Review: Harriet

A biopic of Harriet Tubman is way overdue, though one could make the argument that the timing of Kasi Lemmons’ movie takes full advantage of the prevailing public sentiment of Black Americans at the moment. When the movie was released in the U.S., Tubman, who helped free many slaves before the Civil War, was being touted as the only correct choice for an historical figure to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, a move that has been held up by the know-nothing contrariness of the Trump administration. In Japan, the timing is even more appropriate. Originally slated for release here in late March, it was delayed indefinitely by the COVID-19 pandemic, and now is out in theaters the same week that Black Lives Matters demonstrations have circled the globe.

With that in mind, the film’s conventional dramatic structure and avoidance of complex characterizations open it up to a more general audience, which means people who may not know anything about Tubman will be more interested in learning about her, and that can only be a good thing. Lemmons highlights the action-movie aspects of Tubman’s eventful life, but thanks to Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Tubman as a spiritual being who turns resentment into resolve the film has an emotional core that transcends the cliches usually built into historical thrillers. The facts of the case are even more compelling to those of us who did not know Tubman’s story in detail. Born onto a Maryland plantation and into a household that’s a mixture of slaves and freemen, Tubman is caught in the soul-killing position of marrying a free man (Zackary Momoh) while remaining the property of a slave-holding family who will not let her go, despite promises made by the current master’s grandfather that her people would be free by this time. As the realization of this betrayal settles in her consciousness like a burning coal, Tubman decides to flee with her husband, but during the escape he is left behind. She makes it alone to Philadelphia…barely.

There she meets two antislavery Black activists, William (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie (Janelle Monae), whose sophistication is disarming to Tubman, to say the least. In terms of theme, the pair’s more measured approach to getting slaves out of the South contrasts starkly with Tubman’s almost ferocious steeliness. She ignores their entreaties of caution and runs right back to Maryland to bring more people North, including her husband at one point, though she discovers that in her absence he has remarried and refuses to leave.

In all, Tubman made 19 trips bringing slaves to freedom, an enormous accomplishment, and one that Lemmons and Erivo convey using suspense tropes so as to intensify the feeling of danger, which really doesn’t need any contrivances to make it exciting. And while the script is reportedly faithful to Tubman’s real story, some of the dramatic decisions, especially the conflicted priorities of the Black bounty hunter Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey), feel as if they were developed by software. White brutality is apparent but presented in a more restrained way than it was in, say, Twelve Years a Slave. This is Tubman’s story, and Lemmons honors her as not only a courageous woman, but a fiercely intelligent adversary of evil, a genuine superhero.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Harriet home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Universal Pictures

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