Harriet is one of the most inspiring biopics that I have seen in a long time (apart from A Hidden Life). Co-written by director Kasi Lemmons and producer Gregory Allen Howard, the film chronicles Harriet Tubman’s desperate escape to freedom and then her dangerous journeys back as a conductor in the Underground Railroad—covering about 10 years of her life. Refreshingly, the film doesn’t try to deny or hide Harriet’s spirituality: she is known as Moses by the slave community, because she brings slaves to the promised land of freedom. I suspect a lot of viewers are like myself and don’t know much about Harriet Tubman, so my comments will be brief to avoid too many spoilers. (In this week’s Salt + Light Radio Hour, my commentary is just about one minute long–no spoilers!)
Cynthia Erivo is simply marvelous as Harriet, portraying emotions of terror, desperation, and righteous anger, while still carrying herself with remarkable conviction and dignity. Several of the minor characters in the film are fictional but overall the film is quite accurate in its portrayal of Harriet Tubman herself: a tiny woman of towering courage and determination who overcame overwhelming obstacles to build a new life for herself and to bring others—especially members of her family—to freedom.
Despite its PG-13 rating, Harriet would be an excellent film for families with teens and even some pre-teens who are mature enough to watch a film about slavery. A couple scenes with brutal violence are difficult to watch, especially for a sensitive younger person, but for the most part, the most disturbing violence is offscreen.
Windows to the Soul
Harriet Tubman suffered a severe head injury as a child, which seems to have caused brain damage. This injury was blamed for her “fits,” when she would fall to the ground and be unresponsive to the world around her, having dreams or “visions.” Harriet, who was deeply religious, often heard a message from God in her “visions.” In a welcome authenticity, the film imaginatively portrays Harriet’s religious experience. How refreshing it is to see filmmakers recognize the role of faith—or at least the possibility of the miraculous—in Harriet’s life, without discrediting or dismissing it. Harriet herself credited her repeated miraculous escapes to guidance from the Lord.
Harriet is a powerful film that engages on many levels, including the spiritual. It is a great film for Lent because Lent is meant to be its own journey to freedom—allowing the Lord to lead us and set us free from the sins that enslave us.
Themes to reflect on and pray with: faith, freedom, slavery, the dignity of the human person, racism, family, fidelity vs. betrayal, living by conviction, social justice.