Film & Television

‘Harriet’: An Overdue Celebration of An American Heroine

Using gospels (Erivo’s voice, which she had to dramatically lower for this role, is magnificent) to communicate with the enslaved, Harriet earns the nickname “Moses.” Demonstrating the disdain and contempt southern landholders had for both women and blacks, they assume she’s a white man in blackface. Otherwise, they argue, how could she continue to elude them? Once her identity is revealed, Eliza Brodess (Jennifer Nettles), Gideon’s mother, vows that she’ll be caught and “burned at the stake like Joan of Arc,” not realizing that she’s just compared Tubman to a saint.

As I mentioned earlier, Lemmons doesn’t graphically depict the cruelties and tortures of slavery. She does however give Harriet a moving speech when other abolitionists argue that it’s time to wait for the impending civil war. The only former slave present, she tells them about the atrocities — “I’ve seen girls raped before their first blood” —  and asserts, “I would give every last drop of blood in my veins until this monster called slavery is dead!” In a final (heavy-handed but enormously satisfying) showdown with Gideon, she simply says, “God don’t mean people to own people.”

There is no question but that Lemmons’s film is important. Tubman is a figure whom most of us have heard of, but about whom most of us know few historical details. In the film, she is brought marvelously to life, but also positioned as a bit of a superhero. Surely the real woman was plagued by fear and doubt at times. In the film, she asks God for help and always receives it. She lives a long life and has a peaceful end, but the comparison with Joan of Arc (as ignorant as it may have been) feels a bit too convenient.

If the movie is at times formulaic, it is nevertheless a beautiful and emotionally rewarding tribute to the real Tubman. Lemmons draws pitch-perfect performances from her entire extraordinary cast. Erivo, in particular, is magnetic. She is in nearly every scene of the movie, and it’s really impossible to look away. Other standouts include Lemmons’s real-life son Henry Hunter Hall as Walter, a wily young bounty hunter who finds himself mesmerized — and redeemed — by Harriet’s faith. Walter, like some other secondary characters, was created for the movie. But he’s an entertaining sidekick.

Women in Hollywood spoke with Lemmons about what she hopes people will think about after seeing Harriet.

“I’d like people to be inspired to realize what can be achieved through sheer force of will and courage. It is hard these days to think that we can make a difference. The problems of the world seem so monumental, we are kind of bowed under, and we have this temptation to kind of keep our heads in the sand. I want this generation to be motivated by these real-life heroines. Harriet Tubman had an opportunity to relax in comfort. But she couldn’t. She felt that if she was free, her family should be free too. If she was free, others should be free too. That is what motivated her, not being satisfied with creature comforts and her own safety. She was willing to risk those things for the greater good, and I think that is a tremendous message to walk away with.”

In 2016, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson (a slave-owner and “exterminator of Indians”) on the twenty-dollar bill. In 2019, Lew’s successor, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, postponed the change until 2028.

We may have to wait for Tubman to appear on our currency. But telling her story is long overdue. Lemmons’s film is a first-rate place to start.



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