On Friday, Feb. 21, the Staller Center for the Arts presented the acclaimed film “Harriet” to a nearly full audience. Directed by Kassi Lemmons, “Harriet” follows American heroine Harriet Tubman on her journey to freedom and her work in the Underground Railroad.
The film approaches the topic of slavery in a different way. Instead of displaying the physical atrocities of slavery such as beatings and rape, “Harriet” focuses on the emotional immorality of slaveowners, with Harriet’s master Gideon referring to slaves as “pigs that you can play with or eat,” using children as bait, and claiming that God does not listen to the prayers of slaves.
The film begins in 1849, as Araminta “Minty” Ross — played by Cynthia Erivo — escapes enslavement from a Maryland plantation, leaving behind her mother, siblings and husband after Gideon put her up for sale. Viewers held their breath as Minty made her way north, relying on nature and her visions from God to lead her. Lemmons captured the excitement in Minty’s face as she reaches the Pennsylvania border with a closeup. As she watches a sunrise over the vivid Pennsylvania landscape, Minty knew this was a new beginning.
In Philadelphia, Minty meets abolitionist William Still, portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr., who is shocked that Minty made it 100 miles to freedom on her own. Minty takes the new name of Harriet Tubman. Harriet lives in a boarding house owned by the freeborn and fashionable Marie Buchanon, played by Janelle Monáe. The differences between the two women (one born free, the other born a slave) are highlighted when Marie is visibly appalled by seeing Harriet’s scars after years of flagellation.
Although Marie teaches Harriet how to act and dress like a freewoman, Harriet feels that she can never fully adjust without her family. William refuses to help Harriet free her husband, leaving Harriet determined to get him herself. Harriet arrives in Maryland only to discover that her husband has remarried after believing she died. Distressed, Harriet then rescues her siblings, all except for her sister who refuses to leave her children. After successfully bringing the group to Philadelphia, Harriet is inducted into the Underground Railroad, working as a “conductor” making trips to bring dozens of slaves to freedom.
The southerners begin calling Harriet “Moses”, thinking that Moses is a white abolitionist in black-face. Ironically, “Moses” is far from white but it adds to the fact that the white general public at the time could not fathom a black woman being in a position of leadership. The Fugitive Slave Act is passed just when Gideon discovers that “Moses” is Harriet. Gideon is furious that Harriet is the person responsible for taking the slaves and has caused his plantation to fall into financial problems. Gideon pursues Harriet to Philadelphia along with black slave hunter Bigger Long. Marie is killed by Bigger Long after she belittles Gideon and doesn’t share information on Harriet. Marie’s death is highly emotional, her face repeatedly beaten but she keeps her strong personality until the end, never letting the enemy win. Harriet flees to Canada after the death of Marie.
Harriet is again doubted by William and others at a council when she insists that the Underground Railroad must continue and they must bring runaway slaves to Canada. It was surprising to see the crowd question Harriet after she proved multiple times that she can rescue slaves on her own. Harriet reminds the group of the horrors of slavery and continues her mission.
In the next sequence of the film, Harriet’s sister dies before she can free her. Gideon plans to use Harriet’s nieces and nephews to lure and catch Harriet but at the same time, the camera pans to Harriet rescuing the children and the rest of Gideon’s slaves, showing the audience that Harriet is one step ahead of his plan. Harriet then encounters Gideon, knocking him off his horse but sparing his life after she receives a vision of the approaching Civil War which she says will defeat his cause. Harriet then rides off into the sunset, symbolizing the end of Gideon’s control of Harriet.
In the final scene, we see Harriet leading union soldiers as hundreds of freed slaves come rushing towards them as Harriet’s recurring vision finally comes true.
Spirituality is a major subject throughout the film. Harriet seems to have an open dialogue with God, where he warns her of danger before it happens, through visions that she’s had since she was struck on the head by an overseer at 13-years-old. While the visions add a bit of Hollywood magic to the film, there are times where the visions solve Harriet’s problems all too easily. The film could have gone deeper into issues such as the cold, the hunger and the sacrifices that Harriet faced when operating the Underground Railroad in the wilderness.
Overall, “Harriet” captured the essence of Harriet Tubman, a leader who pushed her society’s standards of the capabilities of black women. Throughout the script, the frequent analogies of Harriet to Moses and Joan of Arc accurately represent Harriet as a savior that risked her life to bring her people to freedom. “Harriet” had the right amount of emotion and action to leave the audience sniffing and teary eyed, reinstating that Harriet Tubman and her achievements shall never be forgotten.