By Brother Saye
Before I share my opinion about this film, let me present a few “important” facts about Harriet Tubman that all the readers should know beforehand.
Harriet Tubman lived through some of the most vicious acts of slavery as a child, as she was often beaten by Whites who purchased and sold Blacks like cattle, during slavery.
Harriet Tubman served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman guided the raid on Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 slaves.
Harriet Tubman also helped recruit men for the legendary John Brown, before he raided on Harpers Ferry. For those of you who are not familiar with John Brown, Brown advocated the use of “armed insurrection to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States.” Both Brown and Tubman planned for the raid on Harpers Ferry to be the start of a slave liberation movement, to be carried out, by any means necessary.
The movie “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons, failed to tap in on Tubman’s experience as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and briefly shows her leading a group of Black Union soldiers towards the end of the film. None of the vicious violent personal experiences experienced by Harriet during her childhood was shared in this film. Lemmons misses a golden opportunity at the beginning of the film to introduce viewers to Harriet’s personal experience with slavery, by downplaying the physical violent treatment she experienced as a child, from her White slave owners. Instead, Lemmons starts the film by showing the psychological impact of slavery, as Tubman is unjustly declined her freedom, on request of her husband, who is a free slave. Instead of displaying the physical violence within slavery, and connecting the viewers with the horrific reality of the institution, Lemmons decides to show a scene where Harriet’s sisters are separated from her and sold into slavery. The scene lacks a back story that the viewers can relate to, but is displayed multiple times throughout the film, with no explanation and back story.
Unfortunately, Lemmons also takes the film for a dive when she creates a fake character named Bigger Long, played by Omar J Dorsey. Bigger Long is a Black bounty slave hunter, and supposedly the best in the area. Long, “a make-believe Black man,” stands out as one of the main villains in the film, whose main purpose is to chase Harriet down and capture her. I have no clue why this fake storyline was needed, when accurate storylines, like Tubman’s relationship with John Brown to start a slave liberation movement, or her experience as a Union Spy, would have captured the audience, and surely elevated the film. Not a single White slave owner is shown killing a Black slave in this movie, but someone how, this fake Bigger Long character is shown viciously beating to death a (fake character) Black abolitionist named, Marie Buchanon. This is not good. The truth is, there are legit reasons why many have criticized Kasi Lemmons and her team of writers for this film. With that said, Janelle Monáe does a wonderful job playing the make-believe character, Marie Buchanon.
As for Cynthia Erivo, who plays Harriet Tubman. Erivo had her moments, but some of the scenes just fall flat. I am not sure if this is due to her acting, or if this is what the directors of the filmed wanted from her. Harriet lacks warrior confidence and a warrior spirit in this movie. Erivo’s depiction of Harriet often comes off as confused and timid, despite having few good moments in the film. I want to give Erivo the benefit of the doubt and blame Lemmons and the writes for this lackluster interpretation of Tubman. The spirit of the warrior who wanted to start a slave liberation movement with John Brown is nowhere to be found in this film.
Overall, the cast did an excellent job of acting, and the costumes and geographical optics were excellent, but this is not a film we should turn to when remembering the legacy of Harriet Tubman.