Focus Features 2019 125 min. PG-13
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard & Kasi Lemmons
Cinematography: John Toll; Editing: Wyatt Smith; Production Design: Warren Alan Young; Art Direction: Kevin Hardison & Christina Eunji Kim; Costumes: Paul Tazewell; Score: Terence Blanchard
Stars: Cynthia Erivo (Harriet Tubman), Leslie Odom, Jr. (William Still), Janelle Monáe (Marie Buchanon), Joe Alwyn (Gideon Brodess), Henry Hunter Hall (Walter), Clarke Peters (Ben Ross), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Rit Ross), Omar J. Dorsey (Bigger Long), Zackary Momoh (John Tubman), Jennifer Nettles (Eliza Brodess), Rakeem Laws (Jasper Marley), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Reverend Samuel Green), Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde (Rachel Ross), Joseph Lee Anderson (Robert Ross), Tim Guinee (Thomas Garrett), Kathryn Tkel (Tilly)
There’s always something dispiriting about going to see a biopic about an august and esteemed Great Personage. I think our reservations have less to do with the typically tepid and conservative filmmaking approach (adopted out of fear of insulting any persons, living or dead), than the inevitable attempt to ennoble the subject, and by doing so justify all the time, research and money invested. Placing Harriet in context with other, similarly painful movie going experiences like 12 Years a Slave and 2016’s The Birth of a Nation or Free State of Jones, we go to the theater dragging our feet, and sit through them because we think we should. Watching such fare is good for us, the critics say, like eating our veggies. We rarely see a movie about a historical rotter, though more than likely it’d be more fun.I imagine people are being drawn to Harriet, director Kasi Lemmons biopic of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), who escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1849, and shepherded seventy other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad during the decades leading up to the Civil War, out of deference to the subject matter in this same dutiful way, rather than in hopes of a genuinely fulfilling movie going experience. Since the trailer made it seem lodged somewhere between the outlandish and austere, I too went expecting a conventional movie bio from Harriet, expectations to which it conforms for about three quarters of the way through. Then something strange happens. The movie slowly, nearly imperceptibly, glamours into a revisionist return to blaxploitation cinema of the ‘70s, distorting and transforming itself into a race-revenge, wish-fulfillment fantasy about black self-empowerment, like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.Along the way to this fabled fantasyland however, viewers will encounter passages that are quite grounded. We can’t help but feel a twinge of recognition when Harriet’s sisters are sold off, in a heartrending scene intended to recall the similar one from Spielberg’s The Color Purple, where Celie and her sister were similarly torn asunder. And these passing imprints of how slavery decimated black lives through the institutionalized practice of enforced family separation, are equally intended to evoke more current political events perpetrated along the Mexican-American border, suggesting how little the country has come, and how far her moral standards have fallen.
Director Lemmons has proven herself an erratic talent over the years, ranging from the heights of her acclaimed art house hit Eve’s Bayou in 1997, to far more conventional fare (laymen may recall her most clearly from her early acting days, perhaps her high-profile mainstream part as Jodi Foster’s bff at the FBI Academy in The Silence of the Lambs). But her creative spirit is generally in the right place, and she’s worked wonders with some of the most taken for granted black actors in the business, drawing highly admired work from such talents as Don Cheadle, Debbi Morgan, Tamara Tunie, among others. So Lemmons would seem the perfect guiding hand to have shepherded Cynthia Erivo through her first starring screen lead here.But Tony-winner Erivo, a powerhouse performer, has been largely subdued as Harriet, suggesting her acting may work best from a distance, when she’s afforded the opportunity to project to the back row, since she rose to fame onstage for the role of Celie in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. Meaning all the emotional echoes of the Spielberg opus here are no mere coincidence, but rather shrewdly employed to segue the actress smoothly between one medium and the other. As re-conceived for Harriet, the throughline for our heroine from passive victimization to assertive self-realization remains almost entirely the same as it was for Celie.
