As the film industry and indeed other aspects of arts and culture have become more diverse in their story telling, previously unknown stories from the black experience are being revealed.
Kasi Lemmons made her directing debut in 1997 with Eve’s Bayou, a beautiful film, which introduced us to the relatively unknown experience of the prosperous black middle class in Louisiana in the sixties. Lemmons’ new film Harriet, is based on the real life story of Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave on a Maryland plantation, escaped to the north, where she joined the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.and then went back over and over again as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, as the slave escape route was known, guiding hundreds of runaway slaves to freedom. Then to top it all, she led a battalion in the American civil war, was a spy for the Union army and in her later years campaigned for women’s suffrage.
This American ikon is brilliantly played by British actress Cynthia Erivo, seen last year in Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. We first meet her as Minty, her “slave name”, on the Maryland plantation where she was born and lives with her family and her husband John ((Zackary Momoh), a freed man but being black, still with few rights. When the plantation owner dies, his son and heir Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) tells Minty he is going to sell her and separate her from her family forever. As a result Minty runs away and after a perilous journey finally reaches Pennsylvania, where she chooses her freedom name Harriet and decides to return to Maryland and lead first her family and then others to freedom.
The journeys themselves are heart stopping, pursued as she is by Gideon and his slave hunters, led by Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey). But Harriet is driven by her belief in both her religion and the right of every human being to be free. Erivo is charismatic in the role – intense burning eyes and a fierce determination which never wavers. At the Pennsylvania end of the story is William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who tries at first to dissuade her in her mission because of the terrible fate she will face if caught and independent, property owning black woman Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), who supports Harriet in her mission and her new life as a free woman.
While touching on the physical brutality of slavery – at one point we get a glimpse of the scarred back of one slave, obviously from a vicious beating – Lemmon’s film concentrates more on the sheer obscenity of one human being “owning” another. In an early scene, when Gideon tells Minty he is going to sell her, even though it is indicated that they were close as children, he compares owning a favourite slave to owning a favourite pig, which can be sold or indeed eaten. There is also a hint in Alwyns’ chilling performance, that perhaps there is also some deeper, underlying attachment motivating his determination to recapture her. While later, when Harriet has “stolen” members of her family from the Brodesses, we hear Gideon’s mother Eliza (Jennifer Nettles) weeping and wailing over the theft of her valuable “property”.
Erivo’s magnetic performance is well supported by other members of the cast, which also includes Clark Peters as Harriet’s father, a deeply religious man who will only talk to her on her return when he is wearing a blindfold, so he can truthfully say if asked that he hasn’t seen her and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Reverend Green, who is part of the Underground freedom movement at the Maryland end.
Also notable in a supporting role is a beautiful young man, Henry Hunter Hall, playing a member of the slave hunting party, who then changes sides. Turns out he’s Lemmon’s son with her husband Curtis-Hall. Not a case of nepotism here though. Hunter Hall appears to have inherited his parents’ talent.