While watching Harriet I wondered whether or not other viewers would take seriously Harriet Tubman’s (Cynthia Erivo) prophetic visions. You see, I take part in Catholic Charismatic worship, and these kinds of gifts of the Holy Spirit are a part of this ministry. Tubman relied on God, and God seemed to reward her by giving her what she needed to ferry slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
As a trained historian, as well as a practicing Catholic, it is rare to get the opportunity to combine my faith and historical know-how in reviewing a particular film, thus Harriet pleased me greatly. Other than the much repeated, and refreshing, phrase of Tubman’s of “I walk with with the Lord,” one of the other things that stood out for me was how Erivo was such a dead ringer for the main character. Well done on the part of the casting director.
As should probably be apparent from the title, Harriet follows the title character’s journey from slave, to escaped/free woman, to the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. As such, I will tackle the historical side of this film first. In a word: good. There were a few moments when I nitpicked certain things here and there, but it captured both the look and spirit of the times. Erivo both looked and acted the part, and bigger issues like the Fugitive Slave Act and the coming Civil War made the mid-nineteenth century come alive. The movie takes the time to understand these events, and in addition to the obvious racism, they underscore the very real dangers slaves faced to try to obtain their freedom by escaping.
There was one particular place, though, where history and faith intersected in Harriet and that was in the Spirituals. The common thinking on Christianity and slavery was that it was a tool of oppression, keeping African Americans in their supposed place. However, the songs sung by slaves conveyed not only their spirituality, but also their resistance to the system itself. Tubman also used them as a signal to the enslaved to tell them she was near and it was time to effect their escape. Thus Christianity becomes a tool of resistance, and that really made the film for me.
There were some minor gaffs in Harriet. Clearly, when dealing with a movie about one of the most famous anti-slavery advocates in history, the issue of racism (as discussed) was going to be raised. And while there was some nuance in the behavior of white people, the majority (unless they were actively part of the abolition movement) were dyed-in-the-wool, black hating, violent, mustache twirling villains. The main villain, Gideon Prodess (Joe Alwynn) faced a loaded gun in the film’s climactic moment, still spouting his ridiculous racist rhetoric. The divide between those who were either for or against racism was not so clearly defined, and there were plenty of people (both black and white) who wanted nothing to do with the issue.
I suppose that Harriet did not need to go into the subtleties of the racial dynamics of the mid-nineteenth century. Tubman’s calling from God to be an instrument of redemption for slaves was enough. Further, I would suggest that without faith, Tubman could not have done what she did. It is okay if you do not give credence to her visions, and it did kind of come off as a strange Spidey-sense. Either way, Tubman relied on God and that was her motivation for what she accomplished. That, and the fact that this was history, made this one well worth the trip to the theater.