By Jeffrey Sanzel
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery but escaped to the North where she became the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. With unfathomable bravery, Tubman repeatedly risked her life to bring her family and other plantation slaves to safety. An extraordinary individual, she became a leading abolitionist prior to the Civil War; during the war, she worked directly with Union Army as a spy among other roles. Beyond the war, she worked with freed slaves as well as campaigning for women’s suffrage.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who collaborated with Gregory Allen Howard on the screenplay, Harriet is a powerful and important biopic that focuses on the strength and perseverance of this exceptional person.
The film opens in 1849 and shows the twenty-something Harriet (born Araminta Harriet Ross, nicknamed “Minty” by her parents) newly married to John Tubman. While she is still a slave to the Brodess family, John is a freedman. Harriet lives on a farm in Dorchester, Maryland, with her mother and sister, her other sisters having been sold South.
It is revealed that the Brodess’s have denied the family’s freedom that was promised in the great-grandfather’s will. When confronted with a letter from a lawyer, the plantation owner rips it up and dismisses the claim. In private, Harriet prays for God to take him — this witnessed by the adult son, Gideon. When the father dies suddenly, Gideon decides to sell Harriet as punishment. Realizing this, she flees and begins the nearly impossible journey one hundred miles to the Pennsylvania border.
Harriet had been struck in the head as a child and, because of this, has seizures in which she receives visions that she believes are the guidance of God. Throughout, these flashes help her make difficult decisions and they become pivotal in her choices.
Once acclimated in Philadelphia, Harriet plans to return south for her husband. John, believing she was dead, has remarried and his wife is pregnant. While distraught from this discovery, she decides to bring her family to freedom. This she does along with bringing several other slaves to the North.
Thus begins Harriet’s life’s work, returning time after time to bring more slaves to freedom. Legend grows around this mysterious figure – dubbed “Moses” – and incites the wrath of the plantation owners. Harriet remains undaunted and continues her work, even after the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, allowing escaped slaves in free states to be returned to their bondage.
The film builds to a confrontation between Harriet and Gideon. After this, there is a small epilogue that suggests her work with the Union Army, in particular leading black soldiers who free hundreds of slaves.
It is a compelling film that tells the story with great clarity and doesn’t shy from the brutality of its topic. Lemmons finds the flow of the story and rich detail. There is an occasional lack of tension because Harriet sometime seems a bit too invincible. This undermines the danger and risk that were clearly apparent in her every action and choice. It is a minor cavil but surprising given the life-and-death stakes.
Both the center and the heart of the film is Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet. Erivo shows the struggle, pain, and triumph. Her transition from “Minty” Ross to Harriet Tubman is done with poignancy and a raw honesty that inspires every moment of the story. Joe Alwyn does his best to avoid the clichés as the spoiled and vicious Gideon. His scenes with Erivo are some of the strongest in the film.
Leslie Odom Jr. charms as William Still, the Philadelphia abolitionist who connects Harriet with the Underground Railroad. Janelle Monáe’s Marie Buchanon offers the right strength as the free-born owner of a boarding house in Philadelphia where Harriet stays; there is a sensitivity in the growing friendship and mutual respect between them.
Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway, as Harriet’s parents, both find dimension in their limited screen time. Omar Dorsey is terrifying as Bigger Long, a brutal slave-catcher. Henry Hunter Hall is a bit whimsical as Walter, a black slave tracker who switches to Harriet’s side. Jennifer Nettles is appropriately brittle as Eliza Brodess, Gideon’s mother.
The rest of the cast does the best it can but many of the parts – including most of Harriet’s family – are not full developed. The exception is Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde, as Rachel Ross, Harriet’s sister; in one brief scene she shows monumental struggle and fear.
In 2016, it was announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill; this was to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Last year, this well-deserved honor was postponed until 2028 (or beyond). While Harriet Tubman might not grace American currency anytime soon, Harriet is a sensitive and honest reminder of this unique and remarkable human being.
Rated PG-13, Harriet is now streaming on demand.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features