Sometimes it can be worthwhile to watch a movie that is not made for you, but judging from the audience at “Harriet” last night at a movie theater in Hillsboro, quite a lot of people are interested in watching movies like this. I thought the film was very well made, but in sharp distinction to a film like “Twelve Years A Slave” or “Hidden Figures,” where the focus is on virtuous black characters but with a strong degree of support from one or more virtuous white characters who are presented as a foil to the obviously wicked racists/slaveowners. Here there are plenty of racists, some of whom get a lot of screentime (more on that anon), but while there are some more decent whites, they get very little screentime and very few lines and are simply friendly people who are there simply to be motivated by Harriet Tubman’s fierce determination to free slaves despite the risks. If white people are not necessarily always the enemy here, they are certainly not close to the heart of this story, which is the examination of the struggles that blacks have in advancing themselves in a world where so much is deliberately stacked against them and where even modest gains come with the constant risk of being rolled back by unfriendly laws or violent and angry whites and their black cronies who the book views as obvious race traitors.
As a film goes, this film features some strong acting as well as excellent production principles. The costumes are particularly well-done. A solid screenplay by director Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard is delivered by a capable cast. Cynthia Erivo, whose singing is an important part of the plot as it helps to communicate messages, is Minty, who chooses Harriet Tubman as her “freedom name.” Leslie Odom Jr. plays William Still, the cautious and well-educated free black in Philadelphia who serves as a foil to Tubman in many scenes. Joe Alwyn plays the young master Gideon Brodess, who is attracted to Harriet’s spunk but afraid of her piety and unable to settle down and start a family because of his immoral ways. Jennifer Nettles plays his mother, Eliza Brodess, showing the paranoia that accompanied much of slaveowning thought. Among the supporting cast, Janelle Monáe plays a freeborn woman who is forcefully and painfully confronted with her privilege by Tubman and who serves as Tubman’s landlady in Philadelphia, while Omar J. Dorsey plays Bigger Long, a black tracker who is in many ways very much like Alwyn’s Brodess. Vondie Curtis-Hall also does a fantastic job as Reverend Green, who preaches submission to authority while visiting the plantation while also serving as a clandestine starting place for the Underground Railroad.
Overall, this film manages to deal with a few very explosive subjects in a thoughtful way. The film does not minimize Tubman’s devout Christianity but clearly presents the way in which slaveowners were not nearly as good as Christians as they thought and presents the challenge that black preachers had in having to promote submission to authority in front of white audiences while preaching a far more explosive vision of justice in private. The film shows how logistics mattered a great deal in who was able to be freed–Tubman herself, like Frederick Douglass, was from the upper South in Maryland, and the only time we see Tubman seeking to free slaves in the Deep South it is in coastal South Carolina with the support of the US army, while also rhetorically viewing slavery as an intolerable evil for those who suffered under it even while not presenting the end of slavery as the end of injustice. The film also tends to, perhaps unintentionally, equate the white use of the n-word with black counters of “cracker,” demonstrating the language of racial hatred that continues to be a divisive issue in contemporary society. In one of the more moving scenes, Tubman rescues a group of slaves, one of whom says that his former master had used the n-word like it was his name. This film might have a lot to say about contemporary issues about race, including the question of relative privilege within the black community itself, but it is a film that is clearly aimed at black or others who do not mind being at best peripheral figures here.