Harriet, oh Harriet,
What daring feats you managed!
Your life was like a chariot
To bear the disadvantaged.
You fled the yoke of slavery
To Northern sanctuary,
And yet displayed your bravery
By seeking more to carry.
You earned the trade name “Moses” and
Freed slaves without the pleading.
You knew what God opposes and
Agreed to do the leading.
Harriet, oh Harriet,
What lives you liberated!
The weight, you knew to carry it,
And free whom God created.
MPA rating: PG-13
My apologies for the long delay. After getting through NaPoWriMo, I didn’t anticipate taking a two-week break, but school, work, and adopting a new cat kept me busy. Anyway, it’s time to get back into movie mode, starting with a wonderful biopic from last year. The story of famed abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman has been long overdue for the big-screen treatment, and Harriet does her tale justice.
Making a name for herself on the stage, including the Broadway production of The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo may only have three films to her name, but this (her third) is undoubtedly a star-making role. The film follows Harriet’s life from her time as a Maryland slave named Minty, captive to the Ross family, to her daring escape northward to her repeated journeys back to help other fugitive slaves reach freedom. Harriet’s indomitable courage and faith in God carried her through heartache and danger, and although she suffers from fainting spells, they turn out to be visions from God. She manages both the ferocity of the big moments, like a face-off with her former master (Joe Alwyn), and the sensitivity of small ones, as when she hops over the Pennsylvania border into sunlit freedom.
Harriet is notable for me because, for the first time, I actually know someone who was an extra in it, and I was able to spot her on a few occasions after she described which scenes she was in. It might not be like knowing a movie star, but it certainly felt cool to me being able to point at the screen and say “I know her!” Beyond the title role and the extras, the secondary cast does good work as well, including Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton and Janelle Monáe of Hidden Figures. And while the horrors of slavery could have warranted an R rating, like 12 Years a Slave, Harriet manages enough restraint to be more accessible as a history lesson suitable for older kids as well.
Common complaints I’ve read include that Harriet is too formulaic or that it treats her fainting spells as a superpower, granting her warnings and visions from God. The latter has a basis in history, and as for the former, I don’t mind a “predictable” story if it’s well told. Not being familiar with all the details of Tubman’s life, there were still moments that surprised me and kept me invested. It was also fascinating to watch elements of history I hadn’t thought of, such as how the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 affected the efforts of Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
Although I’m not black, the story of the Underground Railroad, freeing souls in bondage, resonates strongly with me; it’s why I think Operation Underground Railroad today is such a laudable charity, since slavery is still very much alive today. So many biopics leave me with a lowered opinion of a figure I’d thought I liked (The Theory of Everything, Ray), but Harriet made me admire her even more as an American hero. From the period detail to the stirring Oscar-nominated credits song “Stand Up” (partly written and sung by Erivo herself), Harriet is exactly the kind of biopic I most enjoy.
Best line: (Harriet, to her former master) “God don’t mean people to own people, Gideon! Our time is near!”
© 2020 S.G. Liput
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