- Kasi Lemmons
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 5 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised…
…O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.
Go down Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go!
Harriet Tubman’s life was of such dime novel excitement that you would have thought Hollywood would have filmed her story years ago. As exciting as any spandex-costumed super hero, her story does not need expensive special effects, the credits for which seem to roll on and on at the end of a superhero film. That we have had to wait so long to see her brought to the big screen is probably due to the same reason for which the issuing of a new $20 bill with her portrait has been delayed by the current administration, unadmitted racial bias. But at last, thanks to director Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard, we have what Marvel Comics would call her origin story.
When the film begins in 1849 in Maryland and Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) is a slave who suffers from blackouts and has visions that she interprets as communications with God suggesting the future. She is married to John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), a freeman, but the two are not allowed to live together. He has obtained legal documents that show that the great-grandfather of Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde), the current owner of Minty, her siblings, and their mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway), had written in his will that they would be free over 10 years ago. With the slaves looking on, Brodess scornfully tears up the papers, telling his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) that he should have sold the troublesome Minty years ago. Gideon feels a special attachment to Minty because she took care of him as a child, but later, due to a change in his family financial circumstances, he does decide to sell her. She resolves to run away but insists that she and John not travel together because he would lose his freedom if they were caught together. Rev. Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), whom earlier we had seen preaching the white man’s gospel of slave obedience, provides her information about the Underground Railroad and how to head north. He advises her, “Fear is your enemy. Trust in God.” And so Harriet sets out on her journey, with Philadelphia as her destination. John also goes forth that night but is stopped by patrollers and subsequently beaten.
Harriet survives a harrowing chase that includes a literal “leap of faith”–when trapped by her master and other slavers on a bridge, she jumps into the rapids below rather than return to enslavement. After many days of constant walking and hiding and a free ride by a kind stranger, she makes it to the City of Brotherly Love and finds the office of black abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.). He considers it a miracle that she has navigated the 100 miles by herself. As he will do for everyone later, William writes down in his ledger Harriet’s name, family, and notes about her journey. She drops her slave name, choosing “Harriet” from her mother’s family and Tubman, the last name of her husband. William introduces her to boarding-house owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), who takes her in, finds her a job in a white home, and teaches her the ways of a free person.
When Harriet, against the advice of William—Underground Railroad conductors have all been men– decides to return for her husband and other family members, it is Marie who gives her fake I.D. papers and a pistol–and shows her how to use it. A year or more has passed, and so when she returns to free John, she is in for a sad surprise. Harriet makes trips after trip, sometimes escaping capture from the slave patrols, sometimes having to threaten to use her gun on a fugitive who wants to turn back because of the hardships. She continues to have visions, shown in blue monochrome, of slaves running as well as past experiences. (One of the latter is of her being hit in the head when she was 12, resulting in her fainting spells and visions.)
So many slaves are escaping that slavers nail up reward posters offering a price on her head, though they do not yet know it is a “her” they are seeking. The slave owners can not imagine that a woman could be the daring culprit. Not having a name, they list “Moses” as the wanted person. (I wonder if this was inspired by the spiritual “Go Down Moses.”) The reward keeps increasing with the number of escapees until it reaches the huge sum of $40,0OO—and by which time they do know her identity. The film credits Harriet with leading 70 slaves to freedom, though most other sources that I have read through the years list it at 300.
The economic impact of runaway slaves hit slave owners hard. Gideon’s family lost the five members of Harriet’s family, the slaver describing them as “three bucks, a female and foal” — to him and his fellow racists they were livestock, worth over $2000. Gideon’s mother Eliza (Jennifer Nettles) angrily declares that the runaway Minty should be burned at the stake—this is one of two suggestions that Harriet was a Joan of Arc. When neighbors lose their slaves, they turn angrily on the Brodesses for reimbursement because they now know that it was their former slave Harriet who is stealing them. Eliza manages to deflect their wrath in the memorable scene in which, declaring that her family is the victim of the situation, turns the mob into a rally determined to stop the great injustice done them by runaway slaves.
Each time Harriet arrives in Philadelphia with a group, William records the facts about them. In 1850, with Congress’s passage of the 2nd Fugitive Slave Act that levied heavy penalties for aiding runaways in any way and gives pursuers the right to follow slaves into any state in the North and demand local authorities help i n seizing them, Harriet has to extend her travels far beyond Philadelphia to Canada to insure the safety of her fugitives.
We see in the film that some blacks were either too fearful or content with their lot to flee, while others sought to profit from the system. Among the latter are the black slave tracker Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) and his lookout Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), hired by Gideon to catch Harriet. Her former owner is obsessed with getting her back, there even being a hint of his love for her. I suspect that his pursuing her himself is a bit of fiction dreamed up by the scriptwriters to dramatize the conflict between the two. Virtually every filmmaker has said that the story is more important than historical truth, and there can be no doubt that Harriet facing her former master is highly dramatic.
