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Harriet Appropriately and Aptly Honors Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was an iconic figure on the fabled Underground Railroad, a long line of safe houses, or railroad stops, on which tens of thousands of runaway slaves from the southern states reached freedom in the North or in Canada, with a lot of help from black and white friends. She is a lower-case legend, a candidate for immortality on our ten-dollar bill and a treasure of history prior to the Civil War.

Her story is being told in a new film, Harriet, that opened Friday, that traces her life and her escape from slavery in Maryland, an escape on foot which covered 100 miles. It is an emotional and gripping story that not only sheds new light on Harriet, but the Underground Railroad and women’s history.

It is the kind of story that could have been overdone or undercooked, but in the able hands of director Kasi Lemmons, it turned out just fine. It is not only an enjoyable and inspirational film, but one that covers a lot of pre and post-Civil War history as well as some about the war itself. You learn a lot of history watching it and earn a new appreciation for the brave people, north and south, black and white, on land an on the sea, who, together, helped nearly 100,000 slaves (best guess) escape slavery and finished living their lives in freedom.

The pace of the story is slow at first, abominably slow but once Harriet starts to work with the Underground Railroad, with headquarters in Philadelphia, under the direction of William Still, who wrote a about the railroad, the tale picks up both speed and drama.

How accurate is the history of the movie?


Harriet Tubman, who lived to be 91, was a hardworking, productive, bold “conductor” on the railroad, but she was probably not the gun-toting combination of Joan of Arc and Annie Oakley, as the film suggests. She might have been hated by the son of her owner, but he certainly did not loathe her the way the character in the movie did, and certainly did not pursue her halfway across the country with a rifle.

In the movie, there are numerous dramatic moments that enrich the legend, but may not be wholly accurate. Tubman did carry a pistol for protection, but she really shoot some people? Did she actually run 100 miles, non-stop, to Philadelphia, as the film suggests? The scene of her wading across a river, in darkness, symphonic music in the background, is preposterous, but sure made for a great moment.

I thought the most interesting part of the movie was Harriet’s growth from a simple runaway slave to a hard-ass leader of the railroad, very confident and a born leader who rescued over 70 slaves and brought them north to freedom, risking her life on every single trip. She was also a woman who never stopped her anti-slavery work, even during the Civil War. Harriet, who said she heard voices from heaven, was the energizer bunny of her era. 

Director Lemmons does good work in not just telling Harriet’s individual story of courage. He covers the entire Underground Railroad story, taking pains to point out, thank you, that thousands of runaways escaped on ships bound from Southern ports to New York and Boston (where dockside police in both ports conveniently turned their bacs to runaways going down the gangplank so they could tell their bosses that they did not “see” any runaways disembarking the ship). He covers the start of the Civil War and the mission of the Union Army on which Harriet served as a spy and armed scout.

Harriet enjoyed a good life after the war living on the grounds of Secretary of State William Seward’s home in Auburn, New York, and became a mini-legend by the time she died.

Cynthia Erivo, a Broadway veteran, is nothing short of sensational as Harriet. She endures enormous physical and emotional trips during her years, faces down slave catchers and overcomes adversity. She is dramatic, she is emotional. There is a scene early in the film when her husband tells her, after she as been gone for a year up North, that he has taken up with another woman. Harriet cries and then bends over in agony. Erivo is forceful and admirable. It is a star turn, to be sure. 

Other good performances in the film are by Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still, Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, Zachary Momoh as her husband, Janelle Monae as friend Marie Buchanan and   Joe Alwyn (very impressive) as her monstrous master Gideon, 

People will compare this to stories such as Beloved and Twelve Years a Slave. They should not. Harriet stands on its own as the tale of a brave slave who ran off to freedom and turned around to help others do the same.

This is not an African American’s story or a woman’s story. It is an American story.