Only Erivo’s Harriet is a much fierier agent of change from the outset than the Celie character initially seemed. Rather than waiting for her relatives to return for instance, she actively hunts them down in exciting passages of action and derring-do, more akin to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones (even their iconic sable fedoras resemble one another). When Enrivo rises from that riverbank after taking her flying leap off a bridge, an Amazonian superwoman with hair disheveled and dress artistically torn, she suddenly resembles the heroine in some bodice-ripping romance novel, following the river to safety as she’d been advised to, another Mary Ingles escaping her bonds.Her mentoring relationship with the Janelle Monáe character, Marie Buchanon, who hovers about to provide supplementary, proto-feminist speeches of self-empowerment (“Harriet you are so far beyond any man I have ever met. So far beyond. What’s a man to a woman touched by God?”), teaching Harriet self-respect, how to shoot a pistol for protection, and to love herself by learning to walk and talk like a regular lady, suggests the similar vibe between Celie and Shug in The Color Purple as well. Hostile at first (Shug told Celie she sure was ugly; freeborn Marie tells Harriet that she smells like the stockyards, following her arduous journey North), they later become loving and mutually supportive.Erivo, who made a strong impression in supporting parts in Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, and HBO’s Stephen King miniseries The Outsider, has a frustratingly closed off face for a film actress, the way Whoopie Goldberg did in her own debut, as though she were hesitant about giving all of herself to the camera which, in Harriet’s case, abused, mistrustful, may work to her advantage. Erivo physically suggests Goldberg at times, with her sharp nose and high cheekbones, at others the performer, who provided the pic’s rousing, Oscar-nominated theme “Stand Up,” calls to mind Jennifer Hudson, who also established herself on the strength of her voice before coming to film. From other angles Erivo is the living image of Issa Rae, and the difficulty one may initially have distinguishing her as an individual talent apart from all these other actresses may just be my way of saying she doesn’t imprint herself as strongly on the mind as one would wish in this role intended to be her big breakout (she was nominated for the Academy Award). So it doesn’t seem so surprising that Monáe, who’s stood out in everything she’s appeared in, from Moonlight to Hidden Figures to Welcome to Marwen, and is slated for her own starring debut in the thriller Antebellum, seems to possess the screen presence Harriet’s leading lady lacks. Better known as a singer herself, Monáe is likewise robbed of half her talent in this straight dramatic part, but she doesn’t seem corseted by the fact the same way Erivo does, rendering another one of her truly special characterizations here. As Harriet, Erivo initially makes the curious mistake of playing the part with a hesitant drawl and wide, scared eyes, like another Celie. Rather than having had her spirit beaten down though, we instead find she was struck as a child by a flying missive intended to hit another fleeing slave, a near-death experience that is meant to have given her ‘the sight.’ Yet it makes no sense that this woman who later became a public speaker was as monosyllabic as initially presented here.
Tubman was never taught to read or write, but later in the film, when Harriet’s meant to have grown as a human being, she’s suddenly blessed with an eloquent silver tongue that seems to spring out of nowhere. Charging freedmen with having become too complacent, forgetting what it means for their brethren to still be in chains, worked like field hands as exploited, unpaid labor, she’s inexplicably surrounded by a complacently nodding crowd of abolitionists who drink in her reproaches appreciatively, as though they weren’t her direct targets.Historians generally struggle to deal objectively with Harriet’s professed visions, which are inclined to be dismissed as either a medical condition triggered by her traumatic brain injury, or the colorful outcropping of a fervent religious imagination. To the moviemakers however, having the sight is meant to make Harriet seem touched by the hand of God, turning her inner eye toward the inspired visions of an Old Testament prophet. She claims the hole in her head from the skull fracture serves to conduct sound, making His voice come through more clearly, like a hearing horn. Having seen her sisters sold downriver before it happened, the eerie accuracy of her predictions, like those of other perplexing seeresses such as Joan of Arc, similarly allow Harriet to lead her own armies, hosts of slaves, to freedom time and again along the Underground Railroad, without ever once getting caught or losing a passenger. A fact all the more remarkable given that her condition causes her to fall over in a dead faint at a moment’s notice, like narcolepsy.The movie however, perhaps not wanting to strain credulity or give too strong an impression of being a film of faith, something directed by Kirk Cameron, actually fails to emphasize Harriet’s visions enough. They don’t appear to manifest themselves until they’re mentioned verbally. So while she keeps claiming she hears God’s voice, we initially assume she’s just being meek and mild, the way charmed people claim to have an angel on their shoulder, guiding their way. We observe Harriet consulting with her higher power, but never Him conversing back, so it seems a one-sided conversation. Since the film takes such a tepid tack toward her claims of divine agency, we don’t know how seriously to take them either, having seen no empirical evidence to validate her assertions. Events never flower into the passions of The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, for instance, complete with visions of the Virgin and choirs of angels on the soundtrack.
