Harriet (2019)

Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writer: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar J. Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hall, Janelle Monáe
Seen on: 6.8.2020

Content Note: (critical treatment of) racism, slavery

Minty (Cynthia Erivo) is enslaved by the Brodess family. Her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) is free and he wants to see Minty free, too. But there is no legal opinion the Brodesses will accept. After the death of the patriarch, his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who more or less grew up with Minty, takes over and things take a turn worse for her: he threatens to sell her. In an act of desperation she runs away – to become Harriet Tubman.

Harriet tells the story of a fantastic Black woman, but it was too preoccupied for me to make Tubman into a literal emissary of god. Ultimately Harriet existing at all is much more radical than the film itself.

The film poster showing William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) and Mary Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) above the silhouette of Harriet walking through a field with her gun raised.

It is a matter of fact that Harriet was beaten so hard, when she was a child, that her skull fractured and she started experiencing seizures coupled with hallucinations. To her, those hallucinations were visions from god and I’m not here to tell her differently. I am aware that religion and spirituality has been a massive positive force for many people, especially Black people, and I’m not trying to cheapen that in the slightest.

But it felt to me like the film’s narrative insistence on those visions – they happen a few times and they are always premonitions that save Harriet and the people in her care – cheapened the accomplishments of the real-life Tubman. Instead of her being brave and resourceful and simply extremely competent at what she does, she has divine interventions in her favor, making the successes less hers than god’s. And it might be my unreligious, atheist heart talking, but in the end I find that not as impressive as when she does it on her own.

Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) hiding behind a tree.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem I had with the film. It gets a bit long and repetitive and then the ending seems a little hurried. It still manages to be emotionally evocative but I often would have wished a shift in the focus: more towards the organisation of the Underground Railroad and the activism there and less the actual trips that Harriet made.

Erivo is very good as Harriet, and Odom Jr. and Monáe shine in their supporting roles that unfortunately don’t get all that much attention. Though I can understand that choice: this is Harriet’s film and hers alone. I just wish that she had gotten a better one – but I guess there are still chances for that: the world could definitely use more Harriet Tubman.

Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) kneeling under a tree, praying.

Summarizing: even if the film isn’t great, it’s still worth watching for the history and importance.

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