Film review: Harriet

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, November 1st. We’re thankful you’ve joined us today!  Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a superhero origin story.

But even better.

The tale of how the slave Araminta “Minty” Ross became American freedom fighter Harriet Tubman is more than a welcomed change of pace from fictional caped crusaders.

TRAILER: I don’t know if you know how extraordinary this is, but you have made it 100 miles to freedom all by yourself. Would you like to pick a new name to mark your freedom? Harriet Tubman.

There have been several television specials about Tubman. But the famed conductor of the Underground Railroad has never been the subject of a feature-length movie. Something to the film industry’s shame. Now that we have one, we may wish it was a little less conventional and a little more imaginative in telling her story. But there’s no question it does Tubman and the faith that motivated her justice.

CLIP: Rescuing slaves requires skill and careful planning. It requires reading, Harriet can you read a sign or a map? Can you read it all? I put my attention on trying to hear God’s voice more clearly. Do you know what would happen if you got caught? They were torture you until you pointed them right to this office. You got lucky, Harriet. There’s nothing more you can do. Don’t tell me what I can’t do. I made it this far on my own. God was watching but my feet were my own running, bleeding, climbing. Nearly drowned. Nothing to eat for days and days, but I made it. So don’t you tell me what I can’t do.

Beautifully staged and tremendously acted, the PG-13 Harriet provides fascinating—and awful—legal details on slavery as an institution. How it was enforced through violence has been explored in numerous other films, sometimes to the point of seeming to revel in it. It’s important not to turn away from the bloody reality. But it can also make the perpetrators of that evil seem like far different creatures from us. We can safely judge their wickedness because we see so little of ourselves in it.

Harriet, in contrast, explores the banal, daily pragmatism that allowed slavery to persist for so long. This isn’t the snarling, mustache-twirling villainy of Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Instead we self-justification grounded in ledger books and family finances. Tubman’s oppressors deny both her moral and legal claim to freedom for the most uncomfortably relatable of reasons—the desire to keep up appearances and maintain their standard of living.

The film does an equally fine job depicting the Christian faith that shaped Tubman’s life and informed her actions. When she was a child, an overseer struck her in the head with a two-pound lead weight. That caused Tubman to suffer from lifelong bouts of narcolepsy and other ailments. During her periodic dazes, she would see what she believed were visions from God.

Some Christian viewers may feel uncomfortable with the mystical way the movie characterizes these dreams. One scene, in particular, has a bit of a “Luke using the force” feeling. But could God use the physiological symptoms of Tubman’s brain trauma for His purposes? Certainly. And there’s no doubt that Tubman believed that’s what was happening. Maybe it was audible supernatural guidance. Or maybe it was God simply using her natural intellect to providentially order her steps. Either way, the number of times Tubman manages to escape danger and circumvent her enemies is near miraculous.

CLIP: How do you do? How do you do? Good. Confident, composed, wise enough to know not to look a strange white man in the eyes. You don’t want no trouble. But if trouble comes, you’ll be ready. Try it. Yeah, you’ll be ready.

This is far from the only representation of Christianity in Harriet. Her father’s example of trusting the God of the Bible inspires Tubman to take her own risks in faith. And she can only help others escape and win the nickname “Moses” because her family’s minister first helps her flee to the North. Though she can’t read, her fervent prayer life is a clear source of her courage.

Tubman’s life was so extraordinary, it’s a shame some of the most riveting facts about it are told only in postscript. What a crime to see her exploits as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War covered by a quick placard. Or her work in the suffrage movement. Or her late-in-life romance with her much-younger husband. If Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman all merit a multitude of sequels, surely, so does the daring adventurer who, in her own words, “Never ran her train off the track and never lost a passenger.”

(Glen Wilson/Focus Features via AP) This image released by Focus Features shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in a scene from “Harriet.” 

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