Harriet Tubman. Most of us have read her story in school books. In fact, we’re so familiar with the narrative, we can recite it as readily as many can the pledge of allegiance. Tubman was an American abolitionist born into slavery, who, after valiantly escaping to freedom herself in 1849, went on to free hundreds of others with the aid of other abolitionists and the renowned network of secret safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
Tenacious and unwavering, she’d go on to become the Underground Railroad’s most famed conductor, a spy for the Union Army, and the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War. Later, she’d dedicate the rest of her life to caring for the elderly and becoming a fierce advocate for women’s suffrage. Her life is no fable; Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was, indeed, a hero.
Yet, aside from Cicely Tyson’s A Woman Called Moses, a two-part mini series that aired on NBC in 1978, her story had yet to be given the full spotlight. Enter Harriet, the 125-minute journey through the life of one of America’s most esteemed heroes. The film stars Cynthia Erivo as Tubman alongside Zackary Momoh as John Tubman, Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still, and more. Tubman’s story is finally brought to life by Kasi Lemmons, who’s known for her work on Eve’s Bayou and The Cavemen’s Valentine, among others.
It’s refreshing to finally see Tubman depicted in wholistic form, vastly impassioned and three-dimensionally human. Despite casting backlash, Erivo’s portrayal of Tubman is gripping, capturing Harriet’s determination, strength, and fortitude in a way that’s yet to be seen on screen. While the film doesn’t veer wildly from what history books have told us, the magic lies in the details and nuances added along the way.
Viewers are invited into the intimate space of her relationship with her husband John, with whom she shares a deeply doting connection throughout the film — something we don’t learn in history books, but is imagined by Lemmons in a way that is rich and uplifting. Equally compelling is Janelle Monáe’s portrayal of Marie Buchanan, a fictional character, who provides eye-opening context to America’s severely reft social climate during the time of Tubman’s escape.
We meet Buchanan upon Tubman’s arrival to Philadelphia — which had a prominent population of free Black people — where Tubman settles down after running away from her owners back in Maryland. Marie, who owns the safe house where Tubman ends up staying (perhaps meant to represent the Johnson House, where Tubman is said to have actually stayed), is a free woman living a life completely opposite from Harriet’s. The tension that arises between the two conscientiously illustrates the contrast between free Black Americans and enslaved Black Americans during that time. For example, Tubman humbles Marie when she points out the free woman’s unfamiliarity with the “stink of fear” upon their initial meeting. The bond Marie and Harriet eventually form helps to later round out Harriet’s progression as she learns to navigate the world as a free Black woman.
Despite the film’s successful execution, there is much to be desired. By the time we reach the lesser detailed parts of Harriet’s life (like her time acting as “one of the great heroines of the Civil War,” as described by Thomas B. Allen, who wrote Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent), we’re rushed through a series of caption-delivered factoids before the closing credits eventually roll around.
“I really wanted to create a film that a sophisticated 10-year-old could see with his grandmother, which isn’t easy for a film that takes place during slavery,” Lemmons recently told IndieWire. “And then I wanted to really be able to represent Harriet as accurately as I could, while still making an entertaining movie that would reach a broad audience.”
Generally speaking, Lemmons achieves her goal, adding just enough to Harriet’s storyline to amplify the cinematic experience, but not so much that it steers away from the authenticity of her legacy. As Erivo told Refinery29 last month, "this is just the first and hopefully not the last [Harriet Tubman film].” In that vein, one can only hope that Lemmon’s film will act as a gateway into future Harriet adaptations to come.
Perhaps we’ll see more in forthcoming big-screen productions about Harriet’s impactful life, particularly ones that give us a fuller look into her remarkable contributions to the Civil War. After all, we only catch glimpses of them toward the very end of the film. For now, Harriet serves as a laudable precursor, one the illustrious dynamo has long deserved.