The Myrna Loy
We live in an age overflowing with rhetoric about building walls and keeping people out.
So, it’s deeply refreshing to see a movie about letting people in and embracing them as family.
“Harriet” has a glossy sheen and plays it a bit too “safe,” but it’s still a respectful and touching portrait of Harriet Tubman. Tubman was a lady who, in a white patriarchal society, did not ask for permission to boldly go where few women had gone before.
Tubman led an army unit. She defied her plantation owner and fled to freedom in the North. She replaced her slave name with a new free name. And then she started her own movement to free others, risking her life time and time again.
She would lead the slaves to places such as Philadelphia, where abolitionist organizations, many Quaker, embraced slaves and helped them start new lives as free Americans.
Their slogan might well have been to build doors, not walls – and open them wide.
The City of Brotherly Love was the birthplace of the Underground Railroad, an organization devoted to freeing slaves. Tubman was one of the “conductors.” She made more than a dozen rescue trips to the South, earning her the affectionate moniker, “Moses.”
Directed with feminine sensibility by Kasi Lemmons, “Harriet” begins with Tubman’s life on a plantation, continues with her escape to the North and then chronicles some of her “railroad” journeys to rescue first her family, and then more slaves. Conservative estimates credit her with rescuing at least 70 people, likely more.
Let’s start with my reservations, first, and then end by focusing on the many virtues of this first film portrait of a seminal figure in American history.
The Oscar winning film “12 Years a Slave,” also about slavery, included more unflinching raw footage of the pain and abuse suffered.
By contrast, “Harriet” is both less shocking and more uplifting. That choice was intentional, said the writers, to show the violence of separation rather than physical violence. My response would be that we need both to intimately understand the suffering that led slaves to flee. The script over-compensated.
The film’s gorgeous costumes and museum-worthy camerawork create a euphoric aura. There seems an unwritten ground rule to make us comfortable while telling an uncomfortable story.
In telling the story of slaves we should be uncomfortable. We should be embarrassed. We should even feel guilty. But in “Harriet” the suffering is slightly muted. Too many characters aren’t fully fleshed out. The villain is a shallow lout, almost a caricature.
Ultimately, this respectful production feels slightly more like a “safe” Hallmark TV special, rather than a cutting-edge racial/feminist critique of America’s shameful racial history.
All that aside, the film packs a lot of power, thanks to a passionate performance by Cynthia Erivo, a British actress, singer and songwriter. She won a Tony playing the lead in “The Color Purple.” Casting a Nigerian-born Brit as Harriet has been controversial among American blacks, but she internalizes Harriet.
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Some scenes stand out: Fearless Harriet leads friends over a river by daring to forge through the swift current herself - and they follow. Then 5-foot-tall Harriet delivers a soul-baring call to action at the Underground Railroad, chastising people she says have “gotten too comfortable.” In essence, she tells them it’s time to trade their Sunday dresses for working clothes, and board her “Railroad.”
The portrayal of Harriet’s faith is unapologetic, sincere and powerful. She reminds everyone, continuously, that she didn’t do this alone.
“I walked on my feet, but God was watching,” she says. There’s a steady stream of gorgeous feet-stomping gospel music.
Some historians have fact-checked the script, and seem to praise its accuracy, minus a few liberties and omissions.
By the end, we stand in awe of the courage and determination of Harriet Tubman, who was slated to adorn the $20 bill in 2020 until that plan was delayed by politics. Her day will come. Soon, I trust.
Erivo teamed up with Joshua Brian Campbell to write the gospel anthem “Stand Up,” a rousing ode to freedom that’s a lock for the Oscar for Best Song. I sang it as I left.
The last line of the song memorializes Tubman’s last words as she died in 1913 at 91.
Once again, she reassures friends that she’s just going on ahead to get things ready for them, for us.
Let’s let the lyrics of freedom take us home.
I'm gonna stand up
Take my people with me
Together we are going to a brand new home
Far across the river
I hear freedom calling?
Calling me to answer
Gonna keep on keepin' on
I can feel it in my bones
I go to prepare a place for you