Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons, is a conventionally made biopic of a supremely unconventional and inspirational woman, Harriet Tubman, taking her life story from slave to fearless abolitionist and conductor on the underground railroad to freedom.
All Aboardby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Born Araminta Ross into slavery on a plantation in Maryland in the 19th century, Harriet’s (Cynthia Erivo) desire for freedom was so strong when her master denied the legal manumission that she was due she escaped and made her way on her own across country to Philadelphia, where slavery had been abolished. She was mercilessly pursued by his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn). Safe there at last, she chose her freedom name of Harriet Tubman.
But not content with achieving her own freedom in her early twenties, even with a price on her head as an escaped slave, at great personal risk she returned several times to rescue members of her family and others.
She became a legendary ‘conductor’ on the underground railroad – the network of abolitionists, Quakers and freed slaves that helped slaves escape from the slave-owning states in the south to freedom in the north. She was brave, audacious, fearless even in her trips back and forth across the border, and she saved many hundreds of slaves.
What’s more she never got caught and she never lost any. Some of her trips were made in disguise, as a man (Moses) or a free woman, and her exploits were so bold that enraged slave owners refused to believe that they were undertaken by a woman.
Cynthia Erivo is perfectly cast as tiny Harriet, who believes her successes are guided by God, and who finds the strength within herself to overcome unimaginable obstacles and dangers. As a fierce, gun-toting activist, she even became a guerilla leader in the Civil War. Clarke Peters is her kindly father, who first helps her on her way and Leslie Odom Jr. is historical figure William Still, the Philadelphia-based freed slave who was influential in the running of the railroad. Lemmons’ husband Vondie Curtis-Hall is Reverend Green, another of the links in the chain. In Philadelpia, boarding house owner and free woman Marie (Janelle Monáe) opens Harriet’s eyes to what’s possible to achieve in the world as a free woman.
Harriet is a thriller, an adventure and almost a superhero movie at times. When escaping slaves are being hunted down or trying subterfuge to cross boundaries, the fear and tension is unbearable. It’s an inspirational story of a woman who became a national hero as an abolitionist and later a fighter for women’s rights – it was mooted by Obama’s government to have her image on a $20 bill but the decision was delayed by the Trump administration this year – but as the film shows, it was at great personal cost.
Harriet is worthily, historically accurate but will also prompt you to the history books to fill in the rest of the story. It differs from other ‘slavery’ films in showing, not the acceptance of it as an evil, but the people, not just a person, who actively opposed it and fought to overturn it. As we know, they were right and in the end they won. After she ceased her righteous forays, Harriet lived on in New York State, always an activist, and died at a great age as recently as 1913.
Harriet premiered at Sundance, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 22 November 2019 in the UK.