I don’t mean this to sound as dismissive as I know it will, but Harriet feels like the movie you would watch in history class when there is a half day or a substitute. It competently goes through the motions of telling the story of Harriet Tubman, with more than a little skill, but somewhat lacking in style.
I can’t really point to any area where Harriet fails. It starts with Tubman, then called Minty Ross, as a slave in Maryland. Her free husband and father contacted a lawyer to straighten out the fact that Minty and her mother were supposed to be freed under the terms of their old owners will, but his son has refused to do that. That appeal goes about as well as you’d expect. After Minty prayers for her master’s death are granted, his son tries to sell her off to repay some debts. Minty has had enough and decides to run away. With some help from the local preacher and a kindly Quaker, Minty escapes over a hundred miles to Philadelphia and takes the name Harriet Tubman.
Harriet does an excellent job both keeping the focus on Harriet and in giving a glimpse into a wide variety of black experiences under slavery. Harriet is one, though a unique one is some ways, still an experience that many shared. She was born into slavery, but escaped to freedom. She knows what it is like to live under that evil, and wants to do everything she can to end it or help others escape. Her husband and father are free men, but live in the slave-owning South and were at one time slaves themselves. They are still subject to Southern Racism, but have a different experience than Harriet and different reactions. There is also Harriet’s sister, who refuses to leave with her. It is easy to look at it as a lack of courage, but the movie shows how the system affects people, how Harriet’s sister fears for her young children, who it would be very hard to take with them and let’s that fear keep her enslaved. In Philadelphia, there are free African Americans who were born in freedom. They recognize the evils of slavery, but only kind of understand its corroding evil. I don’t mean to say they don’t treat it as real, but their reactions are more analytical. The movie gives a peek at all these different experiences, mostly through the lens of how they see Harriet and how Harriet sees them.
The biggest white role in the movie goes to Harriet’s would be owner, Gideon Brodess. The movie never falls into the all too common in Civil War movie trap of letting him, and his fellow slave owners, off the hook for the evil the perpetrate. At first it seems like it might, playing him as slightly sympathetic to Harriet before she runs away, but soon the facade is removed and the movie shows him for what he is. It is a deep ingrained callow selfishness, where he just doesn’t view these people as people. Even near the end, when Brodess does something that could maybe be called good, the movie shows the self interest behind it.
It is somewhat less successful in wrestling with Tubman’s faith. The movie acknowledges it, but doesn’t quite seem to understand it. Harriet has nothing to say about its protagonists faith. She may interpret her blackouts as visions from God, and the movie actually gives her visions during her faints, but it just sort of happens without comment,
Harriet is a perfectly fine, by the numbers biopic. But it is telling a story that shockingly, or maybe not that shockingly considering who the main character is and Hollywood’s determination to filter every story through a white lens, has not previously been put to film. It is well done and gives a glimpse into the life of a national hero. It does not, in any way reinvent the wheel, but sometimes all you need is a well-made wheel.