DIRECTED BY: KASI LEMMONS/2019
Any good superhero has an origin story. A look at the experiences and the context that caused our hero to choose to fight back against the villains, the oppressors, and injustice that they are fighting. There is always a training time where one learns to use their powers and the first few attempts where they try to use these powers to effect the change they long for, to save and inspire others. By the end, they usually emerge triumphant, or sacrifice themselves for the greater good and victory. These are pretty common themes to superhero films, so why not try them in an historical biopic on Harriet Tubman, right? In the new film, Harriet, the results are a mixed bag.
Kasi Lemmons directs Harriet, a look at the American hero who escaped from slavery and then went on to be a major part of the underground railroad that led many other slaves to freedom. She is an icon whose picture was supposed to grace our $20 bill starting in 2020 (this has been delayed at the time of this writing), and her story is one that should and will continue to inspire generations to come. It is easy to see why Harriet is structurally built to lean into the notion of superhero, but the effect is that there is lack of balance of who she was historically, as a real life figure, and the myth that this film is creating by using the tropes of the superhero genre to tell her story.
We are given a window into Harriet Tubman’s (Cynthia Erivo-Bad Times at the El Royal, Widows) backstory growing up as a slave on a plantation in Maryland. Early in life she was struck on the head by a slave owner and began having visions which she believed were from God. These visions, while shown in the film to usually be authentic as it relates to the correct decisions she makes as a result of them, tend to treat it as a weird quirk that everyone else just goes with as if it is her “superpower”. We lose a lot of the authentic devotion to God that the real Harriet Tubman was guided by, providing some lip service to it, but these visions are more indicative of clairvoyance, as it is shown in the film, than direct words from God.
A son to the slave owner who has a soft spot for Harriet named Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn-The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots) is the arch villain of the film. It is he who gave Harriet her head wound, launching her superpower, and it is he who will gather other racist hordes to thwart her plans to bring other slaves to freedom. One of his most ruthless underling is a slave catcher, and former slave, Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey-Halloween (2018)). It is Gideon who is used as an antagonist throughout the film to drive the story forward, though there is little historical evidence to support most of this narrative. Instead, he is the prototypical arch nemesis who proves through the narrative that slavery is bad and freedom is good. I don’t think the film needed such a cartoon-ish villain to prove that point. That is the starting assumption of the film anyway, so creating this sort of arch-nemesis arc where our hero will meet him in a climatic battle keeps the narrative focused on this end goal rather than developing the layered narrative of the real historical Harriet Tubman.
Even in the face of modern-day racism, the majority of the country views this historical slavery as a true evil that was rightfully fought against during the civil war. It is the deeper commentary that serves as a foundation for what we still need to fight against today that is shortchanged in this film. A figure like Tubman could provide an example of a woman who not only stood against these evils of racism and slavery, but was active in their destruction, not through some sort of superpower guiding her to be labeled as “Moses”, a call-back to the leader of the Hebrews who led them out of Egypt and towards the promised land. Instead, using the historical title and its association with the Biblical narrative and the underground railroad, the film could have demonstrated a deeper moral center that demonstrated how Harriet Tubman did what she was able to do with what skills she possessed, and how we can too. This is a message that could inspire many who still need to fight racism and slavery (especially modern-day trafficking) today.
In Harriet, Tubman arrives safely in Philadelphia, which proves to be a place for her to train and hone her skills like Batman did in the mountain fortress of Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. This is done through her association with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.-Murder on the Orient Express) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae-Hidden Figures, Moonlight). Soon, however, she will go back to fight her arch-nemesis Gideon Brodess, his slave-tracker, and lead the people to freedom.
While this superhero approach might succeed in helping people feel good about the story as a whole, it has the cumulative effect of creating a hollow myth compared to the true greatness that was Harriet Tubman. The film alludes to several things that it doesn’t develop well, but could have crafted in the script to create a more grounded, historical person. For example, did you know that Harriet Tubman was a spy in the Civil War, and then was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war? She helped plan the raid on Harper’s Ferry with John Brown, and personally led the raid at Combahee Ferry, liberating 100’s of slaves. This last mentioned raid is given a tiny fraction of screen time, but these things are so much more interesting than what we are shown. The clandestine “underground railroad” is paid lip-service, but no real development is given to it other than what is needed to facilitate her getting back into the action of bringing slaves from her area of Maryland back to Philadelphia, and later Canada.
Harriet Tubman is a figure deserving of proper recognition for her accomplishments, and should be an inspiration to every human being alive. Harriet, as a film, however, is not worthy to be praised as much as we need to praise its main subject. The cast is strong, and so is the cinematography. The music is one of the strongest part of the film, both the score and the way in which Tubman used music to communicate to slaves to draw them out of the fields and call them to escape with her. There is much to be mined from this film that was good, but taken as a whole it doesn’t feel so, well….super.
Harriet Tubman deserves to be on our $20 bill, and she deserves to be an historical figure that we continue to draw inspiration from. She is worthy of several films that depict all of her story from her oppressive origins, her fight to free slaves, her roles in the civil war, and her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. What she doesn’t need is to have her story turned into a myth by mirroring the narrative arcs of the modern day superhero films we see from Marvel and DC. She is so much greater than Harriet.