Before Superman, the Flash, and Captain Marvel, there was real-life hero Harriet Tubman. The biopic Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), plunges into drama right away, showing a young Harriet (then known as Minty), her freeman husband, John, and extended family receiving a resounding “no” after pleading for Harriet’s freedom with her master. Slave owner Edward Brodess swiftly resolves to sell Minty away from his plantation—and her family—despite his son Gideon’s initial affinity for her.
Minty decides running is better than being sold from Dorchester County, Maryland, to a plantation farther south. Throughout her journey to the free north, she’s overcome by “sleeping spells” (the tragic outcome of a slave master beating her as a teen) in which she sees her sister, who was sold away from her family, and scenes of looming plantations that allude to her knowledge of the future. These are the moments where God talks to Harriet, as the slave emancipator herself believed, and informs her of the best next steps in her escape.
Throughout the film, the mystical treatment of Harriet’s spells and visions, while an obvious dramatization, emblematizes the common practice of African Americans using the past and spiritual means as a guide to the future. Through this choice Lemmons assures the audience that from the beginning of her journey Harriet knew her future and her people’s future—and they were free.
Minty adopted Harriet Tubman as her free name in Philadelphia, the first her mom’s and last her husband’s, but other enslaved Black people called her Moses. As Moses freed the Israelites, Harriet frees her family and several other Black people through her spiritual connection, while her peers observe in awe of her keen sense of direction. A completely fictionalized bounty hunter and his sidekick add even more drama to the action-packed biography. The hunter assists Gideon (a fictional amalgamation of the eight real-life Brodess children who went on to own Harriet), now a grown man who’s determined to catch “Moses,” while the sidekick reconsiders and assists Harriet in freeing people instead.
Before the film’s release, Cynthia Ervo, the British actress who stars as Harriet, made comments regarding African American Vernacular English that put a nasty taste in some people’s mouths. But controversy aside, she delivers an outstanding performance. The script relies more heavily on fast-paced action than on piecing together every historical detail in Tubman’s life. And that’s fine—it didn’t need to. Enough facts set the foundation; solid storytelling and engrossing performances carry the film to its end.
Harriet doesn’t avoid the atrocities of that time in American society like gruesome whippings and the forced separation of families—in fact, the film makes them equal players in the story alongside the triumphant African Americans who helped Harriet make her way to freedom time and time again. The film is dramatized in a way that neither exaggerates nor lessens Harriet’s extremely real struggle—no film can tarnish a legacy so profound. It rightfully portrays Harriet Tubman as a nonfictional hero in her own time and forever more. v