Harriet Tubman, like all of our great historical heroes, contained multitudes.
She was the only female conductor on the Underground Railroad, a spy during the Civil War and one of the first women to lead soldiers into battle. She was an activist for woman’s suffrage and a person of tremendous faith. She was, in the words of “Harriet” director Kasi Lemmons, “a superhero.”
But somewhere in the 107 years since she died, we have lost a critical part of Tubman – her humanity. She has become a face on a page of a textbook, an extraordinary life reduced to a few pithy paragraphs.
“Since we all learned about her as kids, she’s [thought of as] this juvenile, one-dimensional character that was better suited for cartoons than as a serious treatment of a blood-and-flesh woman,” Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larsen told Entertainment Weekly in 2016.
Those looking for Tubman’s hidden dimensions will likely find them in Larsen’s 2003 biography “Bound for the Promised Land”, but I’m sorry to say that they are in short supply in Lemmons’ “Harriet.”
Despite a lovely lead performance by the Oscar-nominated Cynthia Ervivo, “Harriet” loses sight of Tubman in a script that is content to oversimplify her accomplishments into a series of monologues, action sequences and montages. It feels less like a vibrant retelling of an incredible life and more like historical CliffNotes.
Perhaps the problem is that Lemmons tries to do too much. Rather than the tightly focused self-contained stories of a “Lincoln” or a “Darkest Hour”, she gives us a sprawling retelling of Tubman’s story spanning 14 years from 1849 to 1863. She gives us Harriet the slave, who escapes an abusive slave owner. She gives us Harriet the Underground Railroad conductor, who brings more than 70 slaves to freedom. She also gives us Harriet the freedom fighter during the Civil War.
The downside of this broadly sweeping approach is that none of it is given us enough weight. We don’t feel the joy of Harriet’s escape from slavery because Lemmons never took time to show us slavery’s horrors. We don’t understand why Harriet risked her life to save her friends and family because Lemmons didn’t take time to develop those relationships. Even the Underground Railroad missions, which should be the heart of the picture, are reduced to a series of montages set to gospel music.
The script by Lemmons and Gregory Allan Howard is simultaneously too much and too little. There isn’t much in the film that you won’t remember from your middle school social studies class.
If the script is perhaps too overambitious for its own good, the rest of the film suffers from the opposite problem. The film is the definition of workman-like. Cinematographer John Toll stages every shot as you would expect him to, and composer Terrance Blanchard hits every note you would expect. The supporting cast members- most from the world of Broadway and music- each have one note to play.
Lemmons’ saving grace is Ervivo who provides Tubman with more humanity than the script does. She gives a raw, almost feral, performance as a woman treated as property who slowly reclaims her humanity and the humanity of those around her.
Kudos also to Lemmons for letting Ervivo, a Grammy and Tony-winning musician. showcase her musical talents in the performances of several slave hymnals. The musical interludes aren’t strictly necessary, but they are welcome moments of perfection in a film that rarely reaches those sorts of highs.
In an interview with IndieWire, Lemmons said that she hopes “Harriet” (rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets) is “a film that a sophisticated 10-year-old could see with his grandmother.” On that measure she succeeds beautifully, I think. She sanitizes the horrors of slavery in such a way that children can understand the evil without being bombarded by it.
I imagine “Harriet”, in its broad and somewhat simplistic approach to American history, is a film that will be appreciated by children more than adults. I hope that parents will use the movie to introduce kids to Tubman. Any film that interests children in their country’s history is a good thing, I think, and I hope that “Harriet” does just that.
But for those who already know Tubman, “Harriet” will likely be a frustratingly conventional retelling of an extraordinarily unconventional life. As a primer for newcomers it succeeds, but as an enduring monument to Tubman’s legacy, it leaves something to be desired.
No one, myself included, is going to argue that this story did not need to be told. But is it too much to ask that it be told better?
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.