Harriet Tubman became legendary in her lifetime as “Moses” who led so many of her people out of slavery to freedom. She was the leading “conductor” on the Underground Railroad escape route that ran in the 1850s.
Many risked their lives guiding or sheltering escaped slaves, but Tubman, who had escaped herself in 1849, went further — personally returning to Maryland to lead escape parties. She personally took at least 70 slaves out and gave instructions that allowed another 50 to escape.
The magnificent new film of her life will inspire anti-racists everywhere. It is a relatively conventional biopic, but the story is so riveting that this does not hold it back. And it is still rare enough to be worth celebrating a political drama about black people, starring a black woman, directed by a black woman, with a script by two black writers.
Cynthia Erivo’s driven intensity as Tubman dominates. She is utterly believable when she pulls a gun on one of a party of escapees she is leading and says she’ll shoot him before she lets him give up.
Erivo captures the leap of faith when Tubman realises during her own escape that many of the conductors running safe houses are white — and she will have to trust a white person. A glorious moment occurs as she literally jumps for joy when she realises her escape has succeeded.
Throughout director Kasi Lemmons contrasts the rich, beautiful countryside with the barbarism being carried out by the slavers. The strange mix of legality and crude brutality allowed Tubman’s husband to hire a lawyer who ruled she was free — but also let her owner ignore the judgement. On later missions Tubman encounters free black men who make a living working for the slavers to hunt down fugitive slaves.
Hollywood has avoided certain periods in US history, and this is only the second mainstream film from the slaves’ point of view. Lemmons, who co-wrote the script, still can’t rely on her audience knowing the background, so there is a fair amount of explanation. Her film is less effective at showing the savagery of the slave system than 12 Years a Slave in 2013, but much more so at showing the resistance.
Tubman bore a scar on her forehead from when a white had hit her with an iron weight when she was an adolescent. From then on she had fits and religious visions. She saw these as god guiding her struggle. My one real criticism of the film is that it takes these visions too literally, which diminishes Tubman’s own incredible resourcefulness, tracking skills and versatility as an actor — sometimes a servile slave, sometimes a free black and occasionally a man. At one point in the film she says of her escape, “God was watching, but my feet was my own. Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Tubman joined the Northern forces in various roles, particularly using the skills she had developed as a spy and a scout. In this role she co-led the Combahee River Raid in 1863, when 300 black troops raided Confederate stores, along the way freeing more than 700 slaves, without loss. Among other things this was the first time a woman had commanded US troops.
This is one of the few times in the film that budget restrictions become a burden — it is well done, but rather more static than I would imagine.
Some characters have been invented or compressed, but most are historical figures. For instance, the conductor William Still (Leslie Odom Jr) turned the notes he is shown taking into a riveting eyewitness account of the lives of escaping slaves, The Underground Railroad.
In the end the film’s greatest hurdle is that so much happened in her life that great events whizz past in the background. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass and anti-slavery insurrectionist John Brown both appear, but you have to be looking closely in order to spot them.
Lemmons was right to get in as much as possible and it means the film will repay multiple viewings, as well as reading up on the Underground Railroad, the Fugitive Slave Act and the reasons for the outbreak of Civil War.
As for her later role in fighting for the vote for women, there simply isn’t room to dramatise it. Like all the best historical films it both inspires and makes you want to find out more.
The more you know about Tubman’s story the more it screams out for big budget dramatic representation. The shocking thing is that no one has had the opportunity before. Harriet shows what can be done with a mixture of talent and passion. I hope now to see Toussaint L’Ouverture, Ida B Wells, Olaudah Equiano, William Cuffay or Claudia Jones onscreen in the not too distant future.
Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons is in cinemas from 22 November