Regardless of the historicity of the climax, the film provides a vivid picture of the times. We see how such Spirituals as “Hold On” served to buoy the spirit of oppressed blacks. Well they needed it, because in the sermon that Rev. Green preaches to his fellow blacks in front of the Brodess house (where the whites are present on the porch), the preacher quotes from the apostle Paul about slaves obeying their masters. And he adds that this obedience must be an inner one as well—even religion was used by whites to keep slaves in their “proper place,” a tactic that failed, as we can see by the way they found the basis for resistance in that same Bible, thus such songs as “Go Down Moses” and “Steal Away.” More than any other film, this one shows how coded songs were used to communicate, as “Minty” sings to her mother in the field just before she runs away, and later when she returns, again gets her attention through a song.
I have been sorry to see how many reviewers have downplayed or criticized the filmmakers’ emphasis upon the visions of Harriet and her deep faith in God. Like it or not, these and the attendant blackouts were a part of Harriet’s life, and it is good to see filmmakers respect and honor that. Leaving them out or de-emphasizing this aspect would be like telling the story of Joan of Arc and omitting her visions and belief that she talked with angels. This is a more powerful film than some critics admit, one which stirs the spirit. So much so that I think it will be the No. 1 choice for Visual Parables Best Films of 2019.
Some have been critical of actress Cynthia Erivo’s way of portraying Harriet; but if you keep in mind the stern look of the woman in the few surviving portraits, you have to admit that the British actress nailed that look of fierce determination. It is also satisfying that she was given the opportunity to sing a couple of Spirituals and, at the end, the rousing “Stand Up,” her lyrical voice no doubt contributing to her winning the Best Actress Tony Award for portraying the lead in the 2016 production of The Color Purple. (Also appreciated is the inclusion of Nina Simone’s version of “Sinnerman” underscoring a montage of slaves running)
In addition to Cynthia Erivo’s excellent acting, the rest of the veteran cast is excellent. I wish Leslie Odom Jr.’s William Still had been shown as more than just the fearful obstacle warning Harriet over and over about the dangers of returning south. As a leading black abolitionist (most of his kind have been overshadowed by white abolitionists) constantly in danger of being kidnapped and taken south himself (as Solomon Northup was in 12 Years a Slave), he is worthy of his own movie. Later, in 1872 he will turn that ledger book we see into the book The Underground Railroad Records, providing a rare look into the lives of the slaves conducted to freedom before the Civil War.
I wish too that other characters could have been expanded, such as Janelle Monáe’s Marie Buchanon. She is a fictional character, apparently a composite of the many African-American Philadelphians who aided Harriet during her first visit to the city. But she is so real and charming that I would like to have seen more of her, her sad fate deeply moving to the audience. Very real is the character played by Tory Kittles, a towering figure who would become so influential that he would meet with President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass. He was a great admirer of Harriet and her dangerous work. Not even credited in the film is the man who made such a gigantic impact upon the period that Union soldiers went off to war singing of his name. All we see of John Brown is a brief glimpse of the martyr amidst a crowd. I wish we had been shown her meeting with the insurrectionist and encouraging his cause. (Fortunately Harriet was speaking up north when Brown launched his doomed assault on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, or she might have been arrested.)
Once released on video this film should be of great interest to educators. They would do well to plan a three-week program on “Slavery and Resistance,” perhaps billing it as “Three Reactions to Slavery: Fright; Fight; or Flight.” Start with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave ; then Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation ; and then this film. The first film graphically shows the horrible brutality of slavery that is glossed over in such films about the Old South as Gone With the Wind. The second chronicles the story of Nat Turner, plantation preacher who found in the Old Testament his inspiration for violent rebellion against old Pharaoh. Kasi Lemmons discloses the way open to most slaves who had no access to guns and which inflicted more damage (economic) on plantation owners than the small number of armed rebellions. All three films have guides, the one for the first film perhaps my best due to the inclusion of pertinent quotations from the book Bible Defense of Slavery, published in 1853 by a Kentucky minister.
Whether or not you are in a position to set up a program, this is a must-see film for all concerned with social justice. In William Still’s already-mentioned book published in 1872, he wrote, “The heroism and desperate struggle that many of our people had to endure should be kept green in the memory of this and coming generations.” This is exactly what Kasi Lemmons has done, and she has done it far better than some critics are able or willing to admit.
Note for additional viewing: Television has done a better job than Hollywood in honoring Harriet Tubman. All of the below, and more, are available on YouTube. Just click on the links.
-CBS aired a series of B&W one-hour dramas in 1963-64 called The Great Adventure, one of which is “Go Down, Moses,” starring the great actress Ruby Dee.
-There is also a 25-minute segment named “Harriet Tubman that was part of a 22-episode series called “Animated Hero Classics” produced in the 1990s—a good introduction for children.
-Also for children is the 10-minute documentary “Harriet Tubman”—its brevity also makes it suitable for the average church or synagogue class session—half of this is full of her Civil War exploits.
-There is also a 29-minute segment of BBC’s Mark Steel Lectures dedicated to her that seeks to modernize her story in creative, and often funny ways.
-I have read also that an episode of the WGN series “Underground” was devoted to her in its second season.
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