It’s hard to believe that this is the first film on the life of Harriet Tubman, the legendary 19th-century “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. This film should be a remake, or at least a retelling, as this is a historical personage we should all be more familiar with. There are some bumps and some weaknesses in the film, but it should be seen for two main reasons—lead actress Cynthia Erivo’s performance and for dealing with the issue of slavery in America.
Erivo is a young British actress and the winner of the 2016 Tony Award for the Best Actress in a Musical for The Color Purple. She easily makes the move to film with a (I hope) sure-to-be-nominated performance as the tough and determined abolitionist and slave rescuer. The film rests firmly and securely on her shoulders, and there isn’t a false move made. She’s entirely relatable while projecting period accuracy at the same time. This is a model for matching the right actress with the perfect role.
The film itself is solid, and is filled with genuinely touching human moments. Rarely has a film included so many touching and genuinely emotional reunions. The cinematography by John Toll (Academy Awards for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, and currently working on Matrix 4) is on the lovely rather than the gritty side, but it matches the tone of the film. The film could have been grittier in tone and look, but the grit here firmly resides in Erivo’s face and heart. The look doesn’t achieve the beauty that was so controversial in 12 Years a Slave, but is still easy on the eyes.
The music is a problem. It does far too much of the work for the viewer (and listener), and unnecessarily so, seeming not to trust the images and performances to signal meaning. It tells us too quickly and strongly who is nice, who is mean, who is dangerous, and when we are to be worried. It approaches mickeymousing far too often, and we’re robbed of the experience of realizing things on our own.
While the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, there is a fascinating undercurrent to Joe Alwyn’s characterization and performance. He plays the son of Harriet’s slave owner, and the relationship, while not explored enough, adds some needed nuance to the film. Is he just the typical bigoted slave owner, a blond personification of racial cruelty? Or is there more to his obsession with Harriet than we might think at first? The film hints at more, but perhaps since this is a fictional character (sorry…), the film won’t press the possible issues too far. But there is a layer of intriguing questions that make the film richer.
There is also a nod made to unintended consequences in the film. Not everyone wanted to be rescued, and the film offers some understandable reasons why the risks might not be worth it. When Harriet makes some decisions (such as her first escape), she is surprised and often angry by what can happen in her absence. And actions that might have worked well in years past aren’t always smart now, as laws change and new considerations arise.
One strength of the film is the treatment of Harriet’s connection with God. The film raises the questions of Harriet’s hearing God’s voice as being due to a head injury, and a journal entry to this effect is one of the few moments of humor in the film. But the film doesn’t make fun of her, and demonstrates that whatever she felt she was hearing, it led to one successful “freedom raid” after another. It’s a tightrope walk to show in terms of screenplay and visuals that Harriet was having a spiritual experience, and one that needs to be respected; it could have been played either darkly or comically. Addressing the role of God, and especially the voice of God, in a film is dangerous work. That the film succeeds so handily here is a triumph, and one that will likely be overlooked by many.
The film isn’t always accurate historically. Gideon (Alwyn) is fictional, as is Marie’s character (played beautifully by Janelle Monáe). Time is compressed, and Harriet’s astounding successes after her years as a “slave stealer” are given short shrift. Harriet Tubman’s life deserves a mini-series, which probably won’t happen because this film is a good enough portrayal to last for years.
Most importantly, at least for a student of slavery and the black experience (i.e., me), this is a must-see for nearly all Americans. It’s not the deepest or most thoughtful film of the year, but it’s well-made, and will likely be the only film on this important person for a long while. Americans of the 21st century need to be reminded of the horrors of slavery and racism, and sometimes a film becomes important simply because it addresses or presents issues of importance.
One final note: This was directed by a black woman, Kasi Lemmons. She’s perhaps best known for Eve’s Bayou (1997). Conversation starter: Why does Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, the upcoming Little Women) get so much press for being a female director, and why does Ava DuVernay (Selma) attract similar press for being a black female director, when Lemmons hardly gets attention for a well-made film about a heroic woman set against the greatest abomination in our country’s history? Talk amongst yourselves.