Can you imagine being a slave in the south with white people and dogs chasing you and the person who has taken on the responsibility to lead you out of harm’s way falls asleep. That’s right. The woman known as Moses, Harriet Tubman suffered from narcoleptic spells while risking her life taking millions of slaves from the south to freedom in the north. But, that fact is just the tip of the iceberg of facts dropped in the dramatic biopic directed by Kasi Lemmons.
During the World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Cameron Bailey pointed out that over 30 feature films have been made about General Custer, yet this is the one and only feature film on Harriet Tubman. He also shared his elation over this project because his own family was taken into slavery in West African and shipped off to Barbados. And while many are quick to point out that this is another slave movie, Kasi Lemmons reminds us, “….this is a film about freedom and what one person can accomplish with the sheer force of will…when courage outweighs fear.” “We’re doing this for Harriet, who became my friend and died over 200 years ago.”
What do we know about Harriet Tubman?
Known as Minty (short for Araminta), Tubman endured adultery, abuse and disrespect all for the sake of freedom and died a free woman after leading hundreds of slaves to freedom and ultimately became a spy for the Union Army. Lemmons shows the raw, uncomfortable, spine-tingling, nerve-wrecking language and conditions American slaves endured while attempting to survive and live a better life in the North. With dialogue like, ‘Having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You feed it, play with it, give it a name. One day you have to eat it or sell it. One day you’ll forget its name and I hope one day I forget yours’. It says a lot about the mentality of white people when it came to people of color then and even now.
Cynthia Erivo is commanding the screen every moment she inhabits it and is a star…period. And why not? Harriet Tubman is a woman who walked more than 100 miles to freedom showing just how resilient, strong, unwavering in faith women of color can be regardless of what faith they may practice or believe in. This was a woman who when someone told her what she couldn’t do went out of her way to prove everyone wrong (something I wholeheartedly connect to).
The film boasts a cast of actors coming from the Broadway stage including Erivo (Tony Winner for The Color Purple), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Tony Winner for Hamilton) and Vondie Curtis Hall (Tony Nominee for Dreamgirls), as well as, OWN’S Queen Sugar Omar Dorsey, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Janelle Monae and Henry Hunter Hall.
Although I appreciate that the film is written, directed and produced primarily by women (Kasi Lemmons and Debra Martin Chase), the film is not without its flaws. The pacing is inconsistent and a fact referring to Harriet being called Moses is never fully explained as to why or how Harriet got this nickname. With a score composed by Terrence Blanchard sprinkled with numerous Nina Simone cuts, traditional gospel tunes and a brand new song co-written by Erivo that plays during the end credits fully captures the vibe of the film . Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Kim Coleman’s casting and makeup by Angie Wells are all worth acknowledging and praising.
At the end of the day, you can’t tell the story of this courageous woman without acknowledging slavery, but Harriet isn’t a slave film. It’s the story of a woman who lived as someone’s daughter, sister, friend, wife, hero and made it possible for millions to live and enjoy the freedom we are accustomed to today. Produced by Focus Features and directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet hits theaters in November.