I have a few bones to pick with Steven Mnuchin, the U.S. secretary of the treasury. I'll spare the laundry list and just focus on the missed opportunity that could've been epic: Going to see the new movie Harriet, about Harriet Tubman, and paying for it with a $20 emblazoned with the civil rights icon’s image. But since we don't get her on the legal tender, it appears we have to settle for the movie.
The initial Facebook responses to the film that I saw, mostly from my black friends, overwhelmingly expressed a positive, ‘“not another slave movie” sentiment. Myself, I don't have a problem with movies that are centered around slavery. 12 Years a Slave is one of the greatest (and most emotionally haunting) films of all time — not just because of the realism, but because it was adapted from the actual words of the man who went through the experience.
And while I definitely encourage stories about black people being directed and written by black people — as Kasi Lemmons does with Harriet — the movie itself isn’t true enough to life to make a real impact.
The title character is played by Cynthia Erivo (who leapt off the screen in 2018's Widows), and she does a great job with the material.
The film starts with our hero, then named Minty, hatching a plan with her new husband, John Tubman, a free man, to ask for her freedom. Once denied by the Brodess estate, Minty decides to run. She consults with her husband, as he wants to leave with her because she suffers from hypersomnia, which could be a liability when escaping. She escapes alone, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the son of the plantation owner, gives chase, which becomes a recurring theme.
After a CliffsNotes version of Minty’s escape and ultimate settlement in Philadelphia, she's met by William Still (Leslie Odom) — one of the architects of the Underground Railroad, responsible for helping house and document the history of newly freed people. He asks Minty if she would like to give herself a “free” name. She chooses Harriet after her mother and Tubman after her husband.
After that, the movie gets tricky for me: Characters like Still have real-life counterparts. But characters like Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monae), who provides housing for newly freed people, are fictional. Gideon Brodess, the slave owner that is the pivotal antagonist to Harriet, is made up, too.
Lemmons spoke to this aspect in an interview with Indie Wireby, responding, “Of course I embellished, I'm a screenwriter,” going on to say, “I added to the story because anybody that's a writer that approaches a real story has to embellish.”
I disagree with this sentiment. Sure, there are many films based on true events that make up minor characters for the sake of the narrative. But does a story about a black woman that escaped from slavery and returned to danger to free over 70 more enslaved people need embellishment?
You feel the flaws of that approach in a pivotal moment when she comes face to face with Gideon, holding a gun to him. Throughout the film, Harriet seems willing to pull a gun on someone without second thoughts in her pursuit of freedom, willing to give “death or liberty, but you can't have both.” But once she has the drop on Gideon, the man that enslaved who her entire family, she gives a lengthy speech, totally cheapening Tubman’s spirit. The scene is entirely fabricated and used as a tool to showcase the writers and not the woman they are writing about.
The movie turns the life of a powerful historical figure into a digestible pill. It feels more like a Netflix joint than a theater release (not exactly a knock, as some movies do well via the digital service). Despite its flaws, Harriet gives the accurate impression that she was an amazing figure, a badass deserving of all the praise we can shower her with.
Mostly, I just hope she gets a definitive documentary, telling her story without unnecessary and counterproductive embellishments. And I hope I can pay for my ticket with a Tubman $20.