While Harriet claims to see and interpret the workings of the Lord, she misinterprets His Word just as frequently, initially believing God sent her back South to retrieve her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), only to find him remarried, believing her dead. Rather than doubting her visions though, she comes to reconcile them, believing that this visitation was simply a pretext, intended to steer her to where she’d be most needed (“God have other plans for me, Mr. Still.”). Her mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) actually mistakes Harriet for the angel of death when she initially returns South, come to reunite her with the daughter she thought drowned, which is just what she’ll do in a sense, just not in the way it’s assumed. And her father (Clarke Peters) wears a bandanna over his eyes when Harriet comes to call, so he can’t later bear witness against her. But he too proves possessed of an inner eye like her own, allowing him to see clearly how things are.Much of the movie has been conceived in terms of religious parable. When Harriet embarks on her journey to freedom for instance, led by the never wavering North Star, images of the three wise men dance in our head. This woman called Moses even devises her own version of crossing the Red Sea, when Harriet practically parts the waters, finding sure footing like a dowsing rod, to lead her followers on a dangerous river crossing. There’s even a Doubting Thomas figure in the person of the squirrelly, fugitive slave chaser Walter, who trades in pieces of silver like Judas before finding his way back to the Lord after observing Harriet’s divine powers. Allowing Henry Hunter Hall, whose coonskin capped bounty hunter is like the wily Br’er Rabbit character from some old Uncle Remus tale, to give the wittiest performance in the picture. But for all this, and despite Harriet leading her people through hostile territory to the Promised Land, the religious imagery isn’t as blatant as it was in the two-part, NBC made-for-TV miniseries of 1978 starring Cicely Tyson, A Woman Called Moses. For instance, this movie never breaks right down and ordains sainthood upon the character in keeping with that name. And it needn’t, because Sunday school scripture is already embedded in the very premise of Tubman’s story, as it was the spirituals and gospels of southern blacks who likened their plight to the Exodus and other biblical events from which they drew strength. With Harriet’s mother claiming their old master is the devil, and the young master claiming Harriet’s praying makes his skin crawl, this is strictly a battle between the furthest extremes of good and evil.This woman who claims to be guided by God, who says she walks with the Lord, walks right across the Mason-Dixon line and into Pennsylvania and freedom. And the way Erivo plays it, in what may be her best scene, emancipation never tasted so sweet. Rather than whooping and hollering and carrying on as one would expect, she’s instead blinded by the awesome light of illumination embodied by the rays of the rising sun she seems to be seeing as if waking from one of her spells for the first time. Freedom has given her newly minted eyes to see clearly. Tubman herself recalled how she checked her hands to make sure she was the same person because her perception of everything around her suddenly seemed so different. Erivo’s performance gives us the benefit of both seeing the old slave-bound Harriet pass over before our eyes while a reincarnated, freed Harriet newly steps into life. And when she re-christens herself to mark the occasion, it seems just as good as being reborn. Much like the collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936 to 1938, a hundred years hence, Leslie Odom, Jr., who originated the role of Aaron Burr in the Broadway cast of Hamilton and plays abolitionist William Still here, takes down the oral history of every escapee who comes to him, preserving them for posterity, and presents them the option of legally changing their name, eschewing the one forcibly bestowed upon them by their masters, allowing them to reclaim a sense of their own identity stripped away during the Middle Passage.
