A Straight-up American Badass Gets the Film She Deserves
The life of Harriet Tubman is beyond extraordinary, and the fact that we’ve had to wait this long for a major motion picture about even a portion of her life is evidence of the aftershocks of slavery that still permeate every crevice of our culture. Don’t get me started on the fact that her likeness should be on every twenty-dollar bill in our pockets by now.
HARRIET ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Written by: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Cynthia Ervio, Leslie Odom, Jr., Joe Alwyn
Running time: 125 min
Harriet is a straight-up action hero. There’s nothing dull or dry about her. She escaped slavery, traveling a hundred miles on her own. After she got to Philadelphia and hooked up with the anti-slavery coalition there, she decided to go back and rescue her husband and family. After further proving her grit by bringing nine slaves north with zero losses, the Underground Railroad officially made her a conductor.
She continued to risk her life, going back into the heart of slave country to rescue more people. In the Civil War she was a spy, and she, still today, remains one of a few women to have led an armed attack in an American war. She was a badass. She even had a touch of the supernatural about her, being prone to trances/seizures/”spells” after cracking open her head as a child. Tubman, whose nickname was “Moses,” believed that God spoke to her during these spells and that He kept her and her charges safe.
The film, tracks this portion of Tubman’s life deftly. The mostly-black led team, including director/writer Kasi Lemmons, writer Gregory Allen Howard, and composer Terence Blanchard, made sure the focus stayed on Harriet. They allow us to witness white allies helping the Railroad without indulging in white savior moments, or making the film about them. They emphasize black folks helping black folks, which is not only an empowering thing to show on screen, it’s also historically accurate.
Joe Alwyn portays Harriet’s prior “owner,” Gideon Brodess, as extremely attached to the slave he knew as Minty, but the film never goes so far as to indulge in his feelings, or ask the audience to empathize with him. It’s always clear that his entitlement, and his frustration over losing property overshadowed whatever feelings he had.
The film doesn’t feature excessive beatings or rape. I appreciated this, not because I can’t handle it, but because the actors didn’t have to endure that trauma, and no one in the audience could get off on it. Lemmons shows various scars, and the dialogue details some atrocities. The brutality of slavery is a given in this film, not a lesson. We see is an escaped black femme, carrying a weapon during every inch of her journey, and persevering again and again.
There was some controversy about having non-American Cynthia Erivo star as Tubman. She gives a fantastic performance in this film. Could an African-American actor have given a similarly amazing performance? Yes, I’m sure dozens of them could, but they chose Erivo and she does not disappoint.
Indeed, all of the performances are excellent. There are a few moments where the script asks the actors to perform their way through some clunky exposition, but that’s on the writing, not on them. Those moments are few and far between, when the writers were trying to jam a bit of important historical context into a scene. Other than these minor hiccups, the script is tight and well-written.
The cinematography is traditional, but beautiful. The film’s worst crime is that it doesn’t break form and tell the story in a unique way, not even during Harriet’s “spells”. I do wonder what having a black cinematographer might have changed. This is not a revolutionary piece of filmmaking like Moonlight. Harriet unfolds using industry storytelling rules. There is literally a shot of her riding a white horse off into the sunset. The film plays it safe in hopes of positioning itself for an Academy Award. I can’t say that I blame the filmmakers for this choice, but I was a tiny bit disappointed by it.
Overall, it was a satisfying, emotional, and engaging movie. I learned a lot without feeling like it was preaching at me, and I felt a lot but didn’t feel manipulated. And when Harriet Tubman’s last words appeared on screen, I got full-body chills: “I go to prepare a place for you.”