In virtually every depiction of legendary abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman, we see her as a little old lady, usually sitting in a chair, and not like the powerful force of nature she was in life. We’re so accustomed to this interpretation of her that, when it was proposed that she be put on the $20 bill, it wasn’t Tubman in her prime but well past it. Kasi Lemmons’ biopic Harriet occupies a special place for presenting a version of Tubman that we haven’t seen, one that is stylish and fierce and a little like a superhero. It’s just unfortunate the rest of the film fails to live up to the same unconventional standard, only to be rescued somewhat by the performance of Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo.
Essentially an origin story, Harriet begins in the 1840s when the future abolitionist was Araminta “Minty” Ross, just another slave on a Maryland plantation run by Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who refuses to set her free as previously promised. When faced with separation from her family and husband, Minty decides to flee up north to Philadelphia, a dangerous 100-mile journey that has become legend. Avoiding the bounty hunters and slave trackers, many of which were other blacks looking to make a profit, Minty uses her wits and a handy gift of foresight to reach her destination. There, she meets with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), becomes a leader in his Underground Railroad, takes up the name Harriet Tubman, and the rest is history.
Well, not so fast. That’s the beginning of the stuff we all can find in a history book. Harriet explores the loneliness that comes with the incredible burden she placed on herself. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Tubman finds herself in a place she never could’ve imagined, one where whites and blacks live and work together to build a better society. Through her friendship with business owner Maria (Janelle Monae), Tubman comes to find her true purpose. It’s also when loneliness kicks in, as well as a desire for her loved ones to share in this new world. Deciding to make the treacherous journey back to gather her husband, she comes to a powerful realization about the passage of time. This opens her eyes to the need to rescue others, and in a stirring sequence we see Tubman do just that, earning the title “Moses” that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
So much of Harriet plays out in by-the-book fashion that its one major embellishment throws the whole film into discord. Tubman suffered from seizures as the result of a childhood head injury caused by one of her masters. Since then, she said visions from God would be visited upon her during those times when she would seemingly fall unconscious. To Lemmons, these are interpreted on screen as a sort of “Spidey Sense”, getting her out of one precarious situation after another. While it’s an interesting flourish to say the least, it also denies Tubman some of the credit for her monumental achievements by attributing them to acts of God.
Choosing to take a softer approach to potentially bleak material, Lemmons largely stays away from the brutality of the era. Instead, the violence inflicted by the white slavemasters is hinted at, or seen in scars and tears. Leaving much of it to the imagination sets Harriet apart from 12 Years a Slave or similar films which are so awash in torture you can barely stand to watch. This is an imminently more watchable movie as a result, with Lemmons striking a balance between historical crowd-pleaser and sober docudrama. Terence Blanchard’s spirited score and John Toll’s lush cinematography further enhance Tubman as a mythical figure, a feminist and civil rights icon who seemed like she could move mountains. It’s Erivo who is the crucial piece that holds everything together. She provides the dignified performance Harriet Tubman deserves, expressing deep wells of emotion in only a few words.
Interestingly, Harriet hits a stride in the final chapter, during a rousing Civil War sequence where she leads a group of black soldiers onto the battlefield. As Lemmons focuses on this tiny woman, gun in hand, overpowering in her crusade to bring justice to an unjust world, the shackles of so many familiar tropes are finally broken. Harriet could’ve done more by giving this larger-than-life figure a movie that breaks the mold.