Though the movie tends to skim over the issue, rather than being an amorphous concept, there’s an art in Harriet’s learning to be free after a deferential past being taught to bow and scrape, a total lifestyle adjustment, spiritually and physically. Harriet is the rare film on the subject of slavery (the female driven Beloved was another) to at least take cognizance of the inexorable scars left on one’s psyche by a slave mentality ingrained upon the tabula rasa from birth. Under the mentoring tutelage of Marie, Harriet begins to readjust her entire mental outlook, accepting that she no longer need kowtow to her betters, subsisting in the world as if she ‘has a right to,’ without apology. She becomes her own person, an autonomous agent with a finer sense of self, rather than an extension of her owners.Having made it all the way to the land of milk and honey by herself, with no hand but God’s guiding her, Harriet’s now a woman on a mission who wants to bestow upon others that same precious gift that was given her. So she has a short fuse for advice, however well-intentioned, that forbids her returning South, silencing Still, her husband John (who assures “You won’t make it alone, Minty. Who gonna protect you, you fall in one of them spells?”), her brother Robert (Joseph Lee Anderson), who tries to wrest leadership from her during her second journey North, along with all those other naysayers who would presume to know what’s best, with a fire in her eyes and her words. Her perilous singlehanded feat initiated her as a natural born conductor along the Underground Railroad, and she doesn’t intend to let such God-given talent go to waste.
Passing brethren who remain enslaved, like the shackled blacks at the train station and in a wagon that passes by, her character recalls those moving scenes with Mahershala Ali in Green Book, where his privileged Northern pianist was greeted with a glimpse of how the other half lived, picking cotton in the Deep South as though it were still slave times. Harriet is likewise haunted by the ghosts of her past, the threat of being clapped back in irons, as Morgan Freeman was in his unsurpassed, haunting passage in Amistad, where he was overcome by the ancestral memory of his forebears’ suffering, the echoes of centuries of clanking chains washing over him in the dark hold of an abandoned slave ship.What’s intriguing is that the peculiar institution is here being directly correlated with a state of female subjugation, with Harriet’s journey from slavery to freedom intended to mirror her similar progression from battered and oppressed to fully liberated woman, much the same way Celie’s feminist consciousness was raised over the course of The Color Purple. Having affected her own emancipation from slavery, Harriet now desires to be liberated from other forms of sexual oppression as well. And the more the character vocally embraces her nascent freedom, the more alive she seems, allowing audiences to warm to Erivo in the part.Harriet’s husband is a freeman from the outset, making him feel entangled and tied down with a wife still bound to the land. Unable to leave the plantation of her own accord, he’s shackled by a literal ball and chain, much as her freed father is forced to live both away from his wife, yet near enough for regular conjugal visits. While Harriet’s husband doesn’t become abusive, as the character did in the TV movie, over a situation he sees as still enslaving him, claiming he would’ve died for his wife if she’d let him, we can’t help wondering if he doesn’t actually find it a relief when, believing her dead, he’s freed to remarry an emancipated woman of his own standing. As his wife gathers, “John didn’t want my babies. Couldn’t bear the thought of them growing up being slaves.” Harriet reveals she prayed every night to make her strong enough so that she would never belong to anyone ever again, and the inference is that she too sees marriage in a similar light, a compulsory form of husbandry and, as such, a further means of bondage.
A deep-seated animosity exists between Harriet and her former master, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn resembles an angry Cheshire cat toying with a mouse here), who believes he still owns her, body and soul. Unfortunately, their relationship isn’t clearly elucidated by the script, with things left so vague I wasn’t certain initially if Gideon had secretly killed his own father on her behalf, like at the end of Mudbound, after he refused to grant her freedom. Instead, after claiming God doesn’t listen to the prayers of slaves, he’s begun to secretly suspect that Harriet really has the sight she claims, such a spooky hold over life and death that He answered her prayer to kill his father. It forges an unsteady truce between them, similar to the way white fears of Haitian voodoo maintained a balance of power between master and slave in the Caribbean Isles, raising our own suspicions further when Harriet’s father gives her a wooden effigy of himself that, for all the world, resembles a shrunken-head talisman. Gideon’s unspoken dread makes it seem that much more imperative for him to sale Harriet off, lest she put the roots on him next. But while he’s all set to list her at auction, he can’t abide the fact that she runs off from him before he gets the chance.
