Underground Railroad’s “Moses” is portrayed with determination and courage

The motion picture Harriet begins with a vision and a betrayal. The vision—the departure of three of her sisters who have been “sold South”—occurs during one of Araminta “Minty” Ross’s frequent “spells” of unconsciousness. The betrayal is by her owner Edward Brodess, whose grandfather had promised Minty’s mother that she and her children would be set free when each individual turned 45. Minty, who has paid a lawyer to validate the claim, watches as Brodess refuses to honor his grandfather’s wishes and angrily tears up the attorney’s report.

His refusal sets in motion the core narrative of this compelling biographical study of Minty Ross, known to history as the abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman. Although she lived over 90 years, the film focuses on the decade following her 1849 escape from Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Over the course of ten years before 1860, she would return 13 times to liberate 70 slaves, including four of her brothers, her parents, and a niece. One of the Underground Railroad’s most successful conductors—she never lost a traveler—slaves and slave masters alike dubbed her “Moses.”

Tense scenes of nighttime flights through swamps and forests depict the dangers inherent in fleeing to freedom as well as the determination and courage of the fugitives and Tubman, here portrayed in convincing style by the excellent British actor Cynthia Erivo. In her own words, Tubman insisted, “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other, for no man should take me alive.” When she threatens to shot one of her brothers who has lost his nerve and wants to turn back, the viewer has no trouble believing her admonition, “You’ll be free or die.”

Tubman’s hatred of slavery is viscerally portrayed, and for much of the film Gideon Brodess, a fictional stand-in for her master’s son, illustrates why. Intent first on breaking her spirit and, after she escapes, returning her to bondage, Gideon pursues Tubman relentlessly, often in the company of a black slave catcher. He articulates his view of his human property early in the film, when he chillingly likens having a favorite slave with owning a favorite pig. You know, he warns Minty, that eventually you will have to get rid of both—by eating the pig and selling the slave.

Through much of the film, Tubman’s closest allies are William Still, portrayed here by Hamilton alumnus Leslie Odoms Jr., and the fictional character Marie Buchanon, acted by Janelle Monáe. Still is a central cog in the Underground Railroad, introducing Tubman to the abolitionist communities in Philadelphia and the northeast, providing aid and unsolicited cautionary advice, and, in a scene straight out of Hollywood, spiriting her onto a departing schooner as Gideon is about to catch her.

Buchanon serves to illustrate the difficult transition experienced by the newly escaped Tubman, who must learn how to dress and act so as to travel safely as a free woman. Historical figures, including William Seward and Frederick Douglass, who utters not a word, join Tubman in a meeting at Seward’s home in Auburn, New York, and John Brown makes a brief appearance, implausibly delivering a fiery antislavery jeremiad on the Philadelphia docks.

Harriet takes liberties with the timeline of events. The Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, was passed just months after Tubman made her escape, not, as the film would have it, after she had made several rescue trips to the Eastern Shore. And as noted, several of the main characters are fictional creations, all of whom offer necessary and believable contributions to the story.

In Harriet director Kasi Lemmons largely eschews the shocking onscreen violence seen in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave or Quentin Tarantino’s highly stylized Django Unchained. The physical and emotional horror of chattel slavery is largely unseen, sometimes implied almost casually by a slap for perceived sassiness that bespeaks the slave master’s arbitrary power. Lemmons’ forbearance earns her film a PG-13 rating rather than the R ratings awarded McQueen and Tarantino.

Due in part to its greater accessibility to younger audiences, Harriet is an ideal introduction for people who have little, if any, understanding of who Tubman really was and of the inhumanity represented by the system she refused to accept. The film illustrates three generally accepted historical truisms: that religion was a central motivation for slave resistance, that force was necessary to gain freedom from slavery, and that black people were the primary agents of their own emancipation.

In her final showdown with Gideon, Tubman issues a warning that embodies all three. A war that will end slavery is coming, she tells him, and he and thousands of other slaveholders are likely to die on a “blood-soaked battlefield, “all in the service of a “lost cause.” Many will die at the hands of black soldiers. And as she departs, Tubman excoriates her erstwhile master, telling him “God don’t mean people to own people.”

No two-hour film could possibly portray the full story of Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary life. A brief coda illustrates her role as a spy for the Union army and the leader of an 1863 raid along South Carolina’s Combahee River that liberated 750 slaves. Texts briefly relate her post-bellum marriage, her role as a suffragist, and her death in 1913.

Some critics have likened Harriet to the rash of Marvel superhero movies, a comparison that blithely overlooks one vital fact. Harriet Tubman was real, and according to her biographer Kate Larson, an adviser on the film, Lemmons “really got her, and made her this militant radical, while also conveying her love for her family. And that’s who Tubman was.” In describing Harriet, Lemmons has the last word on her legendary subject. “The story is so incredible that it sounds as if it’s not accurate, but it is.”

Director:                      Kasi Lemmons

Producers:                   Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg & Gregory Allen Howard

Screenplay:                 Gregory Allen Howard & Kasi Lemmons

Story:                          Gregory Allen Howard

Starring:                     

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still

Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess

Janelle Monáe as Marie Buchanon

Music:                         Terence Blanchard

Cinematography:        John Toll

Editing:                       Wyatt Smith

Production:                 Perfect World Pictures, New Balloon & Stay Gold Features

Distribution:                Focus Features

Release date:               September 10, 2019 (Toronto International Film Festival)

November 1, 2019 (United States)

Running time:             125 minutes

Budget:                       $17 million

—Rick Beard