A biopic about American historical figure Harriet Tubman has been long overdue. You can’t get through American history without reading or hearing her name, and yet filmmakers have steered away from her story until now. Finally, director Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me, Black Nativity) brings the legendary abolitionist’s life to the big screen in her biopic Harriet, and while her story is one every American should know, the way the film tells it is not without fault.
The film opens in 1849 Maryland, as Araminta Ross (Cynthia Erivo)—or Minty—and her free husband plan to have a baby. They want their child to grow up free, but Minty’s master denies her request to allow her and her family to leave his plantation like he promised them years ago. Seeing no way of raising a baby into slavery, Minty does the unthinkable: she escapes to freedom, journeying to Philadelphia alone and leaving her family behind. She makes it safely thanks to the help of some good people along the way and learns of the network of abolitionists who aid slaves in escaping the South. With a new name as Harriet Tubman, she returns home to rescue her family, but she ultimately gets so much more than she planned for.
The version of Harriet Tubman brought to life by Lemmons and screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) is not a perfect savior by any means. She may have the qualities we remember her for—bravery, strength, passion—but she is not without the issues plaguing every human being. She has her pride. And she has a hard time seeing things from a different point of view. Despite her bravery, she is still scared of what could happen to her on her rescue missions. Harriet Tubman as the historical figure is expanded upon from merely a name in a book to a fully-developed woman, which is a joy to see. Watching Harriet not only save hundreds of people but also struggle to understand deeper truths of humanity makes for a moving story.
The movie tends to muddle itself, however, when trying to convey certain parts of Harriet’s life. Harriet leans heavily on Christianity, and not just by showing how devoted Harriet and her family were to God. It also uses her faith as a plot device as well, which negates a lot of the character work. Some obstacles are solved for Harriet by miracles and when God speaks to her. These moments take away her agency from the story and the suspense built up in scenes is resolved in an unsatisfactory way. There are moments in her life that are hard to explain and may even be miracles, but in terms of seeing all this played out in a movie, it feels like deus ex machina.
Harriet’s “spells,” moments when God speaks to her, are accompanied by flashes of the visions she sees. There is no subtlety with the images shown and at times they ruin the suspense of what will happen in a scene. Something as mystical as a vision from God shouldn’t be so definitive for the audience. Harriet also tends to assume the audience isn’t able to catch the themes of the film unless they are explicitly shown or told to the audience, which actually happens.
There is an urgency in this film to sum up a life that is incredible, but it needs more time to slow down and hone in on Harriet’s emotions outside of her faith. Perhaps the only time we get that feeling is when Harriet interacts with a free woman in Philadelphia, Marie Buchanon (played by Janelle Monáe). Their genuine conversations help us understand how Harriet sees the world around her as she goes through so much change off the plantation. Marie and William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) show the audience how free African Americans did much more in this country than a lot of history books touch on. Through them we see Harriet’s passion to give more slaves the opportunities had by free African Americans.
As thankful as we are for finally having a movie dedicated to such a wonderful woman’s story, it’s hard not to wish for something more polished and subtle. Harriet is a heartwarming film that at least gives Harriet Tubman the onscreen attention she so dutifully deserves.