Araminta Ross, better known to history as the freedom fighter Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in 1822. She died free in 1913 at her compound in upstate New York. In the 90 years in between, Tubman cemented her place in history as a leader of the Underground Railroad, bringing more than 70 slaves, including members of her own family, to freedom.
She also advocated for women’s suffrage and during the Civil War was both a scout and the first woman (note: first woman overall, not first Black woman) to lead a raid at South Carolina’s Cohambee River, which liberated more than 750 slaves.
Yet, it’s taken over a hundred years to get a Hollywood studio to make a movie about her. Aisha Hinds played Tubman in a notable episode of the series “Underground,” and Cicely Tyson played Tubman in a 1978 mini series ‘A Woma Called Moses” but there has been little else that you can remember about Tubman in pop culture. Yes, we know her name – but do we know her story?
Directed by actress turned director Kasi Lemmons, who directed the critically acclaimed films “Eve’s Bayou,” “The Caveman’s Valentine” and the woefully underrated “Talk To Me” the movie version of “Harriet” started out well. But the casting of Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo, who won for her starring role as Celie in “The Color Purple” on Broadway, soon became controversial after the British/African actress seemed to be making fun of American Blacks on Twitter a few years ago.
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Hinds and American-born actress Adepero Oduye were trotted out as examples of a better choice. While Erivo has mostly avoided the controversy, asking people to give her a chance in the role via a contrite social media post, it’s possible she simply had more name recognition because of her Tony win.
If that wasn’t enough controversy around the movie, the Black health collective Girls Trek pulled out of a planned promotion with the film’s studio, Focus Pictures, because they say the studio reneged on contracted promises to commit “Harriet” cast members to leading treks.
The real Harriet Tubman (above)
Well, here’s the thing. There is a movie to be mad about. That, in itself, is reason to be joyful. A heroic Black woman is front and center in a film about her extraordinary life. And, although some have called it a “slave” movie, in fact, the entire film is about freedom and how much Harriet believed in and supported many others who sought it as well.
Erivo may share the disdain that some Africans have for African-Americans. Does it change her commanding performance as the crusading Harriet? Not in my view. Erivo shares with her the small stature that made Tubman’s solo flight to freedom and her rescues of others so amazing. As a young woman, Tubman was injured by an errant metal weight a slave owner threw at an escaping slave. She said the injury allowed her to see visions that she determined were coming from God.
Erivo is joined by an always incandescent Janelle Monae, “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom, Jr., “Queen Sugar” star Omar J. Dorsey, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Lemmons’ husband Vondie Curtis Hall and son Henry Hunter Hall. While the actors are all great, Erivo imbues Harriet with the same sense of unstoppable purpose that led her to return over and over, from the free North to Maryland, one of the states at that time noted for the venality and persistence of its slave catchers.
It’s a four-hour drive from Dorchester County, Maryland’s Harriet Tubman National Park, to Philadelphia. Imagine the challenge that it would be, even today, to walk that distance with people who needed to stay hidden. Imagine doing it without compass, cell phone, Google Maps, GPS and via intel that you only received by word of mouth.
But Tubman did.
After its premiere at Toronto Film Festival in September, reviews said the story wasn’t as compelling as it could be. One reviewer called it “dutiful.” The challenge in bringing Harriet to life is that by all accounts, she was dedicated to her cause and carried out what she believed was her divine purpose with faith and fortitude. Erivo conveys that purpose and so does the film, showing the dehumanizing impact of slavery and how much slaves were willing to risk and endure to be free.
Another criticism has been that it doesn’t focus enough on Harriet’s personal life. She was an activist her entire life, ultimately living at a compound in Auburn, N.Y. where she took in former slaves and established a home for the elderly and infirm. There was certainly drama in her later years – she was once attacked and injured on a train when she refused to sit in a “colored” car and was later scammed out of money. She married one of the men she took in at her compound who was 22 years younger.
Would those details have made for a more compelling story? Sure, but “Harriet” deals with a very specific time period which is when Tubman was rescuing slaves. A mini-series would better encapsulate her entire life and it would be great if another one gets done. But for now, “Harriet” the movie provides the most comprehensive look at a woman we should be celebrating.
We may have known her name, but thanks to this movie, millions more will know her story. Is it worth watching beyond educational and historical purposes? Yes. There is so much more that hadn’t previously been revealed in the glossed-over details of her life. “Harriet” the film turns Tubman from a two-dimensional history lesson into a flesh-and-blood woman who accepted and willingly served her divine purpose to improve others’ lives. For that reason alone, “Harriet” is a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
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