Harriet Breathes Life into Call for Liberty

One of the most overlooked movies of 2019 may have been Harriet, the historical drama about American fugitive slave Harriet Tubman. The movie breathes long overdue life into Tubman’s heroic efforts to rescue her family and others from slavery. Indeed, she may be one of the most underappreciated heroines of American liberty.

Tubman grew up on a plantation in the border state of Maryland. Set in the 1850s, Harriet starts off with an important history lesson. Slaveholders in the pre-Civil War era often made provisions for “manumission,” the freeing of slaves upon a slaveholder’s death, by specific dates, or upon a certain number of years servitude. In the case of Tubman (Cynthia Erivo, Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale), her mother Rit (played by Venessa Bell Calloway, Southside With You, Unbroken: Path to Redemption) was supposed to be set free when she turned 45 years old, thereby freeing her children. The master’s son (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite), however, reneges on the obligation to free Rit, dooming her children to life as plantation slaves.

When Tubman’s husband John (Zackary Momoh, A United Kingdom, The Kill Team), a freedman, presents legal documents to sue for Harriet’s release, or at least ensure that their children would be born free, her master tears up the documents. The scene captures the heartbreak and fragility of legal protections for slaves and fugitives in the years running up to the Civil War. Without recourse, Harriet and John’s only option is to escape to the North.

John, however, is unwilling to leave the security of his extended family, despite the terror. Tubman, having seen a vision of God calling her to freedom, runs anyway. She tells John she will return for him as she escapes. After an extraordinary and dangerous one hundred mile trek through woods, swamps, and rivers, Tubman ends up in Philadelphia. Bewildered abolitionists and free blacks introduce her to the Underground Railroad. Undaunted by warnings, Tubman resolves to return to Maryland in an attempt to free John and the rest of her family. She is, quite literally, doing God’s work.

Directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me), Harriet is a well-executed movie. The storyline meanders a bit but sticks to Tubman’s history. The feel of the movie is more along the lines of a well-told documentary than a dramatic narrative. Nevertheless, the screenplay is more nuanced than many other biopics of American heroes and the black experience.

Lemmons and her co-writer, Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) build layer and sophistication into the Antebellum setting that frames Tubman’s early life. They keep Tubman’s central belief that she was answering a preternatural calling to secure her God-given right to individual freedom and liberty. Pre-Civil War plantations were brutal places, but Lemmons uses the environment to explore the physical and psychological risks slaves and free blacks faced if they attempted to escape. Blacks and slaves are shown as multidimensional persons, with fears, aspirations, and character running a full spectrum of intellect and emotion. Free blacks also play important roles such as running a wood mill (which her father, Ben, owns and runs) and preaching. The latter role, in particular, becomes important once Tubman escapes, and then returns to guide other slaves to freedom.

Harriet with Lemmons at the helm does not shy away from putting an individualist view of freedom at the center of Tubman’s spiritual calling. Tubman’s character remains tooted in her radical Christian values. All told, Tubman made 13 missions into the South, escorting 70 slaves to freedom. She later led a Civil War raid of 150 black soldiers that freed 750 slaves in South Carolina.

Held together by a powerful, Oscar-nominated performance by Erivo and a supporting cast including broadway actor Leslie Odom, Jr. (as black Philadelphia abolitionist William Still), Harriet should rank as one of 2019’s most pro-freedom movies. Tubman was an authentic American hero. The only surprise is how long it took Hollywood to project extraordinary her life onto the silver screen.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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