African-American cinema tends to have a difficult ride in the UK. It only gets wide distribution if it conforms to ideas about popular genres or features major star names – even then it struggles. Aware of this, I sought out Harriet and managed to catch it before it disappeared from cinemas in 2019. I thought the film was terrific but I discovered some controversies about it in the US and this stopped me writing about it immediately. Then came various other things and eventually the Covid lockdown. I’ve returned to consider the film because it is now on BBC iPlayer as part of the BBC recognition of October’s Black History month.
‘Harriet’ is Harriet Tubman, the famed ‘conductor’ on the ‘Underground Railway’ that enabled slaves to escape the South and find refuge in the Northern states and eventually in British North America before the American Civil War and the Confederation of Canada in 1867. The film is a partial biopic – Tubman’s extraordinary life proves difficult to compress into 2 hours of screen time. My interest in the film was both because of its exploration of an important historical story, but also because it was a project for Kasi Lemmons. Lemmons strikes me as massively under-rated as a filmmaker. Eve’s Bayou (US 1997) and Talk to Me (US 2007) are two films I admire greatly. I was shocked that Lemmons didn’t get much coverage in the UK when the film was released. Instead the focus was on the actor who played Harriet, Cynthia Erivo. Erivo is excellent in the film but despite winning several awards, including a Tony for a Broadway appearance, there was some criticism that she was another Black Briton playing an African-American historical figure (i.e. like David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma and Chiwetel Ojiofor in 12 Years a Slave). This is a distraction (and the actors in question all have African heritage). The crucial question is whether Harriet performs a worthwhile service in bringing the important historical narrative of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railway to the attention of the mass audience and especially to young people – and not just those in North America – who need to know the story.
I think that the film does do this. Certainly there are some invented elements in the story but the important facts are drawn from historical record and the story is authentic in the main. Tubman was born into slavery as Araminta Ross some time around 1820 in Maryland (relatively close to the border with those Northern states that did not recognise slavery) and she married a free Black man, taking his name and calling herself ‘Harriet’. In 1849 she escaped, crossing the border into Pennsylvania. Her husband decided not to go with her. In Pennsylvania Harriet discovered that there was already a network of of Black and white Northerners helping ‘runaway’ slaves to establish lives as free Black men and women. However, Harriet decided to return to her former home and to lead her relatives to safety. She ultimately made several dangerous trips helping to establish the escape route over the next ten years. As well as the dangers she faced from white plantation owners (and Black slave-catchers), she also met problems with some of her own family members, including her husband. In the years before the outbreak of the Civil War the tensions between North and South rose and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed in Congress, effectively allowing slave-hunters to cross into ‘free states’ and re-capture former slaves to take back down South. Northern abolitionists and Black free men and women resisted but Harriet travelled to Canada initially before ignoring the changes and continuing to make successful trips to the South. An intertitle tells us that she rescued over 70 slaves in ten years. A coda then shows Harriet in charge of a Union Army force comprising 150 Black soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers plus gunboats in June 1863 at the Combahee River in South Carolina. The raid, led by Tubman, freed over 700 enslaved people. Harriet Tubman became the first woman to lead a Union Army force. She had also acted as a spy and her intelligence reports enabled the mission to be an overwhelming success.
All of this is offered by a film that is in effect an action adventure/historical drama co-written by Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard. It is handsomely mounted by Lemmons with a score by Terence Blanchard (probably best known in his film work for his work on Spike Lee films). It is photographed by John Toll responsible for several big budget historical action dramas such as Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, The Thin Red Line and The Last Samurai. The cast perform excellently, particularly LeslieOdom Jr. as the free Black man who organises the Philadelphia section of the Underground Railway and Janelle Monáe as the free Black woman who houses Harriet and provides great support. Joe Alwyn, another British actor, is convincing as the son of the plantation ‘owners’ of Minty/Harriet who tries every trick to re-capture her.
I’m not sure what it is that seems to infuriate some of the commentators on the film (which received two Oscar Nominations and many other prizes). Perhaps it is the fact that Cynthia Erivo is a pocket battleship as Harriet (she’s not much more than 5ft tall) and sings traditional songs at various moments to alert the slaves in the fields to her presence. She has a lovely voice and I enjoyed these moments very much. I thought Erivo carried the film very effectively. Harriet also prays at moments of crisis and appears to be helped by dreams that guide her. The film is effectively an action melodrama (‘melodrama’ was used as a Hollywood category for action pictures in the 1930s) and I think that it makes the film more engaging. I was impressed by the story which did not need a ‘white saviour’ figure and which actually focused on the economic value placed on slaves in helping to explain the historical context i.e. that the US (and the UK and other imperialist nations built empires based on the profits of slavery). I hope Harriet is widely seen and that it promotes understanding of American history of the 1850s. It is freely available on iPlayer in the UK for the next 25 days.