• Amanda Broyard Bonam


Updated: Feb 2, 2020

Note: Spoilers Inside

I paid $40 for a ticket to a premiere screening of Harriet on the closing night of the New Orleans Film Festival. Perhaps steep prices were to blame, but I could count on a hand and a half the number of Black faces I saw in the general admission section of the Orpheum theater ($40 is anti-Black). I went in hoping to find myself in Wakanda and… nope. Nonetheless, I don’t think any environment could’ve dulled my excitement about seeing my favorite ancestor’s biopic.

Orpheum Theater
The 30th annual New Orleans Film Festival at The Orpheum Theater

When the post-screening high faded, I admitted to myself that the film isn’t the best or most creative biopic I’ve ever seen. The film is effective but somewhat formulaic, with the feel of an elevated History Channel film that might be screened by a substitute teacher in a high school history class. If anyone deserves a film that completely shatters the mold, it is Harriet Tubman and, unfortunately, this is not that. Buuuuut you should still race to the theater to see it! Here's why:

The film deserves high praise for the intentionality with which director Kasi Lemmons tells Harriet's story without subjecting the viewer to the excessive depictions of violence and brutality so often over-shown in slave narrative films. That is not to say that slavery is depicted as rainbows and unicorns. Lemmons tastefully alludes to the trauma of slavery by showing the scarred backs (torn from whiplashes) of Tubman and many others who escaped slavery and there are also brief beatings/fight scenes. The tact with which she balanced historical truth and exposure to trauma is critically important as being Black in America so often means absorbing violence and trauma regularly through the news cycle. With Black America still reeling from the murder of Atatiana Jefferson at the hands of a white Fort Worth police officer, the film approaches Harriet’s story in an overwhelmingly uplifting arc that elevates depictions of freedom high above the gruesomeness of the times.

The cinematography captures the beauty of the land Harriet trod on her northward journey. The beauty of the natural scenery is supported by a musical score written by New Orleans native son and jazz musician Terence Blanchard. The film boasted several especially riveting scenes that brought me to (healing) tears. My favorite scene (besides every time Harriet reached freedom) comes when Marie Buchanan, a free Black woman (played by Janelle Monae) who housed and befriended Tubman, teaches Harriet how to shoot a gun. My heart exploded watching one Black woman fortify another so starkly on screen. Though perhaps not historically substantiated, the relationship between Harriet and Marie is the most consistently loving platonic connection of the film. Marie, on more than one occasion, helps Harriet to bathe and style her hair and ultimately dies protecting Tubman from a Black (???) slave catcher.

Janelle Monae and Cynthia Erivo in Harriet film
A scene featuring Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monae) and Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) from the film Harriet

Though the ultimate love of Harriet’s life was freedom, and though the film only briefly alludes to her life in New York after the Civil War, I would have loved to see some closing depiction of Harriet with her second husband in the name of Black women deserving more than struggle-love. After all, Kasi Lemmons took time to highlight the love between Harriet and her first husband, John, (omitting the possible threats to sell Harriet that he leveled against her) and was already taking some artistic liberty with Marie’s character.

Also on my biopic wishlist: Harriet composing an encrypted song and Harriet crossing Niagara Falls with fugitive Josiah Bailey in tow.

While I didn't think Harriet gave my heroine all of the shine she deserved, her story alone is the stuff of superhero movies. I recommend seeing it in theaters to support a (mostly) Black-led project and ultimately because it is a solidly executed telling of a true story with major feel-good power released at a time when all of Black America could benefit from witnessing one of our greatest legends of triumphant survival.

The Harriet Stanning Continues Here:

Assorted Harriet Tubman biographies
Selections from my library

Allies We Stan:

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