Harriet (US, 2019)

Women doing it for themselves

I knew the name Harriet Tubman and her reputation as a woman who rescued slaves after rescuing herself; however, I had no idea what a ‘super hero’ she was. African American women, in particular, struggle to be heard and the fact that Kasi Lemmons has managed to direct five features since her debut Eve’s Bayou (US, 1997) is a testament to her determination. She wrote the script, based on work by Gregory Allen Howard, but was always going to struggle to present Tubman’s life fully in a two-hour film. As it is, the early scenes, when she was a slave, rattle along quickly in the nature of biopics before settling to a slightly more sedate dramatic development. As postscripts, Tubman’s gobsmacking role in the civil war is covered in one scene and the last 50 years of her life via a caption.

I struggled at first to engage with the film, Terence Blanchard’s lush American-pastoral score alienated me, and the scenes of plantation cruelty seemed a bit passé when compared to, say, 12 Years a Slave. Though Lemmons herself stated she wished to avoid the clichés of presenting plantation life as this was a ‘freedom film’. However, once Tubman (as she renamed herself) escaped, the jaw-dropping bravery of the woman (which would be unbelievable in fiction) ensures the narrative is gripping. As the film notes, in the end credits, some of the scenes are fictionalised, however the portrayal of the essential truth of what Tubman did is enough to forgive any dramatic embellishments.

Tubman became a conductor on the underground railway, a route managed by abolitonists who helped runaways escape to the north. Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel, The Underground Railway (2016), is better at portraying the bravery of those involved, but that wasn’t Harriet‘s subject. British actor Cynthia Erivo is sensational in the lead and Janelle Monáe brings great charisma to a supporting role. In an industry were colour wasn’t a bar Monáe would be a fully fledged film star (though she may not want to be one as she has plenty of other interests).

The film has done decent business in America; to date it’s almost reached the box office of 12 Years a Slave that was more of a (relative) hit in the UK. There were three of us in the cinema for the screening I attended showing that Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner is the exception rather than the rule for ‘black themed’ films in the UK. Of course, the idea of ‘black themed’ is racist nonsense as ‘white themed’ is never mentioned as we are assumed to be universal.

I particularly liked the use of songs, for example when Tubman tells her mother she has to leave she sings her farewell whilst her mother is working in the field. These were the songs the underground railway used to communicate, necessary because most of the slaves were kept illiterate. Wikipedia tells me:

One reportedly coded Underground Railroad song is “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd“. [1] The song’s title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough.

The message being, ‘go north’. Tubman was enslaved in Maryland, a mere 100 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Eviro has a beautiful voice and came to fame via the musical version of The Color Purple on Broadway; she was also in Widows.

Harriet is an essential film because of what it tells us about humanity: the best and the worst. Everyone would be better for seeing it.

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