‘Harriet,’ the film – a review

Cynthia Erivo as Araminta “Minty” Ross, or Harriet Tubman, John Tubman’s wife and Ben and Rit’s daughter

by Wanda Sabir

A woman of controversy even now, Harriet Tubman-Davis, freedom fighter and liberator as portrayed in this current iteration, is stirring things up again. If a viewer is looking to see a story where white people are not cast as saviors and Africans as beasts, then this is not the film for you. Clearly, there have to be bad white characters – it is after all the Antebellum South and Africans did not enslave themselves. However, this story tempers white folks with sentimental embellishment. If one can bracket the “Hollywood-ness” of this perpetuation of whiteness, then “Harriet” (2019) is the compelling story of a determined woman who is divinely guided.

The term liberation theology is seldom applied to African people who epitomize within their persons this kind of thinking. Liberation theology is philosophically centered aboard those slave ships with the Yoruba, Fanti, Akan, Christians and Muslims. What other people sustained such a vision across time and landscape for 400 years? It was a strategy that worked. Harriet a descendent of that tradition.

The film “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons, who wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (from Vallejo), stars Nigerian British actor Cynthia Erivo as Araminta “Minty” Ross, or Harriet Tubman, with Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still, abolitionist, and Janelle Monáe as entrepreneur and free woman, Marie Buchanan.

Marie and Harriet have many lovely scenes as the freeborn business woman who has no personal knowledge of slavery comes to both respect, admire and love Harriet as the two become confidantes. Clarke Peters gives a wise and compassionate portrayal of Ben Ross, Harriet’s father and Rit’s husband, as does Vondie Curtis-Hall as Rev. Samuel Green, a secretly-abolitionist freedman, who gives Harriet important advice.

All of this drama is set against a backdrop of Terence Blanchard’s score and John Toll’s lovely cinematography.

“Harriet” is a story of faith and it is also the story of a young African woman who is determined to free as many of her people as humanly possible. Early on, she learns that fear is her only enemy and when she learns this, she has no other problems – not her fainting spells from a head injury or the occasional setbacks incurred when she is moving through enemy territory with other Africans who initially challenge her leadership or want to turn back. In Erivo’s very capable hands, Harriet is not just actualized, but embodied.

“Harriet,” though filmed in Virginia, is a mixed bag made in the studio. There is a lot of tension, surprise, pursuit and close calls, which Erivo’s Harriet handles with dignity and fortitude. The film is not hard to sit through despite these tense moments, which could have been a lot worse. The violence toward Harriet is shown in a flashback and other brutality is minimized except one brutal scene where an African kills another African. There is even a suggested love story between Harriet and her master’s son Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). It’s all in his mind. Harriet doesn’t even entertain these ideas, but the setup is there.

Moses, as she is known, is too busy rescuing her people, fighting a war yet more importantly never forgetting where she has been and what she left behind. She tells those assembled in the North at a meeting where Frederick Douglass and other well known abolitionists have gathered that the Africans who were born free do not know what it is like to be enslaved and if they did, they would understand the urgency with which she operates.

What I like about this film is the compassion Harriet has for her sister, Rachel Ross, portrayed by Deborah Ayorinde, who was born in London, grew up in San Jose, and the love the abolitionist has for her mother and father and the care she gives them. She is flexible and able to think on her feet. In one scene while she is unconscious, someone moves to touch her and another African stops the person and says she is talking to God.

Cynthia Erivo is no stranger to the American stage or theatre. She has portrayed Celie in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” for which she won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical and was one of nine recipients of the 2017 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Erivo’s film roles include the 2018 heist film “Widows” and the 2018 thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Look for her as Aretha Franklin in the upcoming National Geographic “Genius” series.

“Harriet” is in theatres now. Watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqoEs4cG6Uw.

Boycott ‘Harriet’?

Readers might have heard about the lawsuit filed by Byron Allen, owner of Entertainment Studios Networks, against Comcast, which owns Focus Features, the studio that produced “Harriet.” The Philadelphia Inquirer states: “Issues with Comcast stem from a $20 billion civil rights lawsuit filed by Hollywood entertainment executive Byron Allen, who claims the cable giant discriminated against him by refusing to carry his channels.

“Allen’s lawsuit cites the 1866 act – the first civil rights legislation passed to protect the rights of emancipated Blacks after the Civil War – which says African Americans have the same rights as whites in business contracts. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Allen could use the law as a basis for his claims. Comcast is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that decision.” The Court has until June to make its ruling. The New Jersey NAACP chapter canceled its “Harriet” screening in protest and support of the lawsuit.

See: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-comcast/u-s-supreme-court-weighs-comcast-appeal-in-byron-allen-racial-bias-lawsuit-idUSKBN1XN2C3

For background:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/byron-allen-v-comcast-supreme-court-race-case-could-reshape-bias-lawsuits-1245950

https://www.inquirer.com/news/new-jersey/harriet-movie-naacp-comcast-civil-rights-law-1866-cancels-screening-new-jersey-20191028.html

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.