🎥 Harriet, the movie
The movie titled “Harriet” premiered at The Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10, 2019. It was a terrific and eye opening expansion of everything I thought I knew about the Civil War era Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman. The film exposed much information about Harriet that the general public in the U.S. was unaware of and in the process made a few mistakes as well. It received great acclaim and also some criticism for being “formulaic”. The acclaim was primarily for the lead actor, oddly enough a British citizen, named Cynthia Erivo. I found her to be a completely believable character, yet the woman she portrayed was almost super-human in her real life existence.
At the end of this article I will include seven links to articles explaining in detail the relatively minor criticisms and historical inconsistencies of the movie. The articles also provide detailed praise and a story-line of the movie. You can follow links in the articles for even more in-depth analysis of the movie and historical context of Harriet’s life.
The movie opens, showing Harriet having a “spell” that has caused her to lose consciousness, explaining that she often had visions that she believed were God speaking to her. These visions were the result of brain injury resulting from having a two pound weight strike her in the head when a white overseer threw it at her.
Harriet Tubman was born on a farm in Maryland in about 1822 (according to two articles) as Araminta “Minty” Ross and later changed her name, in the movie, to Harriet Tubman after meeting an abolitionist named William Still in Philadelphia after her 100 mile trek from the farm where her owners, the Brodess family, resided. However, one article suggests that she took the name when she married a free black man named John Tubman while still residing on that farm.
Harriet and her father meet with Mr. Brodess and show him a document based on a will that Brodess’s father left, promising that when Harriet’s mother turned 45 (12 years earlier) she and her children would be freed. Mr. Brodess says they will always be slaves and tears up the letter from the lawyer who analyzed the will, stating that “Minty”, her mother and siblings should be freed. Afterward, Minty prays for Mr. Brodess to die and when he does, not long after, his son, Gideon decides it’s time to sell Minty. She decides to escape to freedom after having a “vision” of herself as a free woman.
Harriet does not take her husband John with her because she believes if caught, he would no longer be a free man but would revert to being a slave. She escapes to Philadelphia with the help of a black preacher, Reverend Samuel Green, who is a freed slave, and her two brothers who leave with her, end up returning to the Brodess farm out of fear.
The story of her 100 mile journey to Philadelphia in 1849 is a harrowing one because she is closely pursued for part of the way by Gideon. Gideon and his family need to recover Harriet because they are in dire financial straights. They NEED all the slaves they can sell, to pay their debts. Gideon loses track of Harriet when she jumps off a bridge into a river. Gideon later hires a black slave catcher, Bigger Long, to help track Harriet down and the movie shows some detail about their last encounters. By that time Harriet has learned to use a gun very effectively.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Harriet finds her way to the abolitionist William Still using information provided by the Reverend Green. Still meticulously documents much of the action from that point on. He was a true historical figure and he inducted Harriet as a fellow Underground Railroad Conductor. They both helped to free many slaves and move them to freedom in the north.
In the movie Harriet is introduced to Marie Buchanon, a free black woman who provides lodging and advice to Harriet. She teaches Harriet how to act like a FREE black woman. There is no evidence that such a relationship existed. It was made up for the movie but it certainly could have happened that way. There is one scene where a man in the south is checking Harriet’s “papers” and they say that she is 5’3” tall (if I remember correctly). The man says “You don’t look that tall” and Harriet says “I must have been wearing my tall boots that day”. She is portrayed as a very intelligent woman and she must have been to have rescued so many slaves before and during the Civil War.
Harriet made many trips back south to rescue relatives and other slaves. She eventually had a direct hand in the rescue of about 70 slaves and near the end of the movie she gives a speech to a troop of about 150 black soldiers who, with her leadership, rescued about 750 fugitive slaves. Her reputation grew to the point where she was referred to as “”Moses” by the abolitionists and other conductors in the Underground Railroad.
Although it is not mentioned in any of the articles I read, the movie tells us that she was given a home on the estate of a member of congress who she made friends with. I found no corroboration of this. She lived to be about 91 years old. Harriet was a HIT MOVIE!