*“Harriet,” which will open in theaters this Friday, November 1, and is directed by Kasi Lemmons and stars British actress Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, tells the powerful story of the Underground Railroad Conductor, abolitionist and former slave.
In 1849, when she was known as Araminta (Minty) Ross and faced with being sold and moved off the plantation she had known since birth, Minty decided it was time for her to, “be free or die.” She escaped to freedom in the North, leaving her husband and other family members behind and traveling 100 miles through trees and forestry that would have the average person, or me at least, going around in circles.
Unlike the navigation and geographically challenged, Minty reached Philadelphia and freedom, where she adopted the name Harriet Tubman, in honor of her mother (Harriet) and husband (John Tubman). After being in Philadelphia for a while, she decided to go back to Maryland and free her husband, which went a tad South; however, she was able to help other family members escape to freedom. Harriet Tubman made several more return trips and freed 70 slaves.
The above synopsis should not have told you anything that you did not already know about Harriet Tubman. Unfortunately, many of our African American children and sadly some adults as well, do not know our history and cannot tell you much, if anything, about Harriet Tubman. For that reason alone, “Harriet” is a film that needed to be made.
The acting by this ensemble cast was top-notch, as evidenced by the fact that I was uncomfortable watching it. The film is not as graphic as some slavery films; however, the language was enough to cause me angst. In addition to Cynthia Erivo, who is very talented and convincing in her portrayal of Harriet Tubman and showed the strength that Harriet needed to complete the many journeys in her life, the film also includes Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae, as William Still and Marie Buchanon respectively, free slaves in Philadelphia.
Although their screen time was limited, I enjoyed the regalness of their characters. On the downside, even though they were free, the fact that they were black was not lost on anyone and they were still disrespected. One scene with Janelle Monae was hard to watch.
Joe Alwyn played Gideon Brodess, the slave owner’s son, who at times seemed torn between his affection for the slave girl he grew up with and his position as the new person in charge after his father died. Vanessa Bell Calloway and Clarke Peters played Rit and Ben Ross, Minty’s parents and Vondie Curtis-Hall played Reverend Green. Jennifer Nettles played Eliza Brodess, the lady of the plantation. I hated Eliza, so that means Jennifer did a good job, as did all the rest of the cast.
I enjoyed the runaway scenes. The strength, faith, tenacity and resourcefulness rang through loud and clear. Harriet was a woman on a mission; several missions actually and she had no problem showing what she was capable of, when told what she could not do, even if she had to show people at gunpoint.
Director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “The Caveman’s Valentine” and “Talk to Me”) had a lot of information to work with, which I believe proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Harriet Tubman was born in 1822, escaped in 1849 and died in 1913. During her 91 years of life, so much went on, that obviously and understandably, it was impossible to tell her entire story in a big-screen setting.
Because Harriet Tubman had such a long, full and adventurous life, there were parts of her life I thought could have been fleshed out more, to make it more personal, but time did not allow it. She had a younger sister that was sold off and we only saw her in one of Harriet’s visions (spells) she had because of having had her head split open as a young teenager.
She had another sister that we saw only briefly. Harriet remarried later in life, but the movie did not show it. None of her personal interactions were developed enough to get a real sense of any softer side, for lack of a better word. I enjoyed the film as a vital part of telling our African American history. I feel it is something that should be, but probably will not be, shown in schools.
Although I enjoyed “Harriet,” there was so much to Harriet Tubman and she was such an important figure in history, I personally believe this story would have worked better as a miniseries, so more information could have been shared, but do not let that stop you. It is definitely worth seeing. Check it out for yourself when it comes out on Friday, November 1.
Marilyn Smith is a Los Angeles based writer/reviewer. Contact her via [email protected].