“Harriet” gives us a heroine who overcame disability and later became a fugitive so that her loved ones and others could find a better life, first in so-called free American states and later in Canada, leaving communities in both nations forever in her debt. A major movie on Harriet Tubman is long overdue and, for all of its faults, the recently released biopic “Harriet” is a good start in that direction.
The casting of petite Tony Award-winning British singer Cynthia Erivo (“Widows” and the satirical thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale”) elevates this film in many ways. Tubman was only five feet 2 inches tall, and undoubtedly people underestimated her because of her color and statrure, but she lived large.
In the script by Gregory Allen Howard and director Kai Lemmons, “Harriet” begins with slaves listening to Rev. Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a black preacher who uses the Bible to justify slavery and encourage obedience to slave owners Edward Brodess (Michael Marunded), his wife Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), and their son Gideon (Joe Alwyn).
Tubman, who was known as Araminta, or “Minty” Ross, married freeman John Tubman (Zackary Momoth). Her father, Ben Ross (Clarke Peters) was freed by his owner. And through a white lawyer, Harriet learns her mother, Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway), was supposed to be set free and some of her children should have been born free. Harriet learns their former owner’s will was ignored. The Brodess family plans to keep Minty’s family enslaved after all. Minty prays for justice and Edward Brodess dies. And as the estate is being settled, Minty, who due to a childhood head injury has visions, soon decides the time to escape is now.
When Tubman decides to run, she sends a message via song to her mother and leaves her husband, fearing that if captured he’d lose his freedom or be killed. But ignorance of his wife’s whereabouts doesn’t prevent John Tubman from being severely beaten when Gideon Brodess pursues her. Minty makes a seemingly impossible journey from Maryland to the free state of Pennsylvania, basking in the warm glow of freedom, a moment optimized by the euphoria expressed in Terence Blanchard’s musical score.
In Philadelphia, she meets free man William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who encourages her to leave her slave name Minty behind and finds her a place to stay with saucy Marie (Janelle Monáe), who was born free. Now known as Harriet, she longs for her husband and leaves Philadelphia to fetch him. She finds him only to learn that he believed her to be dead and remarried. But while she is there, Harriet, with the help of Rev. Green, leads other slaves to freedom
“Harriet,” like the WGN miniseries “Underground,” shows the complexity of a society that allows slavery and how black and white men and women were corrupted by it. Some black people were opportunists, joining in the hunt for escaped slaves. Slavery also brought dangers to free black people who could be beaten and even murdered during the pursuit of escapees.
“Harriet” is an origin story that might be a tad too reverent, but takes the time to remind us of all that Tubman achieved in real life, including her actions during the American Civil War. For a petite woman, her impact on history was huge.
Cicely Tyson played Tubman in the miniseries “A Woman Called Moses” in 1978, and Aisha Hinds is portraying her now in “Underground” on WGN-TV. But that’s not enough. A true American hero like Harriet Tubman deserves another miniseries, more movies and to have her face put on the 20-dollar bill.
“Harriet,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens nationwide Friday, Nov. 1.