She almost made it to our twenty-dollar bill and may yet be there, so it’s time for us to watch a carefully researched and beautifully acted film about Harriet Tubman. Most of us know that in the pre-Civil War years Tubman helped slaves escape to freedom, a task filled with peril especially after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. As part of the Compromise of 1850, this law made it no longer legal for an escaped slave to remain in a free Northern state. The escapees now had to be viewed as property and returned to their owners in the South.
Born a slave on the Brodess plantation in Maryland sometime in the 1820s (exact records were not kept), Harriet’s birth name was Araminta Ross and she went by Minty. Her husband, John Tubman (Zachary Momoh), and her father, Ben Ross (Clark Peters), are free, but fearing she will be sold further south, Minty (Cynthia Erivo), with the encouragement of her father, decides to flee north to freedom. A clergyman gives her the help and direction that she needs to navigate the 100 miles to Delaware.
Like other slaves, Minty is not able to read, but in a mysterious way, she seems to have knowledge and information that she says she receives through visions from God. Many attribute this phenomenon to a severe head injury received when she was quite young, resulting in occasional lapses into unconsciousness. Harriet reports that during these episodes God speaks directly to her.
Fraught with many perils and narrow escapes, her journey to freedom takes Minty eventually to Philadelphia, where she is welcomed by a freedom organization that encourages her to change her name and she chooses Harriett Tubman. Heading this organization is William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr. from the cast of “Hamilton”), who introduces her to Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), the liaison assisting escaped women by providing them shelter, clothes, and finding them jobs. Harriet is amazed at Marie’s knowledge and sophistication and her genuine care and concern for escapees.
After a year in Philadelphia, Harriet misses her husband and returns to the Brodess farm to get him to join her. But in her harrowing escape a year earlier, Harriet had jumped into a rushing river and was reported by her pursuers to have drowned. John, thinking he was now a widower, has remarried. Hurt but undaunted, Harriett rounds up her mother and other family members, and with help from the Underground Railroad gets them all to Philadelphia.
Against all advice, Harriet is determined to continue her forays into the South, rescuing slaves from plantations. She personally rescues seventy slaves from captivity and is indirectly responsible for hundreds more. Her name becomes legendary. “Harriet” ends before the Civil War begins and the Emancipation Proclamation is signed, but we are told in after-notes about her service as a Union spy during the war.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard, “Harriet” follows the playbook of standard biopics, both writers trusting that the actual narrative of Tubman’s life was so compelling there was little need to embellish the facts. They also trusted in Cynthia Erivo’s acting ability and physicality to pull off the demands built into the role of this iconic legend. Erivo’s acting background encompasses stage work in Britain and winning a Tony for the Broadway production of “The Color Purple.” So riveting is her performance as Harriet, we may even hear her name mentioned in the best actress category of the upcoming Academy Awards.
TWO HITS: Don’t Miss it!
A HIT & A MISS: You Might Like it.
TWO MISSES: Don’t Bother.