“God showed me the way.”
Harriet Tubman was given a boost into the national consciousness when she was chosen to be put onto the $20 bill (a plan that has been put on hold by the Trump Administration). But being on money is not all we need to know about her. Kasi Lemmon’s biopic Harriet give us a chance to discover the inspirational story of a slave who not only fought for her own freedom, but risked her life to bring many others to freedom. But more than the struggle for freedom, Harriet portrays Tubman as a religious figure—a prophet that heard God’s voice and did God’s work.
The film opens with a Sunday service on the Brodess farm in Maryland. The assembled slaves sing a spiritual, “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” (which in later days morphed into “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”). Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall) exhorts the assembled slaves to obey their masters as Paul says in Colossians. All this as the master and his family look on approvingly.
Then John Tubman, a freeman, asks to talk to Mr. Brodess about freedom for his wife Minty (Cynthia Erivo), having talked to a lawyer about Brodess’s grandfather’s will that said they should be free. Tubman is banished from the farm. Minty determines to find her freedom and leaves. Her father (also a freeman) tells her to go to Rev. Green’s church. She is reluctant given his sermons, but discover that he can tell her where to go. She begins a harrowing journey with slave catchers in pursuit. When cornered on a bridge, she jumps, saying she will be free or die.
The journey continues, with some help along the way, until she reaches Philadelphia, a journey of 100 miles alone. She goes to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odem Jr.), who takes down her story and asks if she’d like to choose a new name for living free. She takes her mother’s and husband’s name, becoming Harriet Tubman.
After a year of living free, she wants to go back and get her husband. She is dissuaded, but will not give up on her plan. She has been coached in living as a freewoman by Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) so she can pass as free while traveling in the South. She knows that if she is caught she will be beaten and returned to slavery. But she is determined. When she discovers her husband has moved on with his life, she finds that her family wants to go with her. She determines that God has led her here to free them. This was the first of many trips to free seventy people over a number of years.
The film is designed to be something of an action movie, with chases, and dangers in each escape. But just as it is a story of a journey to freedom, it is also has a deep spiritual journey as well.
Ever since she received a head injury as a child, Minty/Harriet has had spells where she doesn’t quite lose consciousness, but she sees images of things that will take place. During her escape and her heroic journeys back to the south, these visions serve to lead her to safety. She understands these to be messages from God. When she first arrives in Philadelphia, she tells her story to Still. Harriet says “The hole in my head just made God’s voice more clear.” Still writes in his book “Possible brain damage.” Such visions are not unlike the reports of biblical prophets. Such skepticism as Still exhibited is not unlike the way we treat those who make such claims today.
The film is filled with religion, starting with that opening Sunday sermon. Harriet is a woman of great faith and trust in God. She believes that God has chosen her to bring people to freedom. As she makes more and more trips, she receives a nickname on wanted posters: Moses. The whites have no idea who Moses is—or even which sex—but they want Moses stopped. Meanwhile Harriet calls out to slaves in the field by singing “Go Down Moses” for them to come to her. Like the biblical Moses, Harriet sees herself as God’s messenger of freedom to an enslaved people. I’m sure that many will see this as a story of a hero, which it is, but it is really a story of God’s hero, bringing freedom to God’s children in a difficult time.
Throughout her journeys to free more people, Harriet constantly trusts in God and the messages God sends her. She attributes her great success (eventually leading seventy people to freedom) to God’s leading. In her later life she became an important figure in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
I also want to mention, as a final note, the song “Stand Up” that plays over the end credits. Stick around and let that song inhabit you. It was written by Joshuah Campbell and the film’s star Cynthia Erivo. Erivo also sings the song. It is a wonderful blend of gospel and other music that evokes the spirit of Harriet Tubman and her mission of freedom.
Harriet tells her story in theatres on November 1st, 2019.