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Review: Harriet Turns Tubman Into a Saint at the Expense of Her Humanity

Portraying Tubman above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible.

Photo: Focus Features

Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet is a laudable attempt at documenting all that’s been untold by history books about Harriet Tubman’s life and achievements. The prevailing image of the American abolitionist and political activist is of a proud, hard, almost unknowable woman in her dotage—an image that Lemmons and co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard seek to amend, if not shake from our minds, by tracing Tubman’s steeliness back to its source as a symptom of the ferocity that drove her as a young freedom fighter.

First, however, we will know her as Minty (Cynthia Erivo), the name given to her on the plantation, in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she’s enslaved. Right away, it’s evident that a burning desire for freedom animates the woman, as well as her family, a mix of freemen and slaves who have a knowledge of their rights and cling to the promise of freedom made to them by their masters’ grandfather and that their current owners will not honor.

As Harriet, Erivo radiates an intensity that shines even in the early scenes that depict the young woman’s supplication to her masters. Harriet has a hard stare that communicates her resolve even when she averts her eyes from white people, and as soon as it becomes clear that her masters will never honor their grandfather’s will, she decides to run away with her freeman husband, John (Zackary Momoh). When John is caught by Harriet’s masters, the woman flees alone, making a 100-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia on foot.

As much as the film stresses Harriet’s ironclad conviction, it also attributes a great deal of her fortunes as a liberator to dreams and hallucinations resulting from a brain injury she incurred as a 12-year-old, when she was accidentally hit on the head by an iron weight that was thrown at another slave by a white overseer. Routinely, Lemmons cuts away from Harriet to a dreamscape where visions of the past and future are entwined and deliver warnings to Harriet with the certainty of prophecy. It’s one thing to engage with Harriet’s sincere belief in the power of her visions, but Lemmons’s ardent devotion to her desaturated dream motif brings a supernatural quality to Harriet’s life that undercuts the many scenes that make the case that Harriet was driven above all else by deep reservoirs of inner strength and ingenuity.

Tubman made 19 trips back to the South. The first saw her raiding her former plantation in order to rescue members of her family and other slaves working the land. Many such raids followed, and by the start of the Civil War, during which she became a spy and nurse for the Union, Tubman had escorted some 300 slaves to the North by making use of the Underground Railroad. This is a staggering achievement, all the more so because she never lost a single slave on her expeditions, but Lemmons doesn’t give us a sense of the scope of that feat. By focusing so much on how Harriet was led by her visions, the filmmaker gives short shrift to all the planning that it took for the woman to organize and execute multiple rescue missions, all the while eluding ever-growing hordes of slave patrols devoted to her capture.

Harriet’s religious-political prophesies naturally recall Joan of Arc, and the film even makes this comparison when Harriet’s former mistress, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), screams that the runaway slave should be burned at the stake. But the dullness of Lemmons’s depictions of Harriet’s second-sight powers, all frantically edited, blue-toned glimpses of slaves in flight and whites in pursuit, feel purely functional and provide no insight into Harriet’s mindset. Despite Erivo’s stoic performance, Harriet does too little to infuse its revisionist portrait of Tubman with the force it clearly wants to show in the woman. Portraying the abolitionist and activist above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible. Turning her into an American saint comes at the expense of her humanity.

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh Director: Kasi Lemmons Screenwriter: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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