HARRIET (dir. Kasi Lemmons): 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival review

“How many movies about slavery can you name?” director Kasi Lemmons asked the journalist before me while in the press line before the Philadelphia premiere of her film Harriet.  

The journalist didn’t respond. I thought of 12 Years a Slave. 

“Now, how many movies can you name about war?” Lemmons asked. 

It’s rhetorical, of course, but the answer is simply, “More.” 

Her point was that slavery as a topic to be filmed is a beast that’s hard to contend with, both in the practice of creating the piece and in what is required for those to watch it. If you dare approach it, its absolute brutality demands to be addressed, and slavery doesn’t allow for unaffected heroes. There’s no escaping shots like Solomon Northrop hanging from a noose, trying desperately to find an inch of footing in mud. He must endure it in order for him to regain his freedom. We must endure it to feel the extent of his pain. If history is written by the victors, it’s hard to reckon with who is winning, because no non-white person gets the historical biopic treatment free from hitting that deep, shared national nerve at their own expense.  

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

That’s why you’ve never seen a movie like Harriet

Lemmons approached the story of Harriet Tubman with the intention of taming the beast. Brutality makes only minor appearances, and even the hardest moment is not a narrative device but a plot point. Vastly overshadowing the grim realities of antebellum America that we’re used to is triumph, grace, and – ready for it? – humor. Truly, the amount of laugh lines in this movie is staggering. 

That’s why you’ve never seen a movie like Harriet

Tubman is America’s Joan of Arc. She suffered seizures as a result of blunt-force head trauma, which gave her visions that she believed to be from God. She trusted these visions to guide her, and in the film her visions are never wrong. It’s questionable for a bit, maybe a gimmick. A woman who can see the future? Who can foretell her would-be captors’ next moves? But then, of course, it’s actual history. How else to explain how this one woman actually accomplished escorting dozens of people over hundreds of miles on foot to freedom? Her grace guided her, and she accepted it with unflinching trust. 

Even with spiritual help, Harriet makes it clear that her triumphs are owed to no one but herself. She’s small, but never slight, and her fortitude is laced with enough vulnerability in Cynthia Erivo’s performance to be at once admirable and relatable. 

When I ask Ms. Lemmons about the reconciliation between the myth and person of Harriet Tubman, she explains simply, “She was a woman. There are scenes in the movie where you can see any woman that’s experienced this situation.” It doesn’t take long for us to touch on the lack of female protagonists, specifically those of color, in these kinds of movies. And, as she points out, movies in general. 

Lemmons could have said to us, “How many movies with a woman of color in the title role in a historical drama can you name?” And no one would be able to. There hasn’t been a convergence of studio and public interest before now, combined with the kind of conscious care that Lemmons had for the topic and a feeling of true kinship with her subject. Harriet proves not just the value of representation, but how the ownership and treatment of stories can shape their meaning. 

Harriet is the only one of its kind. “However,” Ms. Lemmons smiled. “Things are changing.” 

Part of the 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival. Scheduled for general release November 1, 2019.

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