In assessing her powerful hold over him, Gideon claims that he was always spellbound by the wild and unruly nature in her, seeing in Harriet traces of her primitive African ancestry, rousing the inner animal of this presumed Southern gentleman. She nursed him, staying by his sickbed when he hovered near death from typhoid as a boy, and he’s come to depend on her presence ever since in a strange and perverse way, almost like a fetish, a good luck charm similar to the one she carries about, staving off calamity. Reminding her she’s been there all his life, like her mama was his daddy’s, Gideon behaves as though their master/slave relationship, abusive and dysfunctional as it is, were an unconsecrated marriage by primo nocte. Meaning he sees Harriet’s running away as a personal desertion of him and a betrayal of their nuptial bond, an alienation of affections. As he snarls “… having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You can feed it, you can play with it, give it a name. One day you might have to eat it or sell it. You know it and the pig knows it. And if you have to sell it, there’s no more guilt than separating piglets. And if you have to eat it, you’ll forget its name.” Yet he impulsively shoots the slave catcher he’s hired, Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey), when he attempts to bring Harriet in dead, rather than alive.
But since her old master Edward Brodess (Michael Munde), after reassessing the financial burden on his household (“You think Daddy would just let you all go free — damn near half his property — just like that?”), broke the sacred promise his grandfather made to free her mother and all her descendants, Harriet has a perfectly legal right to declare her independence as she sees it, even procuring judicial advice to depose her owners on the fact. So her running away seems justified by jurisprudence, as much as a moral repudiation of slavery itself. While Harriet’s final confrontation with Gideon primes us for violent retribution, her closing Mother Shipton prophesy concerning the fateful end for him and the Old South as he knows it, is actually much more satisfying than any bloodletting would be, divine judgement on him. Rather than seeking redress for the wrongs done her, the scripture quoting Harriet believes that ‘vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord,’ meaning she doesn’t need to act in anger. By coming back to reclaim more and more members of her family, then purloining the rest of the slaves on the neighboring plantations, she’s dismantling the institution piecemeal, from the inside out.
Harriet initially returns South to retrieve her husband, then continues returning, time and again, determined that no man be left behind, like the military commander she would become later in life (the movie ends with her leading the Combahee Ferry Raid that freed more than 700 slaves). As her dying words conveyed, she proves to have merely gone ahead early, to prepare the way for others. With bounty hunters preoccupied with slaves heading North to freedom rather than in this counter-intuitive direction, Harriet can easily maneuver around, evading recapture. Thinking on her feet when a customs inspector questions her papers, her quick as a whip, commonsense response about the discrepancy in height trumps any book learning she might be lacking (“Seem like I learned to see and hear God like some learn to read a book.”). Performing reconnaissance and delivering her letters of transit, she’s aligned with those brave resistance fighters during WW2 who navigated around Nazi-occupied territory without being caught out. A slippery phantom, Harriet was able to hide from her pursuers for much of the time because people assumed this miracle working Moses must be a man, that only a man could be so daring, brave and clever, allowing her to operate right under their very noses, like The Scarlet Pimpernel. And when Harriet is revealed to be a woman by the wanted posters distributed far and wide, she conversely begins dressing like a man to throw the authorities off the scent, as well as to silently insist that she’d earned the right to be accepted as an equal in patriarchal society. She swathes herself in these self-empowering clothes when she goes to rescue her sister Rachel (Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde) not just in disguise, but to remonstrate against what’s conceded to be woman’s proper place, same as Tilly (Kathryn Tkel) will dress as her master’s son, banking on their resemblance to cart the fugitives across a blockaded bridge to safety.
