Film & Television

‘Harriet’: An Overdue Celebration of An American Heroine

A few weeks ago, I predicted that Renée Zellweger would earn an Oscar nomination for starring in the title role of Judy. Now I have to amend that by asserting that she will have tough competition from Cynthia Erivo in another title role: Harriet. Erivo, a 32-year old British native of Nigerian descent, won the Tony Award in 2016 for her show-stopping portrayal of Celie in the lauded revival of The Color Purple. Here, as true-life abolitionist and conductor on the underground railroad Harriet Tubman, she will take your breath away. 

Tubman’s original name was Araminta “Minty” Ross. She was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1822. As a young girl, she was seriously injured when her master threw a weight at another slave and Minty stepped into its path. It shattered her skull, and she was in and out of consciousness. Due to this injury, she suffered pain, dizziness, and hypersomnia throughout her life. However, it also resulted in vivid, often prophetic, visions. Tubman was convinced that God communicated directly with her. Over time, many others shared her belief. How else could she, a diminutive woman, black and uneducated, have achieved all that she did against unimaginable odds?

In 1849, Minty, having learned that she was to be sold down river away from her family and husband, free man John Tubman, decided to run. After a grueling 100-mile journey, she arrived in Philadelphia, where she took the name Harriet (for her mother) Tubman (for her husband). Despite the safety she found there, she returned to Maryland within a year to rescue family members. Over the course of her career, she made 13 separate trips, bringing 70 slaves to freedom. She famously “never lost a passenger.”

During the Civil War, Tubman joined the Union Army, working first as a nurse and then as a spy. She led the raid at Combahee Ferry, the first woman in U.S. history to lead an army unit into battle. There, another 700 slaves were freed. After the war, Tubman spent her “retirement” in upstate New York fighting for women’s suffrage and opening a home for elderly Africans. She died at 91, surrounded by family. She was deeply faithful until the end; her final words were “I go to prepare a place for you.”

Harriet is directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons, whose earlier Eve’s Bayou received the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Lemmons chose to eschew the scenes of torture that were so powerful — but also enormously difficult to watch — in 12 Years a Slave because, as she explained when Harriet premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this fall, she wanted it to be a film about freedom, not slavery. There is, in fact, surprisingly little onscreen violence. The threat, however, is always present.

Lemmons’s movie begins the year that Minty runs. She and her husband (Zachary Momoh) approach her master, Edward Brodess (Mike Marunde) with a request — and in an inconceivable act of uppityness, a letter signed by a lawyer — that their children be born free. Not only are they upbraided for their insolence, but Brodess convinces his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn, handsome and utterly chilling) that Minty is trouble and should have been sold off long ago.

Gideon is torn; there is an attraction there which he perversely demonstrates by comparing her to livestock (he taunts her faith by telling her that watching her pray is an abomination; that she is like a pig you might grow fond of but that you will eat and forget when the time comes). Minty knows that if she’s sold south, she won’t be able to escape, so she sets off with a stolen knife, the clothes on her back, and little else.

She is aided by her father, Treme’s magnificent Big Chief (Clarke Peters), a black preacher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), and a handful of sympathetic whites. With God’s help, she evades her enraged master and hired slave catchers with bloodhounds. At one point, she plunges off a bridge into a raging river — a far more personal and dramatic demonstration of “live free or die” than most New Hampshire residents will ever know. When she finally reaches the Pennsylvania border, she jumps over into freedom. There’s no broom, but her leap is a significant symbol of her newfound, hard-fought liberty.

In Philadelphia, she is amazed to see well-dressed blacks conducting business with neither masters nor overseers. She meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom, who won a Tony the same year Erivo did for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in Hamilton and the elegant Marie Buchanan (singer/songwriter Janelle Monae, who shines here even more brightly than she did in Hidden Figures), who runs a boardinghouse for freed slaves. Minty, now Harriet, soon realizes that she can’t be truly free until her family is as well. Despite Still’s concerns and protests, she heads back south on the first of her many missions as a conductor.


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