While spring and summer brought all kinds of heroes and villains to the big screen, Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” brings to life a different kind of superhero.
The film stars Cynthia Erivo — who is proof Broadway needs to send more stars to Hollywood — as Harriet Tubman, the woman who brought hundreds of slaves to freedom in the 1800s. She’s a figure we’ve all read about in our history books, and she might have been the answer to question 5 on a pop quiz, but “Harriet” gives a much-needed and in-depth look at who she was as a person. Tubman was an escaped slave, an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She was also a woman of faith who loved her family with all she had. A lot of times we hear about Harriet Tubman the historical figure rather than Harriet the daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend.
Luckily, “Harriet” gives us a bit of both, beginning with the plantation in Maryland where she lived her life as a slave.
Upon hearing her master, Gideon (Joe Alwyn, Taylor Swift’s “London Boy” on her new record), plans to sell her, Harriet decides to run, leaving her family and friends behind, including her husband, John (Zackary Momoh). There are some close calls, but she makes it the nearly hundred miles to Philadelphia. All. On. Her. Own.
There she meets William (Leslie Odom Jr.), who offers her a new identity, and Marie (Janelle Monáe), who offers a home and a means to support herself. Harriet is a free woman for the first time in her life.
She gets word to her family she’s alive and safe, but she’s also struggling with survivor’s guilt, if you will. She makes the decision to go back and get her husband first and then go back for the rest of the family. Alone.
Unfortunately, John is a bit of a lout and already has remarried. But, she’s able to help friends and family make the journey instead. While Harriet’s role as a wife has ended, she’s found something more important: helping slaves find freedom.
Again and again, Harriet makes the treacherous journey. She carries fake papers, a gun and sometimes dresses like a man. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to free enslaved people. She’s smart, capable and extremely resourceful. She is basically a real-life superhero.
The white folks in the movie grow more and more irritated over Harriet’s actions as each trip strips them of more and more of their “property.” They even begin posting rewards for the capture of “Moses.” Gideon knows it’s his former slave and becomes intent on finding her, by any means necessary.
With its quickly moving storyline, “Harriet” is a fast-paced and engrossing thriller. You’re rooting for her the entire way, and your heart pounds a bit harder with each close call, each tracker, each former owner.
Having said that, we know how Harriet’s story ends. She doesn’t get caught and she eventually helps rescue more than 800 slaves. She is the first woman to lead an armed expedition of the U.S. Army. She is a Union spy. She is a hero. The white antagonists provide a decent-ish foe — and they commit horrible acts — but we know they don’t win.
Erivo is fantastic. Seriously, she’s brilliant in this role. She’s the pep talk you never knew you needed. Take for example this exchange: “Do you know what would happen if you got caught? You got lucky, Harriet.” “I made it this far on my own, so don’t you tell me what I can’t do.”
It’s the kind of exchange that made my heart soar during 2011’s “The Iron Lady.” While it’s not close to Meryl Streep’s declaration of feminist independence — “With all due respect sir, I have done battle, every single day of my life” — it’s enough that I wanted to give a little fist bump every time I heard it in my head. It’s become a new battle cry.
It strikes a chord deep inside me. It reminds me of growing up around strong females. My mom is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. My Granny, too. I learned from an early age that a woman can be strong and do what needs to be done. (It wasn’t that my Granddaddy didn’t do his part. Their love story was a partnership, completely.)
Bottom line: “Harriet” is a feature film that likely will resonate with a lot of viewers. It gives us an intimate, moving picture of a protagonist, a black woman, who is attempting to overcome barriers and thrive in a world where the cards are stacked against her. That’s a real American hero.