“Very few men have ever known that men are free.” I thought of these simple words from Rose Wilder Lane’s Discovery of Freedom while watching Harriet, a terrific new film about the remarkable Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery and then returned to the South at least a dozen times to help friends, family, and others escape too. Later, as a scout for the Union Army, she guided troops in their assault on plantations along the Combahee River, where hundreds of slaves ran to the Union steamships and freedom. She is reportedly the first woman to have led an armed assault during the Civil War.
Not every enslaved person wanted to be rescued, however. In this film, after Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) risks being captured in order to bring her own sister, Rachel (Deborah Ayorinde) to safety in Philadelphia, Rachel refuses to go, saying, “I ain’t leaving my babies . . . can’t everybody run!” Tubman can’t understand such an attitude. Isn’t freedom worth everything? Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Tubman and Lane both knew that great truth — it isn’t enough to be free; you have to know you are free.
This film is different from such recent films about slavery as Twelve Years a Slave (2013) and Birth of a Nation (2016), in that the physical horrors of slavery are alluded to but not dwelled upon here. We don’t see the whippings, the rapes, the sadistic torture. While those films are important in telling that part of the story of slavery, Harriet is about the inalienable right to freedom itself, regardless of how one is treated. A well-treated slave is still a slave. As a result, the characters are richer and more complex than they are in the more traditional “blacks are good, whites are bad” movies.
Tubman has been quoted as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
We see the economic panic of plantation owners facing bankruptcy from the loss of their escaped slaves, the quiet aid and personal risk of white abolitionists on the Underground Railroad, treacherous black trackers who earn money by helping to bring runaways back to the south, and the contrast in education and experience between blacks in the city and blacks on the plantation. When a freeborn black woman named Marie (Janelle Monae) tells Harriet she needs a bath after she arrives in Philadelphia (and offers her own tub for the purpose), Harriet responds with dignity, “You’re freeborn. You’ve never known the stink of fear.”
As Tubman returns repeatedly to lead slaves to freedom, angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament to whom God demanded, through Moses, “Let me people go.” The allusion is developed in numerous ways, and in one particular scene Harriet motivates her skeptical followers by walking directly into the waters of the river she feels compelled to cross while men pursue them on horseback (though not with chariots.)
One reason for Tubman’s ability to avoid capture was that everyone assumed this “Moses” was a black man or a white abolitionist in blackface. It never occurred to them that their nemesis was an illiterate woman standing just five feet tall who suffered from seizures due to a head injury: she was hit with a metal weight when she was a young teen. These seizures lead her to have “visions” that guide her away from danger and toward safer paths as she conducts her little groups to freedom. She is described by one grateful character as “a woman touched by God.” This suggestion that Tubman was a visionary guided by God has caused many reviewers to pan the movie — not because they disagree with the accuracy of the scenes (Tubman often described the experiences she had during her seizures as “visions from God”) but because these reviewers simply don’t like the idea of God having anything to do with her success.
Angry plantation owners offer a reward for the “thief” they call “Moses,” ironically equating themselves with the Egyptian taskmasters in the Old Testament.
Nevertheless, Tubman believed it, and the scenes are handled well. We see her premonitions as fuzzy, monochromatic scenes that come into sharpness gradually over the course of the movie. God doesn’t speak to her directly, but she sees images that eventually make sense to her. For that reason, it could just as easily be interpreted as her own mind making logical sense of multiple details she has observed. Harriet might have been illiterate, but she was not unintelligent. She could read the sky and was a skilled tracker. To communicate with other slaves without attracting the attention of white overseers, she often sings, her rich contralto hiding her overt message in the covert melody of a folk spiritual. These melodies are haunting and sad, especially when she sings a farewell to her mother in the fields as she prepares to run away for the first time. The moment is heartbreaking yet empowering, and the music is exactly right. Her rendition of “Wade in the Water” is even better.
Tubman interacts with many important abolitionists as she travels in the North; there are cameo appearances by Frederick Douglass (Tory Kittles) in his trademark lopsided Afro, and John Brown (Nigel Reed). Senator William Seward (uncredited) invites Tubman into his home and praises her work. And black journalist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who carefully records the details of every passenger on the Underground Railroad in order to help family members reunite in the north, becomes a close friend and supporter. It is largely because of Still’s meticulous recordkeeping that we have a reasonably accurate and uninflated account of Tubman’s work. Without him, the numbers she is thought to have rescued might lie in the hundreds rather than a “mere” 70.
Harriet is well worth seeing, as a piece of history and as a piece of filmmaking. It is a fair story, even if it isn’t an entirely factual story, (as no biographical film ever is) and will probably be shown in schoolrooms for many years to come. The story is suspenseful without being gruesome, and the acting is strong without being overbearing. The side story involving the fictionalized black tracker Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) is especially good in that it fits both the biblical allusion and the film’s theme of choice and accountability. The cinematography provides a rich setting for both the escape scenes and the town scenes, and the music contributes evocatively to the tension and the message. Most of all, it is a film that celebrates the inalienable right — no, responsibility — to “live free or die.” As Rose Wilder Lane might say, “Don’t ever forget that you are free.”