The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
Kasi Lemmons’ brilliant biopic, Harriet, celebrating the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, at once propels you into the past and slaps you in the face with the present. While riding the emotional rollercoaster that movies of this subject matter invariably taking me through — a white-knuckle ride from rage to sadness with a few jolts in between — I kept wondering which America this movie reflects.
Is it the America where black lives didn’t matter then or the one where they don’t matter now? Is it the America where law and Scripture were twisted to accommodate those who laughably branded themselves “victims,” or the one where law and Scripture are ignored to accommodate the modern-day aggrieved? Is it the America where the current administration made a point of preferring a slave-owning president on its $20 bill to a slave-liberating conductor from the Underground Railroad, which was originally slated to happen in 2020?
The most encouraging thing about this fantastic and long overdue movie is the unabashed depiction of Ms. Tubman’s faith. Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) goes from timid slave to commanding presence. She eschews revenge, in the opportunity to kill her former owner. Her faith sets all free, despite the bounty on her head. It encourages a black slave tracker to change his ways and become an emancipator because, as he tells her, “You talk to God and He seems to talk back.” That’s a long way from the opening of the movie, where the son of a white plantation owner hears the former slave praying and sneers at her, “The Lord don’t listen to [N-words].” While it’s commendable that not all the movie’s white characters are portrayed as evil, when the man’s father dies, seemingly an answer to one of her prayers, the son makes a point of trying to sell her off. That’s what sets her on her journey.
Speaking of the N-word, though it was uttered without thought in that era, it isn’t employed gratuitously in the movie. Nor is the violence of the whip, though every time a black character bares his or her back, the welts of an evil system are made evident. Even Harriet has a dent in her head, the result of an angry white man tossing an iron at another slave. When Harriet says, “The hole in my head made God’s voice more clear,” another character suspects she’s brain-damaged.
It was a light-hearted moment, and the movie does a nice job of injecting a few of these just when they’re needed most, especially as it shows you your ancestors and their unyielding setting of sorrow. The music is powerful, causing you to understand the true significance of Negro spirituals — they often acted as code for action. The movie largely sticks to the true, but hard-to-fathom script of this amazing heroine’s real life, even as it causes you to wonder how the most wanted woman in the South could so easily sneak back onto plantations to free others. That’s the most minor of quibbles for a movie that merits the Dove-approved seal for Ages 18+ because of language concerns and violence.