(Warning: I don't know if anyone can "spoil" a movie about the life of Harriet Tubman. But I do reveal much of what happens in "Harriet" below. So if you'd like to go in blind, stop reading now.)
The first feature film about Harriet Tubman is finally here.
"Harriet," directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo as the legendary Underground Railroad conductor, premiered Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival. It doesn’t hit theaters nationwide until Nov. 1.
So I took a trip to the festival to see “Harriet” at a press screening Wednesday. What follows isn’t a review per se, but a collection of thoughts on the movie.
In short, it’s good but not great. It’s a standard-issue biopic with traces of a superhero origin story and a chase movie. But as Variety’s Owen Gleiberman and other critics have said, “Harriet” doesn’t have much beneath its mythic surface. It's so awestruck by its subject, and so duty-bound to chronicle her place in history, that it misses the boat on realizing her, or anyone else in the movie, as a character. We see a lot of what Tubman did, and what made her an American hero, but little of the human she actually was. It feels like a movie made to be shown to seventh-grade classrooms.
All that said, Erivo is a terrific Tubman. She has a natural command of the determined stare we’ve come to associate with “Moses,” and a soulful voice that reveals what little vulnerability the movie lets her have. "Harriet" itself may not have much potential this awards season, but Erivo has an outside shot at the lead actress categories.
Other thoughts on “Harriet”:
• Auburn is in the movie. “Harriet” mostly takes place between 1849, when Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland, and the Civil War, when she led the Combahee River raid that liberated more than 700 slaves. But a key scene, set sometime in the mid-1850s, finds her in the city she would call home after the war. It even graces the screen: “Auburn, New York.” What’s more, the scene takes place at the Auburn home of none other than then-U.S. Sen. William H. Seward, portrayed by William L. Thomas. There, he and Tubman talk strategy with a room full of other abolitionists, including an unnamed but unmistakeable Frederick Douglass and a woman who may be Seward’s wife, Frances. Alas, the home is clearly not the actual Seward home, which we all know today as the Seward House Museum on South Street. Instead, the filmmakers opted for a brick home most likely located in Virginia, where the movie was shot.
You have free articles remaining.
• The final scene in the movie also takes place in Auburn. There’s no graphic this time, but the scene shows Tubman going home with her family after fighting in the Civil War. So the house they enter is presumably the Tubman residence on South Street, which today is part of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. Again, though, the filmmakers did not go on location. They appear to have found their Tubman residence somewhere in Virginia, though Auburnians will surely notice that the facade is yellow stucco, not brick like the real home.
• Those two scenes are the only ones set in Auburn. (And, for the record, Seward’s role in selling Tubman the property that would become her family’s home goes unmentioned.) But a series of title cards describes Tubman’s life after the events of the movie, including her work toward women’s suffrage and her last words, “I go to prepare a place for you.” The movie then fades to the photograph of Tubman discovered just two years ago, the one that captures a younger Tubman than any other known image. A scene in the movie shows Erivo sitting for that photograph, too.
• The best scene in “Harriet” sees Tubman, on her first return trip to her former Maryland plantation, leading her brothers and other slaves through the moonlit woods to freedom. Pursued from all directions, they come to a river. The group is skeptical about crossing it, particularly a woman carrying her infant, but Tubman insists. She even draws her pistol on her brother when he threatens to turn back. She’s so resolved because of who told her the way forward was across the river: God. He speaks to Tubman during her fainting spells, and she listens. We see her prove that faith, and how well-placed it is, when she crosses the river, arms in the air, slowly immersing herself up to her neck. But her head remains above the water. When she passes the halfway point and her shoulders emerge, the group is agape as they watch from the bank. They then follow her through the water to freedom. What makes the scene riveting isn’t just the dramatic tension, but the way it demonstrates both Tubman’s fearless leadership and its roots in her faith.
• Another pair of scenes tease some compelling directions for “Harriet,” but the movie doesn’t pursue them. First is Tubman’s reunion with her husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), upon her initial return to Maryland. But she’s devastated to learn that he has remarried because he believed she died during her escape. Besides, he reminds her, she abandoned him at their planned rendezvous point to escape alone. And though she did so to save him from losing his freedom in the event they were captured, she abandoned him nonetheless. The second scene sees Tubman return to the plantation to rescue her sister, Rachel (Deborah Ayorinde), only to be turned away. Ripping Rachel away from the safety of the plantation is selfish of Tubman, her sister argues. So she stays. These two moral dilemmas, these gray areas of the black-and-white landscape that is slavery, could have given “Harriet” some depth if it was any more interested in exploring them, or their impact on Tubman. But the movie feels like it’s in a hurry to reach the next bullet point in history, the next formative moment in her myth.
• Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae are their charismatic selves as abolitionist William Still and boarding house proprietor Marie Buchanon, both in Philadelphia. But they don’t get much to do. Far more screen time goes to Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess, Tubman’s former slave owner. And though Alwyn does fine being a reprehensible bastard, all that time did not need to be spent following his efforts to recapture Tubman. The filmmakers may have sought dramatic tension, but they squandered the opportunity to get to know more interesting characters.
• In pursuit of that dramatic tension, “Harriet” also takes its share of small liberties with the truth. That visit to John Tubman didn’t actually happen on her first return to Maryland, but a subsequent one. She also carries a flintlock pistol instead of her noted revolver, presumably because the pistol’s reload time makes her climactic encounter with Brodess more suspenseful. And she doesn’t take the name “Harriet” in place of “Minty” until arriving in Philadelphia, whereas biographer Kate Clifford Larson believes Tubman did so after her wedding. I hope to speak to Larson for a story about the movie’s factuality, and to both the Seward House and the Tubman park for another story about the movie’s depiction of each location. I also hope to interview Erivo about portraying such an important character as Tubman. So as “Harriet” approaches its nationwide release Nov. 1, The Citizen will have much more coverage of the movie and its significance to Auburn.