Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is only the fifth feature film from black actress-turned-director Kasi Lemmons (The Caveman’s Valentine and Eve’s Bayou). Her last feature was Black Nativity (2013). In the years between then and now, she has been working in television. Her last work in TV had been the super-hero series Luke Cage (2016). She co-wrote this film with Gregory Allen Howard (Ali and Remember the Titans) and it seems to me like she is bringing a little bit of that super-hero sensibility into this feature. It wouldn’t be surprising, given that this film comes in the wake of the most successful super-hero film featuring a predominantly African-American cast, that of Black Panther (2018).
Ever since 12 Years a Slave (2013) was released and then won the Oscar for Best Picture, there has been a conversation about mainstream films featuring a predominantly African-American cast. That conversation has mostly been a backlash to films that are about racism, especially historical racism and particularly slave narratives. It got to a point where people were saying that the only black films that Hollywood recognized were ones that were about black people suffering at the hands of racism or at the hands of some -ism. After the controversy about the removal of Confederate monuments came to a head in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, that backlash died down. Perhaps it’s now become important that people know and understand why people were upset about not only the Confederate statues, but also what’s known as America’s original sin.
Yet, there are still those that resist all of these stories about historical racism. They resist how they’re told and how they depict the black experience. Some resist those that simply show the suffering of black people and not much else, such as Detroit (2017). Some resist those that are mainly from the point-of-view of a non-black character, such as Green Book (2018). Therefore, the preference for those who resist those kinds of films are ones that are very much the perspective of the black person and instead of suffering, they prefer depicting the fight and the overcoming of that suffering, the triumph of the black soul and the rejection of victim-hood. There’s no better way to do that than depicting a black person, historical or not, as a hero and in this case a super-hero. Now, there are those that reject depictions of black people as these kinds of heroes. Instead, they want it to be made clear that black people are human beings, flawed as anyone else, and they’re not saints to be stereotyped in that regard, which would lead down the path to the Magical Negro. But I will digress to that point in a moment.
Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows) stars as Minty Ross, a slave woman living in Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1849. She’s probably in her mid-to-late 20’s. The Brodess family owned Minty, her parents and her siblings and forced them to work at the plantation in Bucktown, which is just south of Cambridge. Minty has brothers and sisters, but when she was younger, most of her sisters were sold to another slave owner where they were never seen again. In 1844, Minty married a free black man named John Tubman who worked at a neighboring farm, but, because of how things worked, any children that Minty had would become slaves for the Brodess family and not free like John, their father. Minty tries to find a legal remedy, so that her potential children would be free. When that doesn’t work, she decides to run away and escape to the North where black people, regardless of their origins, could live free of slavery.
Joe Alwyn (The Favourite and Boy Erased) co-stars as Gideon Brodess, the son of the owner of the plantation where Minty is enslaved. He takes over and begins to manage the plantation. He realizes that the plantation is in financial trouble. Besides the crops, the only commodity are the slaves, so he decides to sell them in order to maintain his licentious lifestyle and provide comfort for his ailing mother. Because he only sees the slaves as either cattle or livestock, he has no problem treating them as such. He tries to sell Minty, but she escapes. When Minty returns to help other slaves, including her family, to escape, Gideon makes it his mission to stop her, get his slaves back or get revenge.
This is where Lemmons’ film becomes that of a super-hero story. When people think of super-hero films, particularly super-hero origin stories, there are certain tropes that come up over and over. The first is some extraordinary event that gives the person his or her super-powers. Here, the film draws upon real-life information to give Minty her super-powers. For someone like Peter Parker from Spider-Man (2002), he’s bitten by a radioactive spider. Scott Mendelsohn from Forbes magazine compares this film to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) in which Steve Rogers is injected with a special serum that gives him his super-powers.
Here, it’s not a spider or a serum. Here, Minty is hit in the head with a heavy metallic object. This was an incident from real-life where she was hit in the head around the age of 13, which caused serious brain damage. This injury resulted in her becoming narcoleptic and experiencing hallucinations that she equated as being from God. Here, Lemmons turns that lore into a super-power. The film opens with Minty having a “sleeping spell,” which is basically one of her narcoleptic episodes. Yