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'Harriet' illuminates Harriet Tubman's heroism but not the world that necessitated it

The filmmakers' choices don’t give enough context for America’s original sin to allow audiences to see how acceptable it was for others to be so inhuman.
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in "Harriet."
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in "Harriet."Glen Wilson / Focus Features

"Harriet" is the first feature-length rendering of the life of American hero Harriet Tubman (née Araminta "Minty”" Ross), who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a spy for the Union Army and a leader of one of the more daring raids during the Civil War, on the Combahee River, liberating over 700 enslaved persons. Most Americans know at least some of her story, which was, indeed, like a movie. She was, as the saying goes, larger than life, though relatively in reality small of stature.

But her iconic nature makes any film about her an inherently tall order. "I wanted people to see her humanity," Cynthia Erivo, who played Tubman, said in a recent interview. "We know that she ran the hundred miles to freedom. We know that she came back and helped people escape again and again. But we don’t really hear about who she was, which is what this wonderful film does, bringing her humanity to the screen."

Yet, in "Harriet," Tubman remains an elusive vessel, a symbol of how we synthesize history into something more digestible to modern audiences. The film works, in part, as a corrective to a collective understanding of one of the worst periods in American history. We’ve not seen a film that centers on an enslaved person’s escape and self liberation, and seldom, in a film that centers on an enslaved person’s narrative, has that person ever been a woman. In those ways, "Harriet" is a new chapter in the ever-growing universe of biographical slave narratives on screen.

But, like other such films to date, it continues to leave audiences with two questions. Can films that explore this nation’s original sin ever present both honest and human renderings of the people that lived in them? Will these portraits ever resist sentiment to render a kind of truth as best ascertained by the evidence they’ve left us of their stories?

In this case, the filmmakers have given us the most digestible history, resisting centering Harriet the formerly enslaved woman, in all those complexities, and pivoted to the archetype of Harriet Tubman, the hero of the Underground Railroad we have imagine from scraps pasted together from history books.

In the decades since it’s taken to bring one of our history’s most revered heroines to screen, we’ve learned a lot more about the peculiar institution of the slavocracy of the American South. Several books have illuminated the brutality of the slave economy and rigid social rules of plantation life, the hierarchies and rewards that white planters used to control the bodies they held in forced bondage; the particular cruelties exercised by white women on the black women under their control; and the inextricable relationship between the accrued wealth from the toil of millions of black people and the northern banks and factories.

Matthew Desmond, in his essay for The New York Times’ 1619 Project, eviscerates a common and shallow understanding of the Southern plantocracy’s reach into American life then and now. "What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop," wrote Desmond, "was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above."

That totalitarian barbarism isn’t fully rendered in this film. It avoids bolder, more painful renderings of life during enslavement that would viscerally illustrate to audiences the urgency in Tubman’s flight to Philadelphia from Maryland, as well as her unyielding tenacity to return and risk capture or death to rescue her beloveds and any who desired to make the arduous 100-mile trek north.

Much of the film is devoted to tracking her escape from the eastern shore of Maryland to the bustling streets of Philadelphia and back again, her adoption into the fellowship of the secret Underground Railroad, feted among her brethren for accomplishing the impossible, and guiding groups helping the enslaved flee to freedom.

Director Kasi Lemmons' debut, "Eve’s Bayou," (canonical in black cinema) expertly blended Southern gothic and mysticism, and that influence is evident in "Harriet" as audiences watch Tubman’s "spells" or seizures — which she experiences as premonitions— that warn against imminent dangers or confirm for her the surety of her path.

God, in the form of those spells or seizures, talks to her, warning her to escape before she is sold or helping her as she evades discovery or capture, and one could feel the film holding back at various points deeper explorations of the times to provide an imagined interiority for Tubman. "Harriet" thus aims to situate itself between profundity and mysticism, but embraces the safe waters of a conventional biopic — a hero’s journey — instead of a more intimate exploration of either the woman or the era.

Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, "12 Years a Slave," by comparison, reflects more historical knowledge of the reality of the era. McQueen, of course, had the benefit of Solomon Northup’s own words to lead audiences into both the protagonist’s interiority and the horrors of enslavement. Northup’s journey from resistance, adaptation and survival revealed to audiences the banality of systemic evil and shamed them if they dared look away, making "12 Years" simultaneously a beautiful and an ugly film.

While "Harriet's" filmmakers did not have the benefit of a cohesive narrative penned by Tubman to add more multidimensionality and nuance to her character, their choices of what to emphasize (her heroism) and what to de-emphasize (her deep humanity in the face of almost unfathomable inhumanity) don’t illuminate enough about our past for audiences to draw the most important lessons about America’s original sin: that it was so easy, and so acceptable, to be so inhuman.

Still, "Harriet" clearly wants to subvert our understanding of slave narratives by presenting a "freedom narrative" in sharper relief. Thus showing Tubman in "Harriet" as the heroine of her own liberation who uses it to champion the freedom of others is an appreciated and noble gesture for audiences yet underacquainted with her.