The strongest scene in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet might be a moment when its indomitable protagonist appears at her weakest.
Cynthia Erivo (Widows) embodies Harriet Tubman, the heroine of the Underground Railroad, as a force not only of nature, but of supernature. More than a will of iron, she has a mystical inner compass ever responsive to the soul’s true North, to God himself.
Her code name “Moses” connects most obviously, of course, to her mission to deliver slaves from bondage — a connection strengthened by her use of the spirituals Go Down Moses and Bound for the Promised Land in her work — but Harriet makes it plain that, like Israel’s great prophet, this “Moses” was neither self-elected nor appointed by men, but chosen for her work by God.
In one wrenching moment, though, Harriet’s iron will and even her mystical compass seem to fail her as the seemingly irresistible force of certitude that has propelled her forward for months unexpectedly shatters upon immovable, intransigent reality.
It’s a crucial moment, not only because it shows us Harriet’s fallibility and vulnerability, but also because it allows us to see her fully in the present tense, in the midst of a story with no foregone conclusion, without even a clear turn of the page.
Selma, Ava DuVernay’s outstanding drama about Martin Luther King Jr., sustained this kind of dramatic immediacy by depicting King less as a prophet than a canny strategist responding to shifting circumstances.
What Harriet mostly conveys, with sledgehammer force, is Tubman’s strength and resolve as well as her unshakable faith.
Add the spells or seizures that cause her to collapse but which seem to be accompanied by divine visions and premonitions of danger, allowing her to evade pursuers and trackers again and again as she leads scores of slaves to freedom, and our heroine is a veritable superhero.
Harriet’s first act, then, is an origin story.
Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider; Araminta “Minty” Ross (Tubman’s birth name; “Harriet” in this telling is a “freedom name,” chosen upon her arrival in Philadelphia) was struck in the forehead as a youth and her skull fractured by a heavy object thrown by a white overseer.
This injury, she explains to the black abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a historian for the Underground Railroad as well as a conductor, is the origin of her fainting spells through which God speaks to her. (“Possible brain injury,” Still writes in his notes, but the film is pretty clear that her spells are a superpower, not a disability.)
Harriet opens on the Brodess plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, with Minty’s owner, the patriarch Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde), incredulously tearing up a letter from a white lawyer.
The letter, commissioned by Minty and her free husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), to research an old will, documented that Minty’s mother should have been set free at 45 years old, along with Minty and her siblings. (The facts here are a bit streamlined; the will actually stipulated that the children, like the mother, were to be freed when they each turned 45.)
This contemptuous and treacherous act prompts Minty to a desperate prayer, kneeling at the roots of a tree that becomes for her a symbol of the divine (a sort of burning bush by way of Pocahontas’ Grandmother Willow), that the Lord should either change her master’s heart — or kill him and take him out of the way.
“God doesn’t hear the prayers of n‑‑‑‑rs,” taunts Brodess’ son Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who will become, by default, a kind of archenemy — but a week later, the old man is dead. (That part really happened.)
Brodess’ death, though, puts Minty at increased risk of being sold down south, from which there is no return and no escape. Maryland might be a slave state, but the air of oppression so close to the North and to freedom is somehow less suffocating than that of Mississippi or Alabama.
So she begins her first desperate flight, pursued soon enough by searchers with hounds. I was reminded here of the great first act of The Fugitive, especially as the chase builds to a tense moment on a wooden bridge over a churning river where Gideon tries to talk Minty out of jumping, warning her that suicide is “a sin against God” (his second misuse of religious ideas against Minty, for those keeping score).
Unlike Tommy Lee Jones’ crusty but sympathetic and very funny Sam Girard, Gideon’s not a particularly interesting antagonist; he’s just another odious white racist. The tension clicks up a notch, though, when Gideon brings in a formidable black slave hunter (Omar Dorsey) and his slick, insinuating henchman (Henry Hunter Hall).
Harriet’s direct line to God is not the film’s only positive religious element.
Old Rev. Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall) — like Nat Turner in Nate Parker’s controversial 2016 The Birth of a Nation — is a black preacher who makes a point of preaching submission and obedience to slaves rather than liberation.
But this, though it has even some slaves fooled, is merely a cover for Green’s Underground Railroad work. Green’s church is the first stop on the road to freedom not only for Minty but for many others, as well. There are also Quakers among the conductors who aid Minty and others in evading slave hunters and reaching freedom.
The film is faithful to the broad strokes of Tubman’s life, though there’s been some shuffling of events. Tubman’s attempted retrieval of her husband John was not her first rescue mission back to Maryland (perhaps the filmmakers felt that she would lose sympathy in a painful reunion scene if her husband weren’t her top priority). And the film postpones passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 until well into Tubman’s career, though, in fact, it was passed within months of her escape.
Harriet offers an accessible, faith-friendly overview of a life too sprawling and complex for any film, however ambitious. Her involvement in the Civil War is merely hinted at, and her humanitarian work and suffragist activism are relegated to closing titles.
Even so, it may be felt at times that the film tries to do too much. Biographical films like Selma and Lincoln work as well as they do in part because their scope is limited to a single significant chapter of the subject’s life.
Films that take on too much of the story, like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom or The Theory of Everything, often wind up feeling like a Wikipedia entry and sacrificing subtlety for simplicity. (A late scene in which Harriet makes an impassioned speech about fighting on to a roomful of mostly comfortable abolitionists while the music swells, earning their applause in the end, is a heavy-handed example.)
Still, when you notice, among a knot of people at an Underground Railroad meeting, Tory Kittles with a hairstyle clearly identifying him as Frederick Douglass — and then you reflect that Douglass, a walk-on in this movie, also has an extraordinary story that has never been the subject of a feature film — you may feel a new sympathy for the wish to cover as much of Tubman’s story as possible.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Brief but brutal, sometimes deadly violence; racial epithets, some crude language and coarse references, and a profanity. Older teens and up.