– By Maria Andress –
Harriet, the Focus Feature film, hit theaters earlier this month with a 97% Rotten Tomatoes Audience Rating and a slightly over-performing weekend at the box office. Harriet Tubman, the titular character of the film, is one of the three most well-known figures in American history with such a legendary story its safe to say multiple generations (particularly of girls) were waiting to see whether filmmakers could capture her adequately. The verdict? Her soulful character and the details treasured from childhood tales were effectively captured – the flow of events in the film not quite so well, but certainly enough to be entertaining.
A hero character is described in dictionaries as “In mythology and legend, a man or woman, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his or her bold exploits, and favored by the gods.” Insert Focus Feature’s Harriet, portrayed by actress Cynthia Erivo, and there is definitely a woman endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for her bold exploits, and favored by the grace of God.
The screenwriters Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons imperturbably balance the legendary faith aspects, such as her “premonitions” being messages from God, with the scientific aspects such as the medical diagnosis of her vision spells coming from brain damage received from a cracked skull in her teens. In a way that delights both the Christian believer that glories in and the modern mind that demands explanations, Harriet binds the historical with the mythical and cheats no one in the process.
Erivo’s Harriet is delightfully the feisty, no nonsense, diminutive, gun-wielding figure who emerged from the slave plantations to astonish the Underground Railroad with her dogged daring and success in rescuing over 70 slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation and another 700 on a raid with Lincoln’s gunboats during the Civil War. Going with grit and stubbornness against anyone in her way, the film Harriet is a good case for a perfect screen heroine, because while being such she still contains the fears, personality failures, and struggles of a normal girl. There is nothing two dimensional about her persona. In love with a man but not becoming a sexual object, forever bold but not depreciating of her male counterparts, using her womanly instincts to further her cause rather than espousing the falsehood of needing to do what a man does. That is where this film nails the action heroine on the head.
Besides that, Harriet boasts beautiful cinematography, period clothing, and a pleasing vocal track of African-American spirituals. Although the instrumental tracks are a bit overly dramatic, the black “Moses” lifting her voice to summon slaves from the fields is a powerful testimony to the power that music wielded in slaves’ lives. One of the best montages in the film is the sequence of Harriet Tubman’s first rescue missions set to a bluesy jazz that stemmed from the heart of black spirituals.
The film does get bogged down at points with its slower pace. It almost drags, not quite hitting its points quickly enough. That and it’s straightforward, characteristic progression of story – to be expected from a real-life historical drama – are the only thing that keeps this film from real greatness. Regardless, it offers a live glimpse into the five foot woman with a gun, Harriet Tubman, who through a firm belief in God and a stubborn will for all men to be free, completed some of the most daring slave rescues in US history. That in itself makes this piece of cinema worth the watch.
About the Author
Maria Andress is a film production and acting alumna from JPCatholic (Class of ’17) who hails from the proud green and gold state of Wisconsin. She is currently working in film producing, and pursuing a career in period film production. She is also a travel enthusiast always on the lookout for a fascinating idea or historical tidbit that she can translate to story through the many mediums of art.