Full disclosure: I have a visceral reaction to slave movies, due to the more often than not depiction of Black people as broken and only one among them standing up, only to fall back down in one way or another. This is not that film. “Harriet” is a tale of strength, perseverance and rebellion. This film was a tribute to the woman whose name it bares. Kasi Lemmons directed a resounding cry of pride for Black history, Black struggle and Black resilience. Lemmons gave us a tale of hope, mingled with moments of laughter, times of struggle, but through it all faith.
Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman was strong, bold and powerful. More so, Erivo’s portrayal was what we see when we close our eyes and think, what was Harriet Tubman like? What gave her strength? As we learned about this fearless woman, who is cemented in our history, we learned of her accomplishments, going back into danger over and over again. We learned her actions and her words to the slaves as ‘Just keep going. If you want to taste freedom, keep going.’ What we weren’t taught then, Ervino taught us now, legends are not born, but they are chiseled into existence with blood, sweat, tears and determination. Her resounding cry of “Don’t tell me what I can’t do” should be the battle cry of all those faced with impossible odds.
The complement of cast members like Leslie Odum Jr, Janelle Monáe and Clarke Peters creates a dynamic that exemplified the passions and labors of those who were working to seek freedom for those who needed it. Odum has always been an impressive talent, his role as William Still, does not disappoint. His counterpart, Marie, played by Monáe was no damsel either and a woman in her own right. Monáe gives a depiction of strength and grace. Peters more often than not, provided some much-needed relief in highly tense situations, while still maintaining a strength that could not be denied.
When Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard wrote “Harriet” I do not know if they intended to dispel stereotypes and tropes commonly seen in films, especially around slavery, or if they simply wanted to pay homage to Harriet Tubman. Well, both became true. If someone is looking for a slave movie, or even a movie about slaves, this isn’t it. “Harriet” is not about slaves; it is about the birth of a legend. So, do not look for slaves in this film, because here, Harriet Tubman was not a slave for a day.