It’s virtually impossible not to be moved by this story of Harriet Tubman’s life. A film, which begins with her as a young slave on the Brodess plantation and ends with her being the first woman to command a battalion in war, director Kasi Lemmons brilliantly portrays a fully rounded individual who did more than just free a few slaves.
“We all saw it as a female empowerment film, but I really viewed it as an adventure film as well,” says Lemmons. “I was interested in the things that you don’t know about Harriet Tubman and this was an opportunity to me to present this superhero, a real American hero, this woman that existed outside of the realm of ordinary limitations.”
Lemmons, who spent months researching Tubman’s life directs an incredible cast that includes British actress Cynthia Erivo (“Widows”) as the small but mighty Tubman. A part she plays with precision, the entire story falls on the strength of her perfectly restrained performance which is heartbreaking and raw and whenever she is on screen your eyes are on her.
“There were not too many people who could play Harriet. Cynthia is fierce and she’s tiny, she’s strong and powerful, and she’s filled with this beautiful energy and humanity. You feel her soaring soul when you talk to her and I knew this was the woman who could play Harriet Tubman for she is a force of nature,” Lemmons adds.
Her tenacity is on display from the opening moments of the film when Harriet, then known as Araminta “Minty” Ross, discovers she is being sold to new owners in the South. After experiencing a powerful premonition, she realizes she needs to run.
She travels on foot, relentlessly pursued at every turn by the plantation owner’s son Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who calls her unruly and untamed, along with a few enlisted black slave catchers headed by Omar J. Dorsey. Littered with emotional and pivotal moments and guided by a powerful score by Oscar-nominated composer Terence Blanchard, there’s a pivotal moment, where rather than allow herself to be recaptured, she chooses to throw herself into the river below.
“It’s in that moment that Harriet makes the true decision to be free or die,” Erivo shares. “There is no other option. I don’t know if she knew that until that moment. I think that is the crux of the movie—the idea that freedom is more than just not being someone else’s property. Freedom is the opposite of death.”
Throughout her 100-mile quest for freedom, Tubman encounters allies and enemies who create an amazing ensemble cast. From Vondie Curtis-Hall as Reverend Green, who is secretly a conduit to the Underground Railroad, Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monaìe), who runs the boarding house she resides to abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), from the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. It’s there she ends up choosing the new name, Harriet Tubman.
Months later Tubman, armed with a gun, bravely returns to the Brodess plantation to rescue her husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) and there is yet another pivotal moment when she learns the devastating news that he has moved on after her departure, has remarried and is expecting a child. That doesn’t stop Tubman who becomes a full-fledged conductor on the Underground Railroad—a liberator known only as Moses, secretly helping runaway slaves reach the promised land. There are several more touching scenes of her shuttling more slaves to freedom, returning for her parents, played by Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway to her sister who refuses to leave the plantation “Can’t everybody run!” she states as Tubman tries to convince her.
There’s a moving encounter with the dangerous slave hunter Bigger Long (Dorsey), and another satisfying scene with the increasingly angry and reckless Gideon Brodess who is still seething over the financial loss of several slaves and it’s then she finally delivers her brand of justice.
Erivo, whose parents are Nigerian, felt an enormous responsibility to do justice to Harriet Tubman’s legacy. “There’s definitely been pressure to play this woman, this icon, because she’s an inspiration to so many people,” she shares. “There’s also the excitement of finally being able to bring this woman’s story to the screen. Because it should have been done well before now. I’m just lucky that I get to be a part of it.”
The film features an ensemble of important historical figures from the 19th century including Frederick Douglass and not only covers Tubman’s role as a conductor in the Underground Railroad, but her life as a suffragist and position as a spy for the Union army.
The best way to capture the true emotional weight of historical events is to portray them dramatically. This extremely powerful story about the life of the iconic freedom fighter traces her remarkable accomplishments, shares her resilience and shows what happens when a cohesive group of people come together for one common cause.
“You will come out uplifted, inspired and knowing things you didn’t know before and will be incredibly moved and optimistic,” says Lemmons.
“Harriet” releases in theaters November 1. Check out the trailer below:
Samantha Ofole-Prince is a journalist and movie critic who covers industry-specific news that includes television and film. She serves as the Entertainment Editor for Trendy Africa. Photo Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features