I missed this film, about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and helped many others to do the same, at the pictures. It’s really not like me to miss a film about 19th century American history; but it wasn’t on for long, and not all cinemas showed it. So thank you to Sky for showing it, as part of Black History Month. All the local cinemas would, however, definitely have shown the new James Bond film next month, had its release gone ahead; and I would definitely have gone to see it, as would many other people. I’d also have gone to see The Secret Garden, but that’s now gone straight to Sky without even being shown at cinemas. And now it looks as if Cineworld are going to mothball all their cinemas, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vue and Odeon follow suit. It’s very sad. The film distributors aren’t giving them a chance.
Anyway, back to the point. This unfortunately isn’t very historically accurate, but it does get across the message of how brutal slave owners could be, the tragedy of families torn apart, and the bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad – and just how much work and organisation went into it, at a time when communication systems were obviously nothing like they are now, and many of those involved hadn’t even had the chance to learn to read and write.
It’s quite an old-fashioned film, with an ’80s/’90s feel to it – glorious music, sweeping panoramas, elegant costumes for the slave owners and the free black characters, and a dramatic chase through the forest. I know there was a bit of moaning that the lead role went to a British actress rather than an American actress, but Cynthia Erivo really does a superb job. It must have been particularly difficult to portray Harriet’s belief that she was having religious visions – thought to have been linked to a severe head injury inflicted on her when she was young – but she does it very convincingly.
I’m surprised that this didn’t do better at the box office, but – very sadly for me! – American historical dramas just don’t seem to sell well these days. I was sorry to see Mercy Street pulled after two series. Oh well, I enjoyed it! And it tells an important story.
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross, into slavery in Maryland, and married John Tubman, a freedman. Dramas about slavery do tend to focus on the Deep South, where marriages between slaves and free people were very unusual, but they did happen in the Upper South. And, with Maryland bordering the free state of Pennsylvania, it was easier (in relative terms) there for slaves to escape; and we see Minty escaping, being assisted by members of the Underground Railroad, and adopting her mother’s name, Harriet – the change of name, to reflect her new status, is a powerful moment.
We then see her returning to try to bring her husband and sister to slavery, only to find that her husband, thinking she was dead, had remarried, and her sister wouldn’t leave her children, but then leading many others to freedom, returning time and again to come so and becoming known as “Moses”. She did indeed lead many people to freedom, thought to be around 70 people in 13 trips – and she was actually even braver than the film suggests, because this was mostly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act meant that escaped slaves, if recaptured, would be returned to slavery, whereas the film suggests that many of her missions were earlier.
The film over-dramatises it, giving Harriet a glamorous friend who runs a boarding house where she stays, and giving Harriet’s former owners, the Brodesses, a handsome son who seems to be rather obsessed with her. It also shows the Brodesses’ neighbours all turning up at their plantation to confront them when they realise who “Moses” is, and Harriet tying up three of the Brodesses inside their plantation house as she helps some of their slaves to escape, and culminates in a dramatic chase through a forest and a showdown in which Harriet gets the better of the handsome son and prophesies the coming of the war and his death in it. It’s a shame that it’s not historically accurate, because the showdown really is a great scene and Cynthia Erivo plays it so well, as she does another scene in which she reminds members of the Underground Railroad who were born free just how evil slavery is, and how they can’t possibly understand it in the way that she can.
It then shows Harriet fleeing to Canada, and briefly reminds that she led the Combahee River Raid during the war, in which she actually led a military expedition which rescued over 750 former slaves, but that’s all done briefly so as not to detract from the big showdown scene preceding it.
Not too many marks for historical accuracy, but the general storyline’s there – the horrors of slavery, and this brave and rather mystical woman who escapes from it and helps many others to do the same. It’s not at all preachy or aggressive: it gets the message across through the excellent performance of Cynthia Erivo and the big dramatic, if not accurate, key scenes. Certainly well worth watching.