Be Free or Die: a 'Harriet’ Film Review
by Will Lindus
When most people think of Harriet Tubman, the image that the mind conjures is that of an elderly, stately black woman in a kerchief, sitting and poised, wrapped both in her shawl and in the weight of her life’s legacy. We’ve seen these photos; we’ve celebrated her instrumental role in the Underground Railroad, and we’ve lobbied to have her visage appear on our currency. Her name is one of the most recognizable in American history, but the fascinating and heroic sharp edges of her life have been sanded away by history books and by time. In her life, she experienced pain, loss, triumph, war, and freedom, the perfect ingredients for a compelling biopic, which makes it all the more baffling that we haven’t had a feature film exploring the details of her life until this year.
Director Kasi Lemmons tackles Harriet as equal parts historical scholar and dramatic filmmaker, exploring the nooks and crannies of Harriet Tubman’s fascinating life to find the story beats that don’t jive with stoic image of the seated woman. The film begins with Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), under her slave name Minty, working on the Brodess plantation in Maryland. Like many slaves, she suffered extreme beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors, most notably a traumatic head wound that caused her to experience hallucinations and visions that she interpreted as messages directly from God. Despite her captivity and her abuse, she finds joy in the love she shares with her husband John, a black man born free from captivity, whom she longs to join in freedom one day so that they may start a family. The Brodess clan, however, balks at the sheer audacity of the idea. Soon, Minty finds herself in a position where she is about to be sold ‘down river,’ sent further South and even further from her freedom.
So, she runs.
Through sheer tenacity and a little help from some kind people along the way, as well as via guidance from her connection with God, she makes the perilous trek solo to Philadelphia where she meets chairman of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society William Still (Leslie Odom Jr) and business owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). There, she chooses Harriet Tubman as her free name, and spends the next year enjoying a life of freedom in the North. However, the pangs from leaving her husband and her family behind gnaw at her, and against the wishes of Still, Tubman heads back to Maryland to free her family, and in the process, becomes a liberator, a fighter, a scrappy visionary, and a war hero.
This image of a young Tubman with gun in hand, the phrase ‘be free or die’ seared on her heart, facing death with each of her journeys into slave territory as she takes up her role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad feels at odds with the image of elderly Tubman I evoked earlier. We sanitize our histories, turning our firebrands into statesmen and our warriors into declawed idealists. It is through Lemmons’s research and attention to the true details of Tubman’s life, mined for maximum narrative and dramatic effect, that ‘Harriet’ finds its most sincere strengths. The use of the songs of the Underground Railroad as a means of communicating escape routes and plans amongst the slaves is a great example of this; these songs are historically accurate, true, but they also allow moments of beauty to permeate the terrifying and tension-wrought moments of each escape attempt.
Cynthia Erivo is a revelation as Tubman, finding moments of austerity in her performance. She finds dignity in Tubman, but also fire and grit. For the first time, I saw Tubman not only as an icon, but as the passionate fighter that made her an icon. While the supporting cast is solid - special attention should be paid to Leslie Odom Jr.’s ability to find light and humor in the margins of this serious tale and in Joe Alwyn’s ability to come across as a truly detestable villain as slaver Gideon Brodess - it is Erivo who stands above the rest, carrying tremendous dramatic heft on her shoulders.
Despite all of these exceptional traits, however, the film still struggles to support its own weight. There is a balance to be found in historical accuracy and in dramatic story-telling techniques, and Harriet leans more towards the former at the expense of the latter. The result is a film that feels made with sincerity and love, but which is presented using the standard tropes of the historical biopic. Because of this, the story beats lack the punch that this story demands, and the scenes don’t evoke quite the emotionality that the performances strive for. Some of this comes from the familiarity of the story telling techniques themselves, some of it comes from the mostly traditional shot compositions that are employed, and some from a few odd editing choices which make certain sections of the film accelerate too briskly for the audience to grasp on to.
Assessing Harriet requires looking at the film from a few different, competing angles. Viewed from a structural or technical perspective, it is a film whose performances are stronger than the canvas upon which they are painted. When viewed as a commodity, a mass produced piece of entertainment that requires consumers to choose whether or not it is worth their money, it may struggle to find an audience, especially in this heavily saturated ‘prestige film’ season. But when viewed as a love letter and as a testament to an important powerful figure, it doesn’t just shine - it radiates.
Bottom Line: I’ve seen some critiques of Harriet say that the film will work better as an educational tool in schools than as a major theatrical release. I don’t disagree with this sentiment, but I don’t see it with quite the negative connotation with which it is intended. Harriet serves to clear the veneer off of Harriet Tubman’s historical legacy, and reminds us not just that she is important, but also why she is important. And with the amount of revisionist history that often occurs in public education for the sake of making history palatable, I think any school that adopts this film as part of its curriculum would be doing its students a service. As a cinematic experience, it struggles. As a portrait of a courageous human being, it is serviceable. But as an educational tool, it might just be invaluable.
3 out of 5 Bear Paws