Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons of Eve’s Bayou fame, is the first major biopic about one of the most unlikely and inspiring activists in history—a tiny woman who refused to submit herself to the system she was born into and so returned repeatedly to snatch her enslaved brothers and sisters from under the noses of their oppressors.
No surprise that the film is getting mixed reviews. Harriet Tubman is a totally implausible character who obstinately refused to die in captivity. Obviously, she can’t have existed. Making a movie about a person like that is absurdly risky. Reverence is boring, irreverence is potentially offensive. Audiences arrive with assumptions about who Harriet Tubman was. Make her too ordinary and her triumphs become implausible; make her too extraordinary and she’ll lose credibility altogether.
The movie has been praised for its “sincerity,” (always a loaded word) and condemned for being formulaic. It’s been compared to the handful of other movies about slavery, which means it’s been compared to a tiny subset of a small subgenre of films that tackle the thorniest aspect of America’s history head on. It comes in the wake of Steve McQueen’s splendid, Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, and the genre-bending, thrill-a-minute movie phenom Black Panther. (Ironically, given how reluctant moviemakers have been to portray slavery, another biopic of Tubman, proposed by Viola Davis in 2015, was scrapped. Here’s hoping that Davis revives that idea in the future. There’s room for more than one Harriet, and it would be splendid to see Viola Davis bring her to life once again.)
Some critics—notably K. Austin Collins in Vanity Fair and Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian—have embraced the movie on its own terms in their thoughtful critiques. Others, however, have been dismissive of the movie, viewing it as a poor cousin to 12 Years, or as a project better suited to a TV mini-series—as if, after maxi-series megahits like Game of Thrones, this is an insult.
Like Collins and Bradshaw, I found Harriet powerful. It spoke to me as a woman of color and as a human being. It’s not perfect, of course. I wish it had focused more on the paradoxes and conflicts it raises. I would have loved a deeper exploration of the tensions between free and enslaved Blacks, for example, or to have learned more about how Harriet adapted to her role as a perceived reincarnation of Moses. Overall, however, I think the movie told an urgent story while simultaneously subverting some of the tropes that have come to define conventional rescue and survival narratives.
Last week, I watched the Virginia premiere of Harriet at the Middleburg Film Festival. Known for its diversity of offerings, the festival was a fitting venue, even more so because African American producer and entrepreneur Sheila C. Johnson founded the festival, and Harriet was filmed in Virginia. Johnson’s selections often showcase the talents of women and highlight underrepresented voices. Last year, movies like Roma, The Favourite, and Green Book were part of the Middleburg lineup; this year the offerings were again outstanding.
At the showing of Harriet, we sat in the packed ballroom of Sheila Johnson’s swanky Salamander resort and watched the movie we’d all been talking about. Many in the audience were women of color. We were attending a festival organized by a woman of color, watching a movie made by a woman of color about one of the most courageous women of color in history. To say there was a feeling of excitement doesn’t begin to do justice to how we felt.
After the credits rolled, we listened to Kasi Lemmons and producer Debra Martin Chase describe the arduous journey they undertook to find support for the movie. They worked hard—for years, in fact—to convince others to invest in it. Annoyance made me shift in my seat. Why was it so hard to tell our stories? Surely we have a surfeit of movies about killing by now, a slew of films each year that end in an apotheosis of violence, as if violence is incapable of being cliché.
The story of this diminutive woman, who lived for nearly a hundred years and died a hundred years ago, is a pearl locked inside a thriller. Lemmons and her co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard (Ali) haven’t merely inserted the story into the thriller framework; rather, their utilization of this genre is a usurpation. Harriet strains under its thriller guise not because it’s in the wrong outfit but because it deliberately positions itself as antithetical to its cage.
Which brings us back to Harriet herself, whose adamantine audacity is, in and of itself, a kind of superpower. (Move over, Black Panther.) It’s as if Harriet’s impossible dreams empower her to become the person she yearns to be. The movie catches the enigma of Tubman—the way she looks into the camera in those old photos as if to say, “You can’t catch me with that clumsy lens. Only a caged bird knows what I know. But I’ll indulge you for now.” There’s sorrow in her photographed eyes, yes, but there’s rebellion too.
No wonder Trump and other right-wingers recoiled at the idea of having the abolitionist’s memory-filled face on the twenty-dollar bill. That woman’s eyes are dangerous. The kind of eyes that promise to rise from the dead and return to wreak havoc on the status quo. Trump was right to be afraid. God only knows the trouble a “nasty” woman like that could get into left to her own devices on the nation’s currency.
