first African American woman to be accorded this honor. And it was great fanfare that she would replace Andrew Jackson’s $20 bill portrait, a president who has long been proven a racist and a major factor in the genocidal Trail of Tears relocation of Native American. That plan would be later nixed by the Trump administration and the Treasury secretary for no believable reason.
You would think that a woman of such significance would have quite a few screen depictions of her. And unfortunately the last time she was portrayed outside of a documentary was in 1978 television miniseries A Woman Named Moses, starring Cicely Tyson. Now in 2019, Harriet rectifies that oversight. It does the best it can with an outstanding performance but does not cross over the finish line without a few bruises as far as story and script are concerned.
In the years in Maryland leading up to the Civil War, the slave Araminty “Minty” Ross is already married to a free Black man named John Tubman. It is revealed that there are provisions from a previous owner called manumits, which allowed for her father to be freed at 45, which was honored. The manumits also allowed the Minty’s mother and her children to to be freed when the mother turned 45. But the family refuses to honor it and as the family farm is falling into debt after the death of the patriarch, they decide to sell off some of the slaves. Minty is one of them.
Rather than being sold, she decides to run away to freedom. She ends up leaving her husband behind who is a free man knowing that if he were caught with her her he would be killed. She eventually makes her way to Philadelphia which is a haven for runaway slaves. There, she finds the local Anti-Slavery Society offices, where she meets William Still who helps her settle into a life of freedom. With her new life she discards the name given to her as a slave and takes on the name Harriet from her mother, and Tubman from her husband.
All this time, she still fears for her family and husband and decides that she has to go help them to freedom as well. Against the advice of William Sill, she leads members of her family to freedom. This is regarded as her first run as a “conductor” in the underground railroad and she becomes part of the movement to conduct slaves seeking freedom or even outright leading slaves off the field.
Before long, legend spreads of an mysterious figure known as Moses who leads slaves out of the fields to freedom. They do not have any idea that it is not only a runaway slave but a woman. They mostly believe it is a white abolitionist in blackface.
Harriet is fueled by a magnificent performance by Cynthia Erivo, an up and coming actress who has stood out in Widows as the runner. Her characterization ranges from an initially unsure woman who would eventually become a powerful presence that will not be denied her way. She bring strength and emotional nuance to one of history’s heroes.
Leslie Odum plays the real life William Still as a rather patricianly character who is hesitant to take too many risks and gains great respect and awe for Harriet in just a short amount of time.
Janelle Monáe, who has been popping up a lot as a voice actress makes an impressive screen presence as the fictional Marie Buchanan, the owner of the boarding house, and mentor, that Harriet finds herself bonding with.
Harriett as a biopic is relatively accurate in that it covers major events in her life. And it is that historic accuracy that may turn some heads, but they are accurate even though the execution of how it is portrayed may not ring authentic.
Historically, Harriet Tubman was a deeply religious woman and it is portrayed as such in the film. It is also true that she suffered from spells, either fainting or epileptic. She believed these spells also provided her with vision from God. The film, treats it almost like a sort of Spidey sense, especially in times where she is on the run from slave catchers and she is given visions from God not to take a certain road or to cross a certain point across a river. The way this is portrayed may take some audience members out of the picture. It comes across more like a super power than an insight from God. but then again I guess there is really no authentic way to portray visions from God. There are also a few scenes where all Harriet has to do is sing a few bars of a gospel hymn and suddenly slaves know where and when to run.
This film could have easily run a lot longer than the roughly two hour running time as much of her later exploits during and after the civil war are given short mentions just before the end credits roll. Historically, Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War and after the war she became a leader for women’s suffrage. She did all this while still being illiterate.
Director Kasi Lemmons who may be best know for Eve’s Bayou does a competent job and definitely knows how to draw out great performances. This is possibly her biggest budgeted film to date and it does suffer from some tropes of big budget films such as a poorly developed villain in the guess of her obsessed former slave owner. Lemmons makes a conscious choice to not submit audiences to the cliched trope of slave whippings or beatings. It is mentioned, and we see scars but often times directors feel a need to graphically portray it on screen as if to remind audiences America’s great sin.
Yet despite a few stumbles in pacing and script, the performances are stunning especially Cynthia Erivo’s. It, like many other biopics elevates its subject to a larger than life hero for our times. And in the case of the subject, Harriet Tubman really is a genuine hero in American history.