Harriet

November 18, 2019

If America had saints, Harriet Tubman would be one of the foremost among them.

The film Harriet reminded me of a storybook I had about her when I was little, which means I think her story was probably where I first learned about slavery. That book is also where I learned about the North Star, moss on the trees, the Underground Railroad, all of it. It’s primarily a story about heroism and courage, so it took a little more time, and the work of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and so on, to get the full horrific story of slavery. But my first education came from Tubman’s story of resistance. And why haven’t there been more movies and TV shows about her? I mean really.

The film is pretty good. It’s uneven, I think. Some of that may be that it’s not quite the film I wanted — but it hints at a movie I really would have liked to see. Mostly, this is serious literary biopic, with all that that entails. And this is where I think it’s maybe a little bit cliche. All the scenes you expect, the heartfelt serious character moments, the standard 19th century serious historical score. This part of the film drags a bit.

But then there’s an action montage of Tubman’s activities with the Underground Railroad, with Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” playing over it. This segment is incredible, high energy, engaging, inspiring. I found myself wishing the film had done more of this, using modern music as a backdrop, going for a more impressionistic feel. Going for action and tension and immediacy. The story mostly focuses on Harriet, her emotions, her visions, her connections with her family, which were all important of course. But what if the movie as a whole had been framed as action/adventure rather than literary biopic?

I wanted the film to be more political. There’s a scene where Frederick Douglass is standing in the room. Like, that is clearly Frederick Douglass! But there’s no dialog from him, no interaction. He’s practically set dressing. I wanted more with the Underground Railroad. Harriet’s Civil War activities — she was a spy and personally led an expedition across enemy lines to free slaves — got all of about three minutes at the end of the film when really, that could have been its own movie. Those bits of engagement, where Harriet is out kicking ass like some action hero — because she freaking was one! — were the best, and I wanted more of that.

I’m glad I saw the film. But now I want a 20 episode TV show about Harriet during the war.

My historical re-enactment friends all agree the costumes were very good. Like, they got the fabric and drape right? And that’s hard to do.

 

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