Now In Theaters: “Harriet”

When I was a kid, I didn’t want super-heroes. I wanted real-heroes (and heroines). My brothers can vouch for this. We spent an afternoon faulting Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest, and naming historical people to a list of real heroes who needed movies made about them. I share this long-past moment not to fault superheroes or anyone who loves them, but to explain my elation this weekend when I entered a movie theater and saw a full length feature film about a real heroine from U.S. History: Harriet Tubman.

Recently released, the movie Harriet is scoring well in the box office and with reviewers – overall. And it’s ranking 59th in the most talked about films of the year…not bad for a historical drama. It’s exciting to see a film tackling the terrible realities of slavery and celebrating the courage of the women and men who formed and used the Underground Railroad to bring enslaved to freedom. Harriet was written, directed, and produced by African American women which offers an additional fitting tribute to the story they brought to the big screen.

Actress Cynthia Erivo portrays Harriet Tubman, beginning with a request for the law to be respected and the promise in a will upheld. Denied her freedom yet again and learning that her mistress intends to sell her, Harriet decides to run for freedom. She will “live free or die.” But freedom is not enough if her family remains enslaved… Guided by religious faith and visions, Harriet carries on through to fulfill a dream for escape from bondage for hundreds.

The film some historical liberties for the sake of the drama, creating a fictional son who becomes Harriet’s nemesis and expanding some historical escape moments and other facts. In an interview, the movie’s director explained that she wanted the film to feel like an action movie about a real “superhero” and how she took purposeful changes to create the historical sense of Harriet’s accomplishments within the time frame of the film.

A few of the points I felt were exceptionally well shown:

  • The effects of slavery on the enslaved in almost every aspect of physical abuse (some shown, some implied), mental torment, and emotional torture.
  • Slavery’s grip on masters and how they suffered financial loss and moral ruin while practicing enslavement.
  • Harriet Tubman’s religious faith and visions mentioned frequently in her reminiscences; the movie makers found a way to incorporate this and maintain the audience’s interest and understanding.
  • Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law – the fear and panic it caused.
  • Cameo style appearances of other abolitionist leaders throughout the film.
  • Costuming! Very nice and mostly authentic, though a few liberties may have been taken with some of Harriet’s disguises.

Overall, Harriet has numerous strong points, and I feel the historical changes kept the story focused and moving. The movie addresses slavery and the quest for freedom from many angles and with careful nuances which do not always fit “simple, cookie cutter views” of the past. I think the director brilliantly accomplished her goal; I felt like I was watching a very serious, very believable, mostly accurate story about a real life super-heroine. What a fascinating addition to Civil War era film’s history! Brava.

I can’t tell you about my favorite scenes without spoilers, but let’s just stay Harriet’s solitary walk brought tears to my eyes and the ending of the white horse scene makes a powerful moment in Civil War era themed cinema on many levels. You’ll know when you see those scenes…

Harriet is playing in theaters nationwide.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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