Wednesday, October 30, 2019
We have a tragic tendency to sanitize great American historical figures, usually to their benefit but mostly to our own detriment. The unwillingness to see George Washington or Thomas Jefferson as complete human beings seems to take one of two forms: deifying them to the point of absurdity or trying to hold their failings as evidence of utter moral decrepitude.
Harriet Tubman is ripe for reexamination as a complicated figure. Taught in the history books as a saintly lady who was a key “conductor” on the Underground Railroad bringing slaves to freedom, Tubman has been revealed in more recent scholarship as a rough, pistol-packing woman capable of great egotism and jealousy.
“Harriet” is the vibrant new cinematic portrait of Tubman played by relative unknown Cynthia Erivo, who won’t stay that way long. Director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard, has delivered a bravura film that is part reverence, part religion-tinged redemption and part action/adventure.
It’s a compelling, complex biopic.
The story begins in 1849 Maryland, where Aramintra “Minty” Ross was born to slave parents held by the Brodess family, though her father (Clarke Peters) later earned his freedom. Minty was also allowed to marry another free black, John Tubman (a soulful Zackary Momoh), but remained in bondage after the patriarch of the slave owners died and the yoke passed to the spiteful son, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn, utterly chilling).
The film actually follows the historical record pretty closely, with obvious fictionalized portions to fill in the gaps. So there are created figures like Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), a charming rapscallion slave tracker who walks the line between friend and foe, and the much scarier Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey), who seems to regard returning slaves to bondage as his personal calling.
Other aspects of the story that might seem like Hollywood hokum are actually part of the historical record. For example, that Minty was injured by a heavy object thrown by a master splitting her head open as a girl that left a dent in her forehead, and was prone to somnambulist spells the rest of her life where she would go into a daze.
It was during these times that Tubman claimed to commune with God. “The hole in my head just made God’s voice more clear,” she says.
Emotionally rent by already having three older sisters sold and lost to the family forever, Minty resolves not to let the same happen when Gideon means to sell her away down south. She runs away to Philadelphia, a harrowing journey assisted by kindly black preacher (Vondie Curtis-Hall) who cites Biblical scripture about slaves honoring their masters during the day but preaches a different tune when white folks aren’t around.
There she meets and allies with noted abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and finds friendship with Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe), a sympathetic but privileged black hotelier.
The film’s strongest sections relate to Tubman’s escapades back to Maryland and other slaveholding states to rescue other slaves, her legend steadily growing. Because she dresses in a man’s clothing and sings hymns about slaves freeing themselves from the Egyptian pharaohs, she is given the name of Moses by the slave masters. For her part, Minty takes her husband’s last name and her mother’s first to form her own “free name.”
It’s a wonderful, rich story, and at the center of it all is Erivo as Harriet.
The actress plays her as a woman born to believe she is nothing, but her faith and resolve eventually force her to strive against a system that is evil and unjust. Especially haunting is the strange relationship she has with Gideon, who grew up with her as children and clearly covets her for more than her cash price.
She begins the film with eyes wide and fearful, and as time goes on her gaze gains a hard glint. The legend of Harriet Tubman has grown to titanic size, but “Harriet” shows the extraordinaire real woman who begat centuries of stories. This is one of the year's best films.