When it comes to the definition of what an American hero looks like, Harriet Tubman would easily fit the description. Tubman, who is often referred to as “Moses,” is what “bad-ass” looks like in real life. She escaped slavery to become a free woman. That in itself is something to applaud. That wasn’t enough for the famous Underground Railroad conductor.
She had to risk her life and go back to free hundreds of more slaves. Adding to her legend, Tubman worked for the Union Army as a scout and a spy during the Civil War. She even led troops in the war, becoming the first woman to do so. Pretty impressive? Yeah, now we get why she should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
So, the excitement of a bio-pic of Tubman, who helped out in the women’s suffrage movement, appearing on the big screen in movie theaters in 2019, was a big deal for a lot of people. But the impact of the film when it came out was still not readily accepted, and therefore did not turn out to be the blockbuster it could have been.
According to Box Office Mojo, Harriet made a little more than a pedestrian $43 million worldwide off a $17 million budget. To some, that kind of showing at the box office might signal that the two hours and five-minute film was somewhat of a bust. That would not be looking at the big picture.
The fact that Harriet made it on the big screen in the first place would be considered a win. People have been pining for years to see if Hollywood would actually have enough moxie to do something on this iconic and historical figure. Thankfully, that came into fruition with Kasi Lemmons (Luke Cage; Eve’s Bayou) directing the action drama.
The star of the history flick is Cynthia Erivo, who earned herself two Academy Awards nominations as the lead character. While there are some puff and bluff that Lemmons dabbles in with Harriet, Erivo works magically as she brings the slave fugitive turned freedom carrier to sparkling life.
There was some controversy around Erivo being cast to play the part of Minty (later Harriet Tubman) because she is a British actress. That didn’t sit well with a lot of folks. But the Tony Award-winning star (The Color Purple) nailed her part behind her stupendous acting chops. Erivo is what makes Harriet something we can all hang our hats on.
The film itself sort of drags for a bit at the beginning, but is able to keep you plugged in throughout. That’s due to intriguing parts played by Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. and the always terrific Janelle Monae. Odom portrays William Still, a leading abolitionist in the time of the Underground Railroad.
It was Still’s book (The Underground Railroad,1872) that has given history buffs a glimpse of just what took place during those times as slaves tried to escape to freedom. Odom does a pretty good job here (not quite as mesmerizing as he was as Aaron Burr in Hamilton), but nonetheless, he is a fascinating look of calm and reason as he tries to both assist and tutor Harriet (Erivo) about the dangers of the slave trade.
As far as Monae’s character, the stylish Marie Buchanon, who comes in and aides Harriet, is strictly fictional. She doesn’t exist. But Monae’s portrayal adds something of an elegant touch to the film as she gives Harriet the 411 on to dress properly like a lady and helps her to get to know how to use a gun.
Other characters in the film are minor roles but they all fit in well together to make Harriet a good watch as well as catching up on some history. That bit of history is slavery, a sometimes taboo subject people are not too willing to talk about openly, let alone go see it at the movies. Well, with the COVID-19 keeping people at home watching TV, and with calls for social justice raging across the country, HBO made the right call to have Harriet debut this summer on their channel.
Though this was an unexpected caveat. Now perhaps millions more will have the opportunity to see Harriet at home. The gist of the film is highlighting struggle, a person bent on perseverance to overcome those obstacles, and thinking unselfishly to jeopardize her life to help others who couldn’t help themselves. If Harriet Tubman was running for President, there would be a whole lot of folks lining up to cast their vote for her.
Harriet (Focus Features) affords us this chance to witness her greatness.