I recently saw the movie Harriet and was blown away by its brilliance and mastery. First, I would like to acknowledge my place on the sidelines of this conversation. I speak only as a student of history, grateful for new knowledge and empathy. I was also grateful for cultural and emotional context around a sensitive issue I knew (and still know) relatively little about.
First, the stunning acting prowess of Cynthia Erivo as the titular heroine. Erivo brings a quiet dignity and stunning nuance to an iconic figure. Throughout the film, her stirring speeches effect change and evoke empathy from those who haven’t shared her painful history. At one point, Harriet defends her choice to return to the south, saying “Don’t you tell me what I can’t do. I made it this far on my own. God was watching, but my feet was my own. Running, bleeding, climbing, nearly drowned, nothing to eat for days and days, but I made it! So don’t you tell me what I can’t do. You don’t know me.”
Later in the film, Harriet addresses a room of abolitionists with this haunting charge: ”I ain’t giving up rescuing slaves because it’s far. Many of you don’t know slavery firsthand. You were born free. You’ve been free so long, you forget what it’s like. You’ve gotten comfortable and important. You got beautiful homes, beautiful wives. But I remember.”.
Born into slavery, Araminta Ross Tubman ran from the prospect of being sold further south. She chose Harriet as her freed name, then went back to the hell she escaped from. Initially just bringing family and friends to freedom, she ended up freeing over 700 slaves and acting as a spy for the Union army. She died in 1913 at “approximately 91 years old” The “approximately” is what gets me. The woman who freed hundreds of slaves led an armed regiment, and tirelessly fought for freedom–this one-in-a-million woman didn’t even know her own birthday.
Another terrific leader of this movie is Leslie Odom Jr. Best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, he carries a strong role as William Still. A free African-American, Still was a prominent member of the Underground Railroad, as well as a businessman. In the film, Still is understandably cautious of Harriet’s bold endeavors, but he admires her grit and ingenuity.
Rounding out the principal cast is Janelle Monáe as Marie Buchanon. A free woman who runs a boardinghouse; she acts as Harriet’s mentor, confidante, and protector, even when it costs her. Monáe is known for her R&B music career, but she cuts her teeth on a fine role. One of her first interactions with Harriet is her apologizing for a lack of understanding- a beautiful moment of recognition and solidarity. At another point Marie muses “What’s a man to a woman touched by God?” This recognition of solidarity and power is an affirmation of Tubman’s grit and grace.
The movie makes good use of certain metaphors and motifs. The most prominent is an image of Harriet on a white horse against a sunset. The first instance of this image is when Harriet crosses the Pennsylvania state line into freedom, and the second is near the end of the film, where Harriet confronts Gideon. Another important symbol is a river, serving as a guiding path and means of communication.
Two other noteworthy actors are Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess and Jennifer Nettles as Eliza Brodess. Jennifer Nettles is best known as the leader of the county group Sugarland, while Joe Alwyn is a newcomer actor, and Taylor Swift’s boyfriend. Alwyn’s character harbors intense internal conflict and self-denial which is interesting to watch. White people were trained to see African Americans as sub-human in that culture, and his conscience has a hard job convincing him otherwise. Nettles serves a noteworthy performance as widow Eliza Brodess who slowly loses her fortune and sanity. At one point she says “I feel imprisoned…surrounded by black-faced guards”. The sheer irony of this statement is almost comical-she’s one step away from empathy, but can’t make the connection. Nettles has a complex and unpleasant role in the story, but she tells it as gracefully as she can.
Throughout the movie, Harriet is guided by visions from God, warning her of danger and guiding her path. Around 37 minutes in, Harriet describes a traumatic head injury in her teens that brought on the visions and sleeping spells, simply saying “[The] hole in my head made God’s voice more clear”. The strong spiritual guidance is also shown through characters singing spirituals and using them as code. A particularly touching scene is when Harriet bids her mother goodbye through song.
But of course the shining jewel of the film score is “Stand Up”, performed as Erivo‘s solo. The song is an anthem for uplifting communities, and the unstoppable vocals were robbed of the Best Song award at the 2020 Oscars.
In regards to rating, the film is rated PG-13, mainly for language and moderate violence. The “N-word” is used often, along with several punches, hits, and other abuses to African-American characters. One character is killed onscreen by a kick to the neck, and guns are fired often.
Overall I give this movie 12/10, because I’ve given 10/10 before and this movie surpasses all others. The depth of storytelling is unparalleled, and the actors show respect and reverence for their roles. Mr. Blanchard’s score is a lovely blend of spiritual and “action movie”, underscoring the truth of the narrative. I recommend this for anyone who has limited knowledge of Harriet Tubman and wants to know more of her history and context.