Dir: Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Joe Alwyn, Henry Hunter Hall, Janelle Monáe and many other excellent actors
125 mins, USA, 2019
Watched by Sarah and HoneyBee at the Watershed
Cynthia Erivo is magnificent as freedom fighter and liberator of slaves Harriet Tubman in this wonderfully watchable inspiring film by Kasi Lemmons.
‘Freedom or death,’ she spits at Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), her owner’s creepy dead-behind-the-eyes son, before leaping off a bridge into the turbulent river below. At this stage she is ‘Minty’, one of many slaves on the Brodess plantation in Maryland. Minty, a slave, is married to a free man, but any children they may have will be born enslaved, hostages to the whims of their owners. She has had the temerity to hire a lawyer to prove her mother’s and her own right to freedom. The ‘master’ tears up the legal papers in front of her.
Director Kasi Lemmons bases her film, which opens a few years before the beginning of the Civil War, on wide-ranging research into slave narratives and into the workings of the famous Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman – she takes her new name when she reaches freedom in Philadelphia – becomes one of the Railroad’s most successful ‘conductors’, going on to make extraordinarily bold and daring forays south to lead hundreds of slaves to freedom.
HoneyBee: Cynthia Erivo is incredible as Harriet Tubman: a brave and courageous woman. Brilliantly done, the film swings between fast-paced narrative and gentle humour, telling a staggeringly important story. With fantastic running in dresses!
I always approach a film about slavery with a certain amount of dread: how often will I have to avert my eyes? Kasi Lemmons chooses to show the violence and brutality in mostly oblique ways. The film is all the more powerful for that – as we see the young woman, first alone and then leading others, running and running (yes, in those dresses!), we know exactly what it is she is running from. We know what she will suffer if she is caught by the men and dogs at her heels.
Tubman was an extraordinary woman: tiny, intense, visited by prophetic visions, and with a beautiful singing voice. As a conductor on the Railroad she disguised herself as a man, calling herself ‘Moses’, and learned to ride and to shoot. Rather than averting our eyes, HoneyBee and I were gripped and transfixed throughout.
In an interview with Hazel Cills (themuse.jezebel.com, reprinted by Watershed) Kasi Lemmons said she wanted to make a film ‘that a broad audience could see and that would be inspirational. I thought her [Tubman’s] story lends itself to that so beautifully; it’s kind of this adventure story, and she was an action hero.’ How unusual it is to have a small black woman as a courageous action hero, and how exciting it is to watch.
The final scene shows the daring Combahee River Raid of 1863, when a small group of Union troops led by Harriet Tubman took the Confederates by surprise and liberated hundreds of African-American slaves. When she raised her gun, and gave the soldiers their order to fire, I wanted to stand up and cheer.