Director Kasi Lemmons understood something about Harriet Tubman that countless history books didn’t gleam or, if they did, they choose not to share: Harriet Tubman was a woman filled with love.
In the new film “Harriet” directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons and starring Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo, the British singer and actress brings the love that shaped the warrior, the “badass” that is Harriet Tubman to life in such a visceral way that I am experiencing chills as I type this review.
As Harriet, Erivo pushes deep inside herself and delivers Harriet’s anguish, Harriet’s fear, Harriet’s resolve and above all Harriet’s love. Harriet Tubman loved us. Correction, Harriet Tubman loves us.
Harriet ran away from a Maryland plantation where she was born and raised, a slave—property of a white family—then known as Minty.
Minty has fainting spells (the result of one of her masters cracking her head open when she was 13) and hears the word of “God” and can see events before they happen. Faced with slavery or death, she jumps into the river and, let’s say, is baptized and she arose, a new woman.
Saved by the river, she’s left alone in the dangerous woods where she walked 100 miles to Pennsylvania, the free state that borders Maryland.
The year was 1849, she was just 27 years old when she arrived in Philadelphia and took a new name, no longer Minty. She chooses Harriet to honor her mother, and Tubman to respect her husband, a free man that she left behind in her escape.
In Philadelphia, Harriet quickly finds a supportive community: the born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor Marien (Janelle Monáe), and the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) but her heart is heavy knowing her family and her husband are suffering. So great is her grief that she decides to return to the plantation to rescue her husband, but she discovered a significant roadblock and rescued her family instead. In all, Harriet made 19 missions and guided over 300 enslaved people to freedom.
“Harriet” the film is extraordinary just like Harriet Tubman. “Harriet” the film is brave just like Harriet Tubman. “Harriet” the film is beautiful, just like Harriet Tubman.
There is debate as to who originally said ‘Whoever saves one life, it is written as if he has saved all humanity’ (Quran or culled from Talmudic-period text) but the power of the words remains. Harriet Tubman saved all humanity.
Reviewed at Urban World Film Festival (Opening Night), Sept. 19, 2019.
Running time: 125 MIN.
A Focus Features release of a Stay Gold Pictures, Martin Chase Productions production. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Screenplay by Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard. Starring Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh.