Harriet

Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons (story by Gregory Allen Howard)
Stars: Cynthia Erivo (Harriet / Minty), Leslie Odom Jr. (William Still), Joe Alwyn (Gideon Brodess), Clarke Peters (Ben Ross), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Rit Ross), Omar J. Dorsey (Bigger Long), Henry Hunter Hall (Walter), Tim Guinee (Thomas Garrett), Nick Basta (Foxx), Joseph Lee Anderson (Robert Ross), Antonio J Bell (Henry Ross)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.S.
Harriet
Harriet

Kasi Lemmon’s Harriet is a moving dramatization of the extraordinary life of Harriet Tubman, a woman who was born into slavery in the mid-1800s, escaped to freedom, and then risked that freedom to return to the South dozens of times to help others escape. Her story is well known, of course, and her presence in American history is so profound that U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew planned to place her on the $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson and making her the first women and the first African American to appear on U.S. currency (that plan was, not surprisingly, squashed by Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin). What Lemmons’s film does with such grace and power is bring Harriet Tubman down to earth, not as a means of minimizing her incredible accomplishments as an abolitionist and warrior, but to remind us that her amazing feats—which earned her the nickname “Moses” among slaves—were the work of a human being with fears and desires and weaknesses and determination. They were not the work of a superhero, but rather someone who simply knew what the right thing was and did it again and again and again and again, even if it meant putting her own freedom and possibly life at risk.

When we first meet Harriet (Cynthia Erivo), she goes by the name of Minty and is slave on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, owned by Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde), his wife Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), and his adult son Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who grew up alongside Minty, but still sees her primarily as property. Minty’s husband, John (Zackary Momoh), is a free man, as is her father, Ben Ross (Clarke Peters), and when Brodess refuses to abide by an earlier agreement to release her, she decides that the only thing she can do is escape. Running alone and against all the odds, she makes it more than 100 miles to freedom in Philadelphia, where she finds her way to William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a free black man who publishes an abolitionist paper and secretly works as part of the Underground Railroad.

Minty rechristens herself Harriet after her mother and gets a job in Philadelphia as a maid under the tutelage of Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), who runs the boarding house where she lives. But, she soon feels compelled to return to Maryland to help guide her friends and family out of slavery. She is told it is too dangerous and that she can’t do it, but Harriet’s fundamental characteristic is a resolve that hears nothing other than her own inner voice, which she understands as the voice of God. She is given over to spells in which she loses consciousness (the result of a head injury as a child), and out of those spells, which she describes as “consulting with God,” she emerges with an ironclad sense of what she must do or in which direction she must head; the screenplay by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) takes Harriet’s spirituality seriously and presents her as a kind of medium between the horrors of antebellum America and a divine grace that she embodies in her rescue missions.

Harriet eventually finds herself a fixture of the Underground Railroad, where she is assisted by numerous others, including Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), a young black tracker who at first helps slave owners find runaway slaves, but is so moved by Harriet’s determination to listen to the divine voice inside that he begins to work for her. The same cannot be said for Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey), an imposing ruthless black hunter of escaped slaves; he is essentially the anti-Harriet, damning his own people to the status of objects to be owned for his own personal enrichment while she works to free them as a reminder of their undeniable humanity. Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Harriet is revelatory in the way she conveys the character’s earthbound humanity with her divine convictions and unrelenting tenacity; we see her heart broken at one point in a way that reminds us that she, too, can be hurt, but when she finds herself with the high ground and a rifle pointed at her most vicious oppressor, her power and resolve feel utterly palpable.

Harriet treats the horrors of chattel slavery with a focus on the emotional violence inflicted on those who are told that they are less than human and can be bought and sold at will, which often involves separating families (the separation of families, in fact, is often used as a threat to keep slaves from rebelling, an indefensible approach that has unfortunate political reverberations today). The film is beautifully shot by multi-Oscar winner John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart), although every gorgeous sunset or sub-dappled field of grass is balanced with a frigid forest at midnight filled with terrified frozen breath or a raging river that Harriet must hurl herself into to escape. There are also moments of profound physical violence, although the films largely avoids anything overtly graphic. Lemmons does not flinch in the face of physical assaults on black bodies, but she uses them primarily as a means to sets her sights on the emotional and spiritual toll of such horrors, which gives Harriet’s work—informed as it was by her “consulting with God”—even more profound meaning.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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All images copyright © Neon Films

Overall Rating: (3.5)



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