It’s remarkable that the feats of Harriet Tubman, former slave-turned-civil-rights-activist, is a story that’s not been told in film before. A woman who became an abolitionist in the lead up to the American Civil War in 1861, the first woman to lead an armed regiment in US history, and who selflessly saved nearly 1000 slaves, is a role model for a feminist era.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet boasts a powerful lineup with Cynthia Erivo in the titular role, opposite Joe Alwyn as slave owner Gideon and a whole host of talented performers including Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr. and Clarke Peters. Not only that, but the strong, female-led performance isn’t fabricated for the cameras: it’s a defying-all-odds true story. However, in cinematic boundaries it lacks the brutality of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and so errs on the side of a little too neat.
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Release date: September 10, 2019 (TIFF); October 11, 2019 (LFF)
Araminta Ross, otherwise known as Minty, has lived her whole life in slavery. Married to John, a free black man in the same village, she wants to start a family. With the backing of lawyers, she petitions her master to let any children she might have to go free.
This is the start of the misfortune for Minty. Her owner is brutal enough to refuse and, what’s more, to declare that her entire family from here on out will be the property of his family as long as the line continues. Minty realises she has to make a move, so she goes on the run. Leaving behind her husband for fear that his status as a free man could be stripped if he goes on the run, she miraculously makes the 100-mile journey alone to Philadelphia, where slavery is illegal.
Ensuring her safety by seeking out the local anti-slavery railroad movement, Minty finds a safe haven and changes her name to Harriet Tubman. She finds lodging with the wealthy, free woman Marie (Janelle Monáe), though her discomfort at finally being treated like a free woman is palpable. I, too, feared for her safety — it seemed a little too easy and I wondered if she might have accidentally been steered towards a brothel and would be forced into sex slavery: a very viable risk. But Marie in fact turns out to be a genuine, kind benefactor (if disassociated from Harriet’s previous life) and her home, innocuous. Perhaps that’s the difference between a PG-13 and an R-rated film.
Even after she’s been free for a year, she feels that something isn’t right and still pines for her family. Throughout the film, she has inexplicable flashbacks, the source of which are revealed later on. Trusting her instincts and following what she describes as the voice of God, Harriet risks everything to return to her family.
The aesthetic is reminiscent of Daughters of the Dust, a film set 40 or so years after the events of Harriet, which focuses on the cultural dissonance as three black women landing on the US mainland. Though her spirituality isn’t looked on so kindly by everyone: William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) hears her explanation of a head injury as a child as the cause of her flashbacks, and notes it down as “possible brain damage”, in a half-funny, half-serious turn.
Negro cultural heritage is something explored at length here and the use of spiritual songs is a recurring motif that identifies characters and contributes to a sense of solidarity. Under the pseudonym Moses and the guise of a man, she progresses to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom. Allusions to Biblical characters are abundant and her inherent spirituality is an important part of the film. Harriet’s ties with her family are strong: whether it’s the memory of her sold sisters, the drive to save her brothers and parents, or the attempt to rescue her young nieces and nephews, her entire mission revolves around her loyalty to family.
The slave/owner trope was subverted, as Harriet has a complex relationship with her former slave owner, a cruel man by the name of Gideon (Joe Alwyn). From an initial conversation we learn that they grew up together and were close friends, but that the prejudices of the family meant that Gideon became more vindictive every day. Even as a child he began to show the traits of a privileged upbringing and began to act accordingly towards Harriet.
I would have expected him to act more severely earlier on in the picture, but the film needed to be suitable for a wider audience. Not only that, but in the Q&A with the film’s director and cast, Alwyn explained that, to prepare for the role, he tried to find the humanity in an extremely unsympathetic character. It’s difficult to portray someone with such a completely different worldview, but we get the essence of an amoral human being.
Additionally, in the Q&A director Kasi Lemmons explained the difficult filming conditions the team faced. Shot during the fall and winter of 2018 and largely at night, the film included sequences where actors had to swim through a lake to safety. The mist on the water is a real representation of the 37â„‰° (2â„ƒ) temperature, yet the actors all took in as high spirits as they could. “When we think about the fact that we could go back to a van and coats after shooting, but in real life this was all they had — it was very motivating.”
There were audible laughs, gasps and cheers in the audience on the night of the premiere. With the clear polarisation of good and bad, it was an experience comparable to the earliest days of cinema, where films were intended to bring together an audience in common cause. Harriet is concerned with the character’s journey, and although it sometimes felt a little too diluted for a film dealing with such a mature topic, the film will definitely find a widespread audience owing to the fact that Tubman’s story hasn’t been told in cinema before.