In spite of what some reviewers have suggested, Harriet is not a preachy movie. In fact, it’s surprisingly devoid of exposition. It relies on Harriet’s passion to tell the story, and she doesn’t seem to put much stock in explanations. Why would she when the deity she confides in already knows everything there is to know about her? And couldn’t it be argued that the rhetoric of greedy men got everyone into this mess in the first place? “Don’t talk, just do,” Movie-Harriet seems to be saying. The film is as action packed as Harriet’s own daredevil life.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Harriet, leading a group of terrified runaways, wades into a river, the only route of escape from their pursuers. (Spoiler alert: She doesn’t drown, neither does anyone else.) White people who take to wild water as if it’s a Jacuzzi cannot fully comprehend the momentousness of that achievement. The riverbed seems almost to rise to meet Harriet’s feet. She is filled with terror before she gathers herself. Her God is with her; He will guide her home. Harriet’s actions don’t just speak louder than words, they move beyond them. People need to be saved, so the woman known on the plantation as “Minty” rolls up her sleeves and gets on with it. Without a lot of hot air and without a lot of shots being fired.
In this era, which is becoming notable for the rise of autocracy, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet is a welcome antidote to the current political gloom. The film could have been a sorrow song, but as it turns out, it was a hymn of triumph. It reminded me of what is, perhaps, the central miracle of oppression: in spite of paralyzing odds, enslaved people can perform miracles. Perhaps more than any other oppressed figure in history, Harriet Tubman is a distillation of the impossible: the miracle child of slavery who led her brothers and sisters to freedom and lived to tell the tale to her descendants.
Award-winning actor Cynthia Erivo from Broadway’s The Color Purple deserves an Oscar for her riveting performance in the main role. In an interview with Oprah, Erivo spoke about dreaming her way into a future she’s shaped—just the kind of thing Harriet herself would have said. In Lemmons’ movie, Erivo is Harriet. She makes us believe she is capable of carrying some seventy people to freedom not because she is superhuman but because she cannot countenance the evil that is slavery.
The Black British actor of Nigerian heritage faced backlash when the casting was announced. What feels like a legion of Black Brits and African Diasporans have made names for themselves by interpreting African American experience in movies and on TV in the past few years—Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, for example, and Idris Elba as Stringer Bell in The Wire, to name just two. I have my own theories as to why my fellow Black Brits are in demand for these roles, but suffice it to say Erivo is a tour de force in this movie. Janell Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. also give stellar performances, and the evocative music by composer Terence Blanchard (BlacKkKlansman, Macolm X) brilliantly captures the story’s emotional heart.
Cynthia Erivo doesn’t move through the movie like a saint or an icon; she moves through it as a terrified but never-to-be-owned-again female who doesn’t stop running. For much of the movie, she’s not running away, however. She’s running towards something. Towards freedom in the beginning, of course, but later, towards others she has to save. Her empathic imagination catalyzes her courage. How can she dwell in comfort when her brothers and sisters cannot?
Harriet is action packed, but it’s also full of quieter moments during which even Harriet seems shocked by her own resolve. Her increasingly unconventional garb serves as an ironic commentary on the corseted gender roles and stifling mores of the period. Famous male abolitionists remain silent when, in one scene, Harriet steps forward to speak. Lemmons seems to be saying to the male actors in the room, “Step aside. This woman warrior has something powerful to say. Time, my brothers, to listen.”
Harriet Tubman shattered the narrative the plantation owners crafted for her. Lies are chains. She broke them. Devout, tormented, driven by an unquenchable fire, the real Harriet lived a full, active life, bearing children, loving the men she chose, and loving the God who spoke to her. Prone to alarming fits and visions, nothing about Araminta “Minty” Ross leads her captors to believe she is in any way extraordinary. Kasi Lemmons places her faith in the resonance of Harriet’s actions as captured by Cynthia Erivo and asks us to let them speak for themselves.
At one point in the movie, Harriet is trapped on a bridge by her would-be captors. She glances over the side, knowing the leap into swirling, murky water will likely kill her. The wordless desperation in her eyes tells you why she’s willing to risk everything. She’s tasted the air. She can’t re-seal herself inside the coffin of slavery. She makes the choice to leap, a deliberate choice born of suffering. Slavery is a slow, sadistic murderer, and this tiny woman refuses to let him murder her again.
Through her courage, Harriet Tubman wrote her own story in huge capital letters. Thank god these tenacious artists dared to pass it on.
Novelist and poet Lucinda Roy recently completed the first book in her futuristic slave narrative trilogy entitled “The Freedom Race.” It is forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan. Her most recent poetry collection is entitled “Fabric.”