Harriet Tubman finally gets an entertaining and inspiring cinematic origin story with Harriet

click to enlarge Broadway star Cynthia Erivo is an immense screen presence in Harriet.
Broadway star Cynthia Erivo is an immense screen presence in Harriet.

We're so used to our historical figures, our Great Men, requiring a bit of grading-on-a-curve: "Oh, we must forgive so-and-so for that aspect of his life and work. Times were different then." And yet we still continue to celebrate them and insist upon their importance and mythologize their words and deeds.

Meanwhile, one of the great true heroes of American history — someone who needs no justifying or qualifying — has been all but ignored by pop culture, and hence all but left out of the collective American imagination. Perhaps because what she fought for is a grand cause (the physical and existential battle for autonomy, agency and basic humanity of African-Americans) that is not yet fully won. Perhaps the fact that everything Harriet Tubman stood for — and continues to symbolize — still resonates on so many levels is too harsh a reminder that the ugly past is not yet past. (All the more reason to honor her and remember her, you'd think.)

Or perhaps it's because she was a woman. And black. Perhaps that's enough, for some, to pretend her story and her legacy don't really matter. For if we were to acknowledge her as a Great Woman, where would it stop? What if there were other Great Women who also must be acknowledged?

Anyway, you'd have thought that Hollywood, at least, mightn't have taken so damn long to see that Tubman's undeniable, irrefutable heroics are, if nothing else, excellent fodder for big-screen entertainment. Tubman was badass by any measure, but certainly by the action-adventure one: She rescued herself from slavery in 1850s Maryland with a treacherous journey north! She risked her liberty and her very life sneaking back into the South to bring others to freedom! She worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War! This is the stuff of bold, visual storytelling.

And it's all here because now director and co-writer (with Gregory Allen Howard) Kasi Lemmons has blessed us with the Tubman origin story. "Origin story" is just the right sort of cinematic introduction Tubman needs to slide her into the epic American narrative. Harriet is solid, conventional filmmaking with a broad sweep, a big-picture overview that finds a deeply satisfying balance among the contradictory currents of Tubman's life. The film does not deny the horrific facts of slavery, but this is primarily an entertaining experience, one that succeeds in acknowledging Tubman as a vulnerable, flawed human woman while also embracing her towering legend and the profound power of what she symbolizes.

As Tubman, Cynthia Erivo is an immense presence, deeply engaging and incredibly empathetic; the Broadway musical star even gets to do a bit of singing on screen. Lemmons and Erivo handle Tubman's "superpower" — she thought God spoke to her in a very practical way, literally guiding her in her dangerous work to avoid capture — with a smart plausible deniability that allows for whatever interpretation feels best to you. If you want to accept the supernatural, that works, but if, like me, it feels more right to see her seeming precognition as sharp instinct and insight, well, that works too.

Harriet is a movie of an undeniable mainstream appeal: This is no stodgy costume drama or dry history lesson. As is the way of origin stories, we can hope that Harriet is just the beginning of the stories we tell about her, to begin to rectify our pop-cultural ignorance. My one complaint about the film: not enough spy stuff. There could be a whole movie just about her career as a spy in the Civil War. Movie lovers and Americans alike absolutely need that sequel. ♦

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