Harriet stresses the monetary importance of slavery to America’s capitalist, free-enterprise system, weighing it against the financial ruin its collapse would mean to the white slave-owning South. Each slave Harriet absconds with is shown to hit the Bodess where it hurts most, in the pocketbook, leaving them feeling the loss as sharply as they would that of any other expensive livestock. Comparing buying and bartering human beings to selling pigs, the racist mindset places slaves on the same level as lower forms of animal life, while at the same time making it clear that everyone involved is caught in the maw of an economic system that grinds them down into the dirt, where they must wallow in the muck and mire. The dollars and cents of this immoral way of life was written right onto the face of it, so it seems strange that Harriet is the first movie in recent memory to approach the subject of slavery as an economic force first and foremost. “You money to them.” Rev. Green points out. “Unless word spread you run off. Then you damaged goods.”
Moving the goal post all the way to the Canadian border, The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made running to freedom illegal because slaves were considered to be robbing their white masters of valuable property by, in a sense, stealing themselves. As Gideon tells Harriet when he corners her on that bridge, making it impossible for her to move either forward or back, ‘Suicide’s a sin against God. Against those that own you, too.’ The stature of whites in the South is measured by the amount of chattel they own, so picking off one slave after another as Harriet does each time she swoops in to round up more fellow travelers, slowly drains her former masters of their prospects, livelihood and self-respect. (“Our stature in this community is measured in Negroes. We can’t live like paupers.”). Allowing Harriet to take the same satisfaction in seeing the worm turn as Jessica Lange’s bitter spinster did in the campy, 1848 French Revolution satire, Cousin Bette.
Suffering such depletions, the Bodess family doesn’t have sufficient means to cover the restitution their neighbors demand for the similar poachings visited upon bordering farms, their own slaves silently spirited away in the dead of night. As Eliza, the Bodess matriarch (Jennifer Nettles) tries to reason, “Our crops are meager. Our fortune all but gone… We are victims, just like you…” The economic collapse of Harriet’s former masters seems like poetic justice for having trafficked in buying and selling other human beings. And given this movie’s strong stance on the cardinal sin of profiting off such blood money, there seems supreme irony in the fact that Tubman, as author Erica Armstrong Dunbar pointed out in an NPR interview to promote her book She Came to Slay, is now being touted to replace Andrew Jackson on the selfsame currency that served to enslave her, becoming the face of the new $20 bill, whenever it’s minted by the Treasury.
Tubman’s remarkable American experience is definitely deserving of some sort of cinematic shrine consecrated to it. But in truth, this Harriet isn’t the movie to do her full justice, even if its box-office success at least keeps her in the public mind and mainstream conscience, the same way sporadic appearances on WGN’s Underground (to which this film’s interpretation owes a strong debt), Timeless, and even an episode of Drunk History featuring Octavia Spencer have. Harriet lacks the dramatic weight and gravitas of genuine historical substance, never quite rising to the level of emotional intensity the material warrants.The movie is well shot by John Toll, who takes full advantage of the scenic beauty of rural Virginia, expertly scored by Terence Blanchard, tender, heartwarming and inspirational in a way that makes it compulsively watchable, even when its not persuasively believable. But there are gaps and story lurches so alarming that whole pages of script, penned by director Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, seem to have been stuck together with wallpaper paste. The way episodic events are arranged, rather than gathering slaves from all over, Harriet appears to only return to her former plantation to purloin their stock. And since these scenes feel repetitious, we’re never quite sure how many siblings and in-laws Harriet still has left to liberate, or how many people she’d last freed, allowing audiences to lose track of the final tally, weakening the movie’s impetus rather than upping the ante.Harriet heads north so her ‘babies can be born free,’ then almost immediately decides to return down South, risking re-arrest to free her husband, whom she’d deserted rather than allowing him to accompany her on her initial journey, fearing he’d be caught and clapped back in irons. And the movie proudly refuses to hold to movie conventions by allowing Harriet to engage in a romance with Will Still, which would seem the most natural thing in the world given the way they’re thrown together. Indeed the filmmakers seem to feel she can only embody tenets of feminism by remaining romantically unattached, whereas the real Harriet remarried and adopted a daughter. The functional mechanics of the Underground Railroad system aren’t elucidated as well as they might be either, so we can’t be sure if that kindly Quaker who discovers Harriet in the back of his wagon and gives her succor rather than turning her in, is a secret conductor or just a color blind Good Samaritan. And that’s a shame, because much of the Railroad’s inner workings are quite compelling.
