“Harriet” is a much overdue film chronicling the life and exploits of the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman. The film’s greatest asset comes in the form of Cynthia Erivo, a veteran of the London stage, who breathes life and pathos into the titular character. Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) and co-written by Gregory Allen Howard, “Harriet” celebrates life and freedom and reminds audiences of the price some of our forebears paid for the freedoms we enjoy today.
Minty, as she was known to her family and owners, was a God-fearing woman married to John Tubman (Zackary Momoh). Since they were planning on having a family, John and Minty wanted their children to be born free which only would have been possible if Minty herself was free. Both John and Minty’s father, Ben (Clarke Peters) were freemen, working at a nearby farm. Since a previous owner had promised Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway), Minty’s mother, freedom at age 45 but had never followed through, they petitioned owner Edward Brodess (Mike Marunde) to honor the agreement and include Minty. To no avail. A prayerful but desperate woman, Minty prayed that God would take Mr. Brodess so that she could be free.
When Brodess dies suddenly, his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) refuses to grant Minty freedom and she decides to run. Not wanting to risk John’s freedom if they were caught, she insists on going alone. It’s no spoiler to say that she made it over the Pennsylvania border to freedom in 1849 and connected with William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe) to become involved in abolitionist activities.
Once Minty escapes and takes on the free name of Harriet (after her mother), the film begins lagging. Lemmons decided to keep the film family-friendly so there are no bloody slave beatings like the ones witnessed in “12 Years a Slave,” but along with that also went some of the tension that could have made this film worthy of its subject. The repeated trips Tubman heroically made back into Maryland to gather her family and other slaves seeking freedom begin to feel like been-there-done-that pretty quickly. Some added tension leaks into the story with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, forcing Harriet to bring slaves all the way to Canada.
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in "Harriet" (Focus Features)
Despite its flaws, “Harriet” gives due diligence to the role faith played in Tubman’s life. Her head injury as a child caused her to have ‘visions’ and spells but she considered these as God speaking to her and guiding her in her journeys leading slaves to freedom. There is one especially moving scene when things seem futile but Harriet insists that God will not let the travellers come to harm.
We in the United States tend to take our freedoms for granted. This film reminds us that what we enjoy today came at a great price to those who lived before us and shaped our country and its history. Harriet Tubman remains a huge figure in that journey.