Visions of Harriet: On that sly, safe, and important Tubman biopic

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“People around here are excited about that movie, yeah,” a woman in line at the Taco Bell in Denton, Maryland told me last week, talking about Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet.

An ugly, perfunctory sign sits on the side of the highway in Denton that reads, “Harriet Tubman UGRR,” marking the small town’s proximity to a few of the dozens of Underground Railroad-related sites where Tubman risked freedom to get other people free nearly 200 years ago. Denton is around 70 percent white and 22 percent Black, and Caroline County, where Denton is located, voted overwhelmingly for Trump (67.8 percent vs. 28.2 percent for Clinton) in 2016. Dotting Denton are Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House (where Quakers supporting abolition met), Denton Steamboat Wharf (where enslaved people worked), Moses Viney/Daniel Crouse Memorial Park (Viney was enslaved and escaped on Easter 1840), and the Caroline Courthouse (where slave auctions were once held).  

“I’m Black so you already know I’m excited,” the woman said. “I hope I can get out to see it.”

She has two kids and there’s no movie theater in Denton. And look, she joked, Denton folks are also excited about the Taco Bell, which is pretty new, has a sort of fancy, post-Chipotle look to it (the building is wooden, almost bungalow-like and its sign is sleeker than the tall purple sign you usually see), and it is automated—“like at the farm store,” she said, referring to Royal Farms.

So, the real-life versions of the fields and forests you see Tubman traverse in Harriet are not far from Baltimore. You can drive a couple hours and go look at them. They’re even mapped out and organized as part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. And though Harriet was shot in Virginia and some of the scenery in it is so CGI-assisted it glows—a sort of pre-climate crisis kind of light, a fulgency since felled by pollution—it has an eerie Eastern Shore familiarity to it, as if the landscape here itself is a little touched, nudging Tubman’s righteous mission along.


When we first meet Harriet Tubman in Harriet, she’s amid a vision. A whirl of black and white images flash through her mind, past trauma and hedged future hope folding into one another—it looks a bit like the polished, black and silver images of the angels in Wings of Desire remembering a time before time—and then she’s shaken awake by her husband John who, although he’s worried, teases her a little for those visions. She smiles at him. 

The next scene is horror. Tubman and John have consulted a lawyer because, as Tubman’s current owner’s dead great-grandfather promised Tubman’s mother, she would be free upon his death. No, and how dare you ask is the owner’s response, and Tubman is wrecked. After the important gratuitousness of 12 Years a Slave, Harriet first brings us into the world of slavery with a betrayal that moves Tubman to escape. We will learn about the brutality soon enough, and it is there in those visions/memories. With a knife, Tubman carves a heart in the dirt for her husband and takes off towards Pennsylvania where, if she gets there, she will be free—Harriet is a melodrama. 

Lemmons was an actor before she became a director. The performance to start with is her role as Ardelia in The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling’s roommate. In just a few scenes Lemmons lets you see a legit, lived-in friendship between the two that does better than its “Black friend who exists to encourage and offer up emotional labor” characterization would suggest (it’s also battling “the inquisitive black woman” trope, as a Baffler piece explained). You get the sense that Lemmons wants to make sure her actors get way more freedom than that and here, Cynthia Erivo as Tubman is afforded multitudes. Erivo played Belle in Widows, the final addition to the robbery crew, embodying the horrible hustle of the gig economy and the way it hardens you and how those late-capitalist side effects can be used to one’s advantage sometimes. In Harriet, whose very title—Harriet rather than “Tubman”—hints at its abrupt interiority, Erivo locates that same sort of softness and hardness; she is monumental and accessible.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

I am not surprised that Harriet seems so comfortable being pulled in two different directions coming from someone such as Lemmons who knows and navigates the racist, sexist contingencies of Hollywood. Like so many Black directors, Lemmons makes movies here and there when she can, often to far less acclaim and admiration than they deserve. Did you know she directed a musical in 2013? Do we have to wait until, say, Beyoncé or somebody references Eve’s Bayou in a music video for it to be “rediscovered”? Talk To Me, about D.C. sociopolitical shock jock Petey Green, does what the recent My Name Is Dolemite could not: fit a character study within the just-plain-awful biopic format without getting all respectable with it.

I went and saw Harriet on a weekday afternoon at Cambridge Premier Cinemas, a theater in Cambridge, Maryland, in Dorchester County where Tubman was born. Almost nobody else was there. There isn’t much to make of the fact that the theater was nearly empty. People work during the day. I thought about my new friend at the Denton Taco Bell saying the closest theater to her in Denton was quite a drive away. Harriet is a good movie to see alone. Even some of the chases are pastorally paced, and scenes rarely instruct the viewer that one matters more than the others, an odd rhythm that makes sense in a movie where our hero’s life is always at stake all the same. It’s subtle. 

At a crucial moment pretty early on in Harriet, as Tubman enters Pennsylvania and is ostensibly free, she looks happy with a dazed, crazed, odd smile on her face—a messy response for an impossible-to-comprehend, life-changing event.

I thought of a vigil I attended for Korryn Gaines, the Baltimore County woman shot and killed by police in August 2016 in her apartment after an hours-long armed standoff. At the vigil, someone placed a framed photo of Harriet Tubman among the rows of candles spelling out her name. The implication was clear: Tubman, a gun-toting freedom fighter moving Black people out of slavery and Gaines, holed up in her house with a shotgun, daring to say “no” to warrant-serving police—the origins of police go back to slave catchers. A sequence in Harriet is set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” a culmination of the moments in the movie that nod toward action cinema’s chases, pursuits, and heists; it’s one of the best movie moments of the year. 

Not far from the theater in Cambridge is Michael Rosato’s Tubman mural, “Take My Hand.” It got a lot of press earlier this year when it was completed and, like Harriet, plays the popular taste game just enough, teasing kitsch and offering up something more ambiguous and radical. “Take My Hand” shows Tubman reaching out, bursting out of the wall, a sort of Thomas Kinkade-ian vision of the shore’s powder-blue morning light behind her. She isn’t smiling and her eyes are closed a bit, approximating something close to kindness. It’s all she can offer up in that moment, there is no time.

Harriet is screening at numerous area theaters, including the Charles in Baltimore and Next Act Cinema in Pikesville.

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