‘Harriet’ Is the Powerful Rebuke of White Supremacy America Needs Right Now
Depicting the moral outrage of American slavery—a system so horrific, true, and still alive—presents a major challenge to filmmakers. How to tell the story of a catastrophe that was in no way an aberration, that reverberates again and again and that is to do with real people, not simple heroes and villains? How to tell a story of triumph without giving in to the myth of permanent progress or a biographical story without being seduced by the simplicity of the individual hero narrative? Harriet—the new biopic about Underground Railroad conductor, freedom fighter, and Union spy Harriet Tubman—succeeds because its director, Kasi Lemmons, brings experience, boldness, and imagination to telling the layered, intense, and often wildly differing personal and collective stories of black folk.
Lemmons’ first feature, Eve’s Bayou (1997), told a tale of loss of innocence, mysticism, fear, and betrayal, all within a black Creole family in Louisiana, apparently descended from a French aristocrat. It is a film that even in its tragic arc manages many tones and inflections, from wonder to desire to fury within that family. Harriet—which has the considerable burden of honoring but also imagining the life of one of America’s most radical and courageous activists, who was also, crucially, a black woman—is an extraordinary effort from Lemmons to infuse a historical tale with urgency and clarity while also communicating the very real terror and trouble of slavery and the moral conviction it took to fight it.
Tubman was not a woman of moderation. She survived the worst of it and put her attention to what, to her, was the only possible question: How to free the ones still suffering today? In her portrayal of Tubman, Cynthia Erivo employs her gift for flourishes and subtleties alike and Lemmons’ direction works deftly with that range. And yes, Erivo literally sings—in the film, Harriet uses song to call out to her family to signal departure or arrival and to slaves to beckon them on radical, dangerous journeys to freedom. (Don’t let the trailer, which de-contextualizes Erivo’s most extravagant gestures, distort your idea of what the film achieves.)
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