Harriet Tubman was an extraordinary woman and she deserves to have her story told (and to be on the $20 bill.) She was a tiny, illiterate slave, but she was also fearless and smart. She escaped her bondage, but returned into hostile territory to bring hundreds more people to freedom as a key figure in the Underground Railroad. And this new film Harriet touches all the high points of her heroic tale. But despite a great cast doing their best, the film never really rises to the level her amazing story deserves.
The film begins on the plantation in Maryland where Harriet, then called Minty, lives with her family. She’s married to a free man, but is hesitant to start a family since by law her children would be slaves. And when they go to the master and cite a will from the former master that agreed to free her mother at age 45, meaning she herself should be free, the master refuses to honor the commitment. And then she hears word that she could be sold off away from her family, and she decides to run to freedom. It’s a heartbreaking and gutsy move, and she outwits a whole slew of white men who are on her tail. But she makes it to safety in Philadelphia, and there she hooks up with the abolitionists who are interested in her story. And she takes on a new free name – Harriet Tubman. But rather than stay in her newfound safety, she decides to go back for some of her family. She’s told it’s insane, but she does it anyway, rescuing most of her family and others who are willing to run. And when the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, she helps many of the former slaves escape further into Canada. But she continues bringing slaves North to freedom, despite the danger. And eventually she even leads a brigade of Union soldiers during the Civil War that rescues more than 700 slaves from Southern plantations.
It’s really an amazing story. But somehow, the film just doesn’t soar. Part of it is the overdone music. I totally loved Terence Blanchard’s score when it was performed at Middleburg, but it’s just way too heavy handed in the film. But the bigger problem is the way that Tubman’s “visions” guide her, taking away her agency and intelligence. As played by the wonderful Cynthia Erivo (Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale), she’s driven by a religious belief that God is showing her the way, as if by magic keeping her safe from the slave hunters. And on top of it, there is a lot of action though not a lot of real drama, and very little in the way of character. I didn’t feel the danger so much or the horror of the institution of slavery. Harriet is a film that may open some eyes to who Tubman was if they don’t know about her, but there’s another film to be made that will live up to her inspirational greatness.