Such as the apparently obsequious reverend Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), on the surface always preaching that blacks owe obedience to their betters, who subversively turns out to be a conductor himself, to Harriet’s surprise when she seeks him out to pray for safety on her journey. The enslaved here secretly communicate through song, as Harriet does, conveying to her mother that she’s leaving for the North when the presence of the overseer prevents her from getting close enough to say goodbye, the only times in the film Erivo gets to practice the musical scales. Her rumbling chest tones seem so deep and sure and resonant, one can understand why they lures slaves to follow her to freedom, like the Pied Piper. But they hardly seem to emerge from the same diminutive figure we see onscreen, the reverberating voice sounding as if it were bouncing out of an echo chamber. The tugboat captain called Jasper Marley (Rakeem Laws), as a black jack, uses his vocation traveling up and down the Delaware and Chesapeake Bay to secretly relay news, warnings and covert messages to slave and abolitionist alike. Even the old hymnal sung by the slaves on Harriet’s plantation ‘Gospel Plow’ turns out to be an earlier rendition of the Civil Rights standard ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.’ This movie is already foreseeing the future, as if it had the sight itself.
When the reviews came in I was startled to find adjectives like “earnest” and “formulaic” being bandied about to describe Harriet, making it sound as though critics had watched a completely different movie than the one I saw. Perhaps misled by its initially reverential approach, such reviews proved deaf in the long run to the movie’s actual tone. Surely viewers are only taking Harriet seriously up to a certain point. For while things may start out sincerely enough, by film’s end they’ve become gratifyingly ridiculous in a slightly feverish, surreal way, the movie wrapping up as glossy, firearm-friendly blaxploitation fantasy. And it actually improves along the way to finding its own unique tone, the way past films of a similar spirit, like Posse (1994) and Rosewood (1997) did.
And there’s irony in this too, since the original small screen version of Tubman’s story, A Woman Called Moses emerged during the heyday of the blaxploitation era at the cinema, and was specifically conceived to be a respectable, uplifting alternative to such disreputable pulp, the same way Cicely Tyson’s earlier Sounder had been seen as – a restoration of black dignity. But with the blaxploitation genre having itself become respectable in hindsight thanks to directors like Tarantino, Babak Najafi (Proud Mary), Scott Sanders (Black Dynamite), Mario Van Peebles, among others who have revived and paid homage to it, Harriet need have no qualms about incorporating the form into its very bones, the same way Eddie Murphy’s superfly Netflix satire Dolemite is My Name mined affectionate humor from it. And the more Harriet embraces the genre as it unspools (one is tempted to say unravels), the greater shine one can take to it. It’s at the very moment that Harriet stops asking us to take it as seriously as we initially feared we would have to going in, that we relax and begin appreciating it, flaws and all. When Harriet trusses up the sons and daughters of her former plantation owners for instance, at the very same moment their guardians are out in the fields attempting to whip up a lynch mob against her, pleading with the locals to take a pound of her flesh for all their purloined property, and burn her at the stake in the bargain, we know we’re in la la land, subsisting in a state of nirvana as the big, black boogeyman emerges from the darkness to rain down retribution through the generations for the sins of the fathers, before slipping away scot free. The effect is like watching a sneak thief tiptoe past the camera in the background while oblivious characters face forward, all unaware of what’s happening right behind them.Consequently our regard for the film increases in tempo to such amusements, as Harriet sacrifices any sense of dramatic credibility in favor of a more rabble-rousing finish. We chortle silently to ourselves at Harriet’s mounting exasperation when uninvited slaves keep joining her escape party from all quarters to form a mass exodus, agreeing with Walter that they’re going to need a bigger boat to ferry them all across the river Jordan. It simply won’t do to call her Moses here, since this revisionist Harriet has been radically re-conceptualized as a black Schindler, like Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda.