‘Harriet’: an inspirational woman and lackluster film

by Ayumi Davis / News Editor  

Photo courtesy of Greensboro.

The most renowned conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, finally had her inspiring story told on the big screen in the recently released film “Harriet.” The movie, directed by the celebrated Kasi Lemmons, does justice to Tubman’s achievements, and highlights the ways in which Tubman helped both her own family and other slaves to freedom.

“Harriet” was a compelling story to see transformed into a work of cinema. Cynthia Erivo does a great job of bringing Tubman to life on the big screen, relaying thoughtful monologues that portrayed her personal struggles and the adversity of fellow African Americans, both enslaved and free. Erivo gives a gripping showcase of Tubman’s steely bravery and resilience in the struggle to free fellow slaves. 

A personal favorite character of mine is her father Ben Ross, played by Clarke Peters. Peters perfectly embodies unconditional familial love, his character being the glue that connects Harriet with her family regardless of the distance. He also provides some of the lighter moments on the screen, despite the heavy tone that accompanies stories of slavery.

At the same time, “Harriet” seemed a bit watered down in its portrayal of the turmoils of African American people as they suffered through enslavement, racism and other brutalities. Much of the interactions between Harriet and Gideon Brodess, the fictional son of Edward Brodess, while tense, seemed like they would have not gone over as smoothly in real life. The director seemed to focus more on the character development of Tubman herself as she worked to rescue slaves. So while the film lacked historical accuracy by glazing over the very real violence of this time period, it did create a strong narrative surrounding Tubman’s story through her personal growth.

Photo courtesy of The Wrap.

The film also seemed to suggest that a significant reason as to why Tubman was able to get so many slaves to safety was due to her seemingly magical connection with God, a connection that she had been receiving ever since she was hit in the head as a child. These “spells” (Tubman received seizures, headaches, narcoleptic episodes and intense dream states from the injury) allowed her to foresee future things and sense danger, “God warning her,” she even says at one point throughout the film. 

What this does, though, is take away from the credibility of her accomplishments. Tubman’s spells are framed in such a way that it seems almost whimsical that she was able to do such a daunting task. Thus, “Harriet” creates a narrative that without the help of God, none of her accomplishments would be possible. 

It is established that Tubman was strong in her convictions, as she would repeatedly sneak into Southern states despite the obvious dangers. But in this narrative, Tubman’s personal drive has nothing to do with her triumphs. Thus, to base the evasion of dangers and such on “spells” from God, seems to undersells Tubman’s smarts and conviction. 

Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

“Harriet” also offers an intriguing contrast of views between Tubman, the runaway slaves and William Still and Marie Buchanon, played by Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe. Both Still and Buchanon provide a perspective of African Americans who were raised as free citizens. Because of this, viewers are able to see views clash between Buchanon, Still and Tubman. Tubman being born and raised in slavery, knew of the horrors and cruelties firsthand, whereas Still and Buchanon only heard stories of slavery from afar. Thus, Tubman’s raw initiative to take risks worked to show the inherent differences set in experiences between a person raised in the South and people raised as free citizens in the North. 

Compelling montages take up a significant portion of the cinematography, and show enslaved people escaping in the dead of night as stowaways on boats and carts—each led by Tubman. These scenes offered a glimpse into some of the harsh realities that runaway slaves had to face in order to reach the border of free states.

Although it’s far from perfect, “Harriet” is a compelling story of Tubman’s life, shows how she was able to change the tides in the abolitionist movement as a woman living in such a dark period of U.S. history. 

6.5 out of 10 torches.



Categories: Arts & Entertainment

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