Blind luck, sheer will, or divine intervention?
Born Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo), Minty was a slave on a Maryland plantation who’d witnessed her own sisters sold off. Prone to fainting spells after suffering a head injury in her early teens, Minty flees in 1849 when she discovers the late plantation owner’s son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) plans to sell her downriver, away from her family and free husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh). The Underground Railroad directs her to Pennsylvania to start a new life freed, but Minty credits God himself with the vision to guide her away from danger. Taking the name Harriet and her husband’s last name, she risks her freedom a year later to get word to him but ends up guiding more slaves to freedom. William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) invites Harriet to meet other secret “conductors” of the railroad for her effort… and she was just getting started.
There’s a fair reason why Harriet Tubman has been championed to replace Andrew Jackson on the U.S. twenty dollar bill. As a determined black woman born a slave who rose above her situation to become a leading abolitionist, Harriet also became the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the American Civil War. This dramatized biopic, however, highlights how she may have been able to do things she shouldn’t have been able to, specifically in knowing things no one else knew. Often mentioned in the same spiritual company as Joan of Arc, how credible is it that a person who came from nothing may have been guided by the Holy Spirit?
With the exception of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, there appear to be very few Bible-referenced films that are considered memorable, the most recent forgettably being Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 Noah which went “way out there.” While there is a spiritual aspect to Harriet, there is also a sense of adventure not in the name of glory or recognition but because it was the right thing to do and must be done — a focus upon accomplishment rather than highlight the suffering that fueled it. Whether you believe the Man Upstairs guided Harriet or not, you’ll believe in the woman who believed it herself and found the courage to do the impossible, sometimes with as little as a song.
Sci-fi would label Harriet a “precog” in that most Marvel Comics of ways — an accident that presumably gave her so-called superpowers — but interpreted by herself as talking to God almighty and getting an answer. The problem pitching this to modern audiences is actually an old Hollywood problem: the “magic non-white” trope (Black, Native American, or some other nationality), someone having a uncanny spiritual connection or a deus ex machina as some cosmic balance to “obviously superior” white intellect and refinement. The difference here, fortunately, is that the main character isn’t a white person being assisted in their more-important quest; Harriet helps herself repeatedly, and historians can’t explain any other way she could have succeeded other than chance. Like any decent M. Night Shyamalan film, viewers will either buy in or they won’t, but the rest hinges on that belief.
Well-acted, well-edited, excellent soundtrack, and reportedly shot for $17 million, the cast, crew, and writer/director Kasi Lemmons have plenty to be proud of creating a film with an almost fable-like quality. For all those who didn’t hear more about Harriet Tubman in their history classes, here’s hoping it sends more people to do the research and find out more for themselves. It’s telling the Southern plantations were convinced the mysterious “Moses” freeing their slaves to escape north could have only been a white abolitionist man… all the while continuing to empower those they foolishly and self-righteously underestimated.
Harriet is rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material, language including racial epithets, and the chill of referring the Angel of Death as “that good friend of the slave.”
Four skull recommendation out of four
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