A major movie on Harriet Tubman is long overdue, and for all of its faults, this biopic “Harriet,” is more important than “Black Panther” or “Captain Marvel.” Why go for an imaginary superhero, when there’s a real one?
One of the key points of this Focus Films production is the casting of the petite Cynthia Erivo. The British singer won a Tony for her portrayal of Celie in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple” as well as a Grammy for the Best Musical Theater album. Last year she was in the heist film, “Widows,” and the satirical thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale.”
The movie “Harriet,” begins on a bittersweet note. In Gregory Allen Howard and director Kai Lemmons’ script, the slaves are listening to a black preacher Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall) use the Bible to justify slavery and encourage obedience under the watchful eye of the slave owners, Edward (Michael Marunded), his wife, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles) and their son Gideon (Joe Alwyn). You can pick and choose from the Bible and most holy books and pervert sacred texts. Remember that the KKK consider themselves Christian knights. For them, racism is part of their religious beliefs.
As an enslaved person, Tubman is known as Araminta or “Minty” (née Ross) and by the time the film starts, she was already married to freeman John Tubman. Her father, Ben Ross (Clarke Peters), was promised and given manumit (freedom) by his owner.
Through a white lawyer Tubman’s family has hired, her family learns that Rit , Harriet’s mother, was supposed to be set free when she turned 45 and her children born after that should have been born free, but the dead man’s will was ignored. Their current owners Brodess family plans to keep the family enslaved. Freedom seems even more like a hallucinatory promise if freedom promised can be so easily ignored. An angered Minty prays for justice and Edward dies. As the estate is being settled, Minty, who suffered a head injury as a child that gives her visions, soon determines the time to escape is now.
When Tubman decides to run, she sends a message via song to her mother and leaves her husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momot), fearing that if they were captured, he’d either lose his freedom or be killed. That doesn’t prevent her husband from being severely beaten when Gideon pursues her. Caught between two packs of the posse on a strategic bridge, Minty decides she’s facing a choice of freedom or death and takes a plunge into a river. She’s believed dead, but with the help of Reverend Green and a few kind strangers, she does makes what might have seemed an impossible journey from Maryland to the free state of Pennsylvania, basking in the warm glow of freedom, a moment that Terence Blanchard’s score marks with euphoria. Who wouldn’t rejoice at being free before the realities of her new life begin?
In Philadelphia, she meets a free black man, William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who records her information, encourages her to choose a new name to commemorate her freedom. That’s when she becomes Harriet Tubman. He finds her a place to stay with the saucy free-born Marie (Janelle Monáe). Marie helps her learn the ways of being free and acting free as well as finding her work. But she’s working alone, cut off from her family. She longs for her husband, sending him message through black men who work the trade routes. Finally she leaves to fetch him, carrying a new suit she bought for him. Once back home, she finds he doesn’t want to leave. He’s remarried and has a family.
Tubman finds a new purpose. With the help of the black reverend she takes other slaves to freedom, stunning Still (often played for laughs), but also bringing her both new admirers (like Henry Hunter Hall as the Wiley Walter who changes side when he witnesses Tubman having a vision) and new opponents, including some legal ones like the Fugitive Slave Act. Like “Underground,” “Harriet” doesn’t forget that black people played both sides, sometimes helping to drag escaped slaves back into servitude.
Slavery also was a burden for the free black people who could be beaten and even murdered or dragged into slavery. As an origin story, “Harriet” is a bit too reverent and Blanchard’s score manipulates us, signaling when something goodly and godly has occurred. That’s mitigated by Erivo’s passionate and complex portrayal of Harriet who faces disappointment and possible death with a determination forged by love and faith. The film portrays the singing of songs to relay messages across the fields and casting a singer brings conviction to these parts of the score (Erivo was also cast as a singer in “Bad Times at the El Royale.”).
Lemmons and Howard can’t resist having a showdown and serving out comeuppance. One supposes that’s for closure and a sense of justice, but it seems highly unlikely in real life. “Harriet” does take the time to remind us of all that Tubman achieved in real life, including leading men into battle during the Civil War in an ending montage.
Harriet Tubman was also portrayed with bold swagger in the WGN America television program “Underground” (2016-2017) by Aisha Hinds during the second and last season. Hinds is 5-foot-7 and, in heels, nearly six-foot. Hinds and Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson are the same height. The average height of an American woman is only 5-foot-4. I am well under that at 4-foot-11.
The petite Erivo just over five-foot tall. Harriet Tubman was, according to National Geographic, only five foot two. Particularly in an era where the president uses the adjective “little” as a pejorative, size matters. Having stood next to both Erivo and Hinds, I felt the impact of their differing heights. Hinds easily can dominate a room in her height enhanced heels. Erivo, who is close to my height yet still taller, must depend upon heels to bring her up to an average height and personality to sell herself. Think of what that meant to an illiterate slave in the South, a world where hard labor in the fields was highly prized. Undoubtedly, people underestimated Tubman because of her height and her color.
After hearing Erivo talk and standing next to her, I felt a bit betrayed by “Underground” and its casting decisions. If representation matters, it matters that a petite woman could stand tall and have such a tremendous impact on history. We already have the phrase “Napoleon complex” as a pejorative and yet Napoleon Bonaparte was about 5-foot-6–about average height for the time. He was tall compared to an equally famous French figure: the 5-foot-2 Joan of Arc.
The petite Cicely Tyson played Tubman in a miniseries, “A Woman Called Moses,” but that was in 1978. Another treatment is long overdue because Tubman’s life is one of great courage and adventure that continued during the American Civil War and after. One movie could not possibly cover it all. Until another miniseries airs, “Harriet” gives us a heroine who overcame disability and put her life on the line for family. She was a small woman of great faith who led people out of slavery, first in free states and later in Canada, leaving communities in two nations in her debt.
For information about history versus “Harriet” the movie, read this Smithsonian article.