By CYNTHIA BIDDLECOMB
“Harriet”, which opened in theatres this month, is a much needed biopic about one of America’s greatest heroes.
It is the story of “Minty”, Araminta Ross, the 27 year old slave who escaped from a plantation in Maryland in 1849 and made it to Philadelphia, choosing her own freedom name, “Harriet Tubman,” when she arrived.
In Philadelphia, after a year working for wages, Harriet was determined to go back and rescue her family. She made the journey enough times that she was a recognized conductor on the Underground Railroad, eventually freeing a total of 70 slaves in thirteen rescue missions. In all her clandestine sorties, it was said “she never lost a passenger”.
In the new film “Harriet”, the 5’ ½” tall, London-born, Cynthia Erivo (who played Belle in Widows) plays the five foot tall Minty/Harriet. Erivo’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman is one of the best reasons to see this movie. She embodies Harriet with passion, determination, and athleticism. (She runs a lot.) On top of her performance as an actor, we are treated to Erivo’s incredible voice as she sings “Go Down Moses” from the woods to call slaves to freedom. Do stay to watch the credits at the end of the film, to hear Cynthia Erivo sing her own composition, “Stand Up”, an Oscar-worthy theme song for this movie. This is one multi-talented actor.
As opposed to recent films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained,” this film does not dwell on the physical horrors of slavery. Such horrors are shown with the scars on the backs and the terror in the eyes of those enslaved. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Silence of the Lambs) co-wrote the screenplay for “Harriet.” Her intent with this film seems to be to get this story heard, to remind us of a great American hero and her role in the Underground Railroad, and of our historical efforts as a nation to embody the liberty we proclaim for all people.
Complimenting Erivo’s amazing performance is Joe Alwyn, who plays the young master of the plantation; he swings between his nostalgic affection for the Minty who cared for him as a child and a murderous rage at losing his “property” when slaves escape. In Philadelphia, Minty finds help from the Black Abolitionist, William Still, played by Leslie Odom, Jr., who introduces her to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. He takes her to a boarding house for escaped slaves run by a free woman named Marie Buchanan, played with elegance and grace by Janelle Monáe. Other roles to watch in the film include that of a young man who ends up helping her as a scout, and the role of Minty’s father.
“Harriet” is rated “PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets.” It stands as an important movie, in this reviewer’s opinion; one ought not to miss this film. The viewer may remember that Harriet Tubman was chosen to be the first female American on our modern national currency, the twenty-dollar bill, a move put on hold by the current administration. Anyone wondering why Tubman was chosen for such an honor need only see this film and consider the importance of her extraordinary life and mission.