What would it be like to know oneself free after a life of chattel slavery and a 100-mile solitary escape, mostly on foot? It’s an ennobling thing to contemplate, and to aid our imaginations we have Harriet Tubman’s description of the moment she crossed the Maryland border into a free state.
“When I found I had crossed that line,” she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
In “Harriet,” the new film from director Kasi Lemmons telling the story of one of America’s greatest heroines, the moment comes after the audience has endured with Tubman the selling of her sisters into crueler slavery further south; beatings and humiliations; the refusal of her “master” to acknowledge a legal finding that she is free; being hunted like a dog; and the wrenching separation from a dearly beloved husband so as to spare his life.
We have watched her drop into a narcoleptic faint in the middle of the woods, uncertain who might find her, and been relieved when it is a kindly Quaker, who gives her a ride to the edge of Pennsylvania.
He slows at the border to ask her if she would like to ride or walk across. She chooses to walk on her own two feet into freedom, and solemnly returns to her friend a borrowed coat and hat before she takes the momentous steps—as if to underscore the fact that she is her own woman now, owing no one anything. We see her walking solemnly forward, holding her hands into the sunlight, just as she described to her early biographer, Sarah Hopkins Bradford.
And then she gives a little skip. And your own heart will skip with joy too, seeing it, because in that little skip is “such a glory over everything.” It captures the difference between bondage and liberty, and makes us feel what Tubman said. It’s worth the price of admission for “Harriet’s” capture of this marvelous scene.
The film is not without other such moving moments; it could hardly lack them given the subject. Harriet Tubman was such a marvel of courage and strength, and her story so dramatic, that no effort to tell it could fall entirely flat.
“Harriet” is at its most effective when it allows Cynthia Erivo as Tubman to use her rich, deep, Grammy-winning voice to sing the story through the old Negro spirituals. Tubman and other slaves really did use these songs, as we are shown, to send coded messages, and their melodies and lyrics effectively evoke all the sorrow, longsuffering, and longing of an enslaved people.
Alas, the film chooses to give its marvelous heroine the Marvel comics treatment, undermining Erivo’s strong performance with a script that can’t decide if it wants to be a serious biography or the female “Black Panther.”
When many souls desperate for freedom crowd a two-person cart Harriet has arranged to transport her aging parents, for example, Tubman’s partner on the raid observes, in an obvious nod to “Jaws”: “We’re going to need a bigger cart.” That kind of fourth-wall breaking allusion to pop culture works well for superhero flicks. It’s desperately out of place here.
Similarly, when the screen-Harriet is advised not to attempt rescue missions because it’s too dangerous, we’re treated to a series of shots of Tubman repeatedly bursting through the doors of an office in Philadelphia with new cohorts of fugitive slaves, always to the astonishment of onlookers. The effect is humorously defiant, and the audience laughed, precisely as they would have laughed at Captain America defying the expectations of his friendly rival, Tony Stark.
The overall effect of this jarring comic book tone is to undermine the seriousness of what is at stake. It’s righteously easy in the moment to loathe Harriet’s on-screen foil, her former master’s vindictive son, and all he stands for, but the mood is that of Indiana Jones: “Racists! I hate those guys!” The script doesn’t seem to imagine the quest for genuine liberty to be any more a going concern than the fictional quest to out-race Nazi treasure hunters.
I don’t mean to suggest that it isn’t stirring in the moment to see a nasty slave-owner get the stern dressing down Harriet gives him. It’s just that it’s a cheap thrill. For one thing, it never happened: Harriet’s former master never had a son. For another, this is pandering: we all get to feel good about ourselves for being anti-slavery and anti-racism—as if this were hard or especially virtuous in our time.
Like virtually all period dramas to come out of Hollywood, the costumes and cinematography may transport us to a different place and time, but the manners and sensibility remain entirely contemporary. Hence the film’s pop culture allusions, and its temptation to substitute pious speeches for insight.
On-screen Tubman tells off not only her racist nemesis, but also Frederick Douglass and fellow members of the Underground Railroad, for supposedly being insufficiently committed to the liberation of slaves. Since Douglass allowed his home to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, and was a friend to Tubman in life, one wonders why he merits this imaginary rebuke, beyond our contemporary fascination with virtue-signaling and a cinematic choice to alter Tubman from a real woman who actually worked wonders into a Wonder Woman (visions from God are her super-power) who sees farther than anyone and needs no one.
But if Tubman is just another silver-screen badass woman—a superhero—we need not imitate her, because we lack her powers, and we can leave the theater momentarily moved, but unchanged. By contrast, the Harriet Tubman we encounter in history poses a challenge to us, because she accomplished all she did with far less than most of us have, and we must ask ourselves whether we live up to her example.
Contrary to the story told on film, Tubman ran to freedom without her first husband because he, though a free black himself, always threatened to betray her if she tried to escape.
How is it that Harriet Tubman, even while still a slave, was seemingly possessed of more interior liberty than her legally free husband? What does it take to be a Harriet, rather than a John Tubman? Do we have her liberty? Are we as free? These are deeper questions than the movie wishes to ask.
I give “Harriet” credit for that glorious scene of initial freedom, for not hiding Tubman’s religious faith, for some well-observed moments, and for what I hope will be a revival of interest in the Harriet Tubman of history.
Still, I can’t help but regret Hollywood’s tendency to patronize, passing on the opportunity to tell the more ennobling true story rather than veiling it in the easiest possible emotional experience. As Tubman’s early biographer, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, put it, “The story of Harriet Tubman needs not the drapery of fiction; the bare unadorned facts are enough to stir the hearts of the friends of humanity, the friends of liberty, the lovers of their country.”