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Free Agent

Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Harriet (2019)

It is always wonderful to see a movie made by the right person at the right time. Kasi Lemmons has been one of the very few black female film directors working in Hollywood for the last quarter century, and Harriet Tubman is an American heroine. For her to tell the story of Tubman’s life is a marriage of subject and filmmaker such that we rarely get to see. And oh, it’s worth it.

Harriet, here played by Cynthia Erivo, is astonishing as a young woman who knows three things: She loves her husband John (Zackary Momoh); God speaks directly to her; and she prefers death to staying a slave. John is a free man, as is her father Ben (Clarke Peters, solid as ever) but her mother Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and she are the property of the Burress family. When the patriarch dies, son Gideon’s (Joe Alwyn) first act is to put Minty, her slave name, up for sale.

Instead, she runs. She makes a hell journey of 100 miles on foot alone chased by bloodhounds and Gideon. She leaves her husband behind, which is the right decision since it gives her a crucial head start, but John’s search for her costs him an eye. But Harriet has luck on her side and a little help along the way; and after an act of suicidally dangerous bravery finds safety in Philadelphia, under the wing of a society run by the free blacks Martin Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and the graceful Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe). But while life in the city is safe, God has other plans for Harriet. And when God talks, Harriet listens.

The script by Ms. Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard has obviously taken some liberties with the precise truth of Harriet’s achievements. It’s difficult to imagine a farmowner like Gideon would be personally chasing one slave when he has a whole plantation to run, but filmic license allows this. In a weird way, it even raises the stakes, because the enemy isn’t just bounty hunters like Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey, absolutely terrifying as very calm evil). It’s someone Harriet has known and hated her entire life. The movie, and Mr. Alwyn’s carefully controlled performance, makes it clear that Gideon’s feelings are somewhat more complicated. But because that means nothing but horror and fear to Harriet, that’s what it means to us. We’re never allowed to forget the price the slaves pay for the comfort of white people. Jennifer Nettles, as Gideon’s mother Eliza, even has an astonishing scene where she weaponizes her tears into a racist rallying cry.

Ms. Lemmons uses a straightforward style, following Ms. Erivo closely, to make sure we focus on the image of human courage itself instead of her art. There are whip marks, lost eyes and babies too scared already to cry. There is the mark on Harriet’s face after she received a blow that cracked her skull, left her bedridden for months and caused the seizures that were how God spoke directly to her.

Standing as the righteous conscience in the middle of it all is Ms. Erivo, who has made quite a jump from a single guest appearance in cable TV comedy here in Britain (Michaela Coel’s “Chewing Gum”) to leading roles like this in fewer than five years. Hers is not a flashy performance but it’s the correct one. Her Harriet is a woman who has not been broken by her life and its miseries. Instead she has bided her time, waited for the correct moment and jumped. Ms. Erivo makes this courage and self-respect look easy. And once her own oxygen mask has been fixed, she helps others at unimaginable risk. When she comes back for her brothers, Ben stands in front of her with a cloth tied over his eyes. Mr. Peters makes Ben’s love for his daughter clear even as he refuses a glimpse of her, so he will not have to lie to anyone when they ask him if they’ve seen her. Mr. Odom and Ms. Monáe both project fundamental decency and profound moral courage and are able support, but the movie never forgets the privilege of freedom that gave them their grace and self-possession, either. The contrast between Marie’s fine dresses and hair and Harriet’s tattered rags that stink of her fear is the peak of Paul Tazewell’s fine costumes, too.

Her courage and skill remain so remarkable 150 years later but Harriet Tubman is virtually unknown outside of the United States. The issues of American slavery have been so comprehensively forgotten that some critics feel justified to complain (in this critic’s hearing) that the movie’s focus should have been on the Combahee River Raid – given a brief coda at the end, despite the cost for the film’s pacing – instead of on her emancipation. But we have so many war movies, and hardly any about a woman’s actual liberation. Tubman’s first movie correctly does not have her in any way playing second fiddle to a white man, even one as spectacular as John Brown (who in a refreshing change is shown in a wordless appearance, and might not be recognized by most viewers). What those critics do not understand, as Ms. Lemmons does, is that no war can be fought on behalf of others without being fought for yourself first.

And do we need this movie at a time when American state policy is to forcibly separate certain kinds of children from their parents? Well, when you look it up on IMDb, the names of the white actors appear first, so you tell me.

PS: The end credits play over actors posed for what appear to be daguerreotypes, which is a remarkable way of reminding us how old-timey images were new once, and who the people are underneath the fuzzy edges.


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