Kasi Lemmons’ first feature film since 2013’s Black Nativity is Harriet, a long overdue biopic of abolitionist, underground railroad conductor, and Union spy Harriet Tubman. It is amazing to me that it is twenty-goddamn-nineteen and we are only just now getting the first feature film about Harriet Tubman. There should be a million movies about Harriet Tubman. Steven Spielberg should be making one just about the Combahee River Raid. But Harriet is the first film to give Tubman the big screen treatment, and it is a very conventional, by the book biopic. Would I like something bolder and more individual? Yes. Will I accept this as the first in what will hopefully be a glut of Harriet Tubman movies? Also yes.
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman, who begins her life as Araminta “Minty” Ross, a slave on a Maryland plantation. Minty’s father is a free man, but her mother, who was supposed to be freed at age 45, is a slave, which means Minty and all of her siblings are slaves, too. I know there is a general weariness with reducing the black American experience on film to slavery, but Lemmons, who also co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard, avoids many clichés of the genre, skipping over depicting abuse and auction blocks—though the threat of sale hangs over Minty and her family as a form of psychological control. Still, there are some clichés, most of which are unavoidable because by the 1850s, the pro-slavery South was mostly a f-cking parody of itself. This is the moment right before the Civil War, when Southern slave owners were frothing at the mouth because the Northern attitude toward runaways was “LOL no we’re not sending them back”. Much of that representation falls to Joe Alwyn, who stars as Minty’s fanatical owner, Gideon. (Between this, The Favourite, Boy Erased, and Operation Finale, Alwyn is starting to be pigeonholed as a cinematic asshole.)
Like most movies now, Harriet is too long, and establishing Minty’s life on the plantation takes up the whole first act. This is the section of the film that will likely rub most people the wrong way, and a more inventive take on Tubman’s life could arguably skip it altogether. Her story really begins when she flees, alone, one hundred miles to Philadelphia, where she is reborn as Harriet Tubman. It takes almost half the film to get to that point in Harriet. Once she is living free as Harriet, though, the film picks up some momentum. Harriet begins her journeys south to liberate other slaves, including her family members still in Maryland. At this point, Harriet basically becomes a superhero movie.
All the pieces are there: Harriet has a pseudonym, “Moses”; she has a sidekick, Walter (Henry Hunter Hall); she has an archenemy in Gideon; and she has superpowers, as Harriet has visions that warn her of danger and show her the way on her travels. I am not opposed to framing Harriet Tubman’s story as a superhero origin, especially since this is her first feature film. Contextualizing Harriet as the kind of person who fights for good against great odds, who achieves an improbable victory and demoralizes her foes isn’t too far from reality anyway, and general audiences are now well-trained in the cinema of superheroes, so this is a way to make Harriet’s story broadly appealing.
Harriet is a solid, if formulaic, biopic. It’s a decent enough entry into what will hopefully become a plethora of Tubman projects. (And to be fair, every biopic I saw at TIFF was conventional, the only one that does anything even a little bit interesting is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, by virtue of not really being about Mr. Rogers.) Cynthia Erivo is believable as this version of Harriet, a touched-by-God Chosen One, though I understand if this film doesn’t go far enough for some. By skewing toward the widest audience possible, Harriet sands some edges and brushes past others altogether (such as: Northerners were not necessarily less racist than their Southern counterparts, they just had a different moral interpretation of the Bible. The North was still hella racist). But as the first feature depiction of Harriet Tubman, Harriet is a hopeful and triumphant story about one of America’s greatest superheroes.