We’re so used to our historical figures, our Great Men, requiring a bit of grading-on-a-curve. “Oh, we must forgive So-and-So for that aspect of his life and work, times were different then.” “No, we must not judge Whatshisname by today’s understanding of morality, that’s simply the way things were back in the day.” And yet we still continue to celebrate them and insist upon their importance and mythologize their words and deeds.
Meanwhile, one of the great true heroes of American history — someone who needs no justifying or qualifying — has been all but ignored by pop culture, and hence all but left out of the collective American imagination. Perhaps because what she fought for is a grand cause — the physical and existential battle for autonomy, agency, and basic humanity of African-Americans — that is not yet fully won. Perhaps the fact that everything that Harriet Tubman stood for and continues to symbolize still resonates on so many levels today is — for some, for our cultural gatekeepers — too harsh a reminder that the ugly past is not yet past. (All the more reason to honor her and remember her, you’d think. The inspiration she offers continues to be very necessary.)
Or perhaps it’s “merely” because she was a woman. And black. Perhaps that’s enough — for some — to pretend her story and her legacy don’t really matter. For if we — the big We — were to acknowledge her as a Great Woman, where would it stop? What if there were other Great Women who also must be acknowledged? Why, the White Man might lose his “rightful” central role in the American saga!
Anyway, you’d have thought that Hollywood, at least, mightn’t have taken so damn long to see that Tubman’s undeniable, irrefutable heroics are, if nothing else, excellent fodder for big-screen entertainment. Tubman was badass by any measure, but certainly by the action-adventure one: She rescued herself from slavery in 1850s Maryland with a treacherous journey north! She risked her liberty and her very life sneaking back into the South to bring others to freedom! She worked as a gol-durned spy for the Union Army during the Civil War! This is the stuff of bold, visual storytelling.
And it’s all here because now, finally!, director and cowriter (with Gregory Allen Howard) Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me) has blessed us with the Tubman origin story. “Origin story” is just the right sort of cinematic introduction Tubman needs to slide her into the epic American narrative. Harriet is solid, conventional filmmaking with a broad sweep, a big-picture overview (no pun intended) that finds a deeply satisfying balance among the contradictory currents of Tubman’s life. The film does not deny the horrific facts of slavery, but this is primarily an entertaining movie-movie experience, one that succeeds in acknowledging Tubman as a vulnerable, flawed human woman while also embracing her towering legend and the profound power of what she symbolizes.
As Tubman, Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale, Widows) is an immense presence, deeply engaging and incredibly empathetic; the Broadway musical star even gets to do a bit of singing onscreen. Lemmons and Erivo handle Tubman’s “superpower” — she thought God spoke to her in a very practical way, literally guiding her in her dangerous work to avoid capture — with a smart plausible deniability that allows for whatever interpretation feels best to you. If you want to accept the supernatural, that works, but if, like me, it feels more right to see her seeming precognition as simply sharp instinct and insight, well, that works too.
Harriet is a movie of an undeniable mainstream appeal — this is no stodgy costume drama or dry history lesson. But it also does rectify what may be some misunderstandings about the era. There are no white saviors here: Harriet centers black Americans in the antislavery movement, and on the underground railroad that helped slaves escape, which is how it was. It accurately depicts some black Americans as relatively wealthy and in positions of some authority, at least among other black people, such as Janelle Monáe (Welcome to Marwen, Hidden Figures) as the proprietor of the boarding house that becomes Tubman’s first home as a free woman.
That mainstream appeal is so very necessary, and not only to put a confused record straight. I recently met an American — and not a young person in whom such ignorance might not be unexpected — who had never before heard of Harriet Tubman until this movie crossed her radar. This is criminal… and as is the way of origin stories, we can hope that Harriet is just the beginning of the tales we tell about her, to begin to smash our pop-cultural ignorance. My one complaint about the film: not enough spy stuff! There could be a whole movie about just her career as a spy in the Civil War. We — movie lovers and proud Americans alike — absolutely need that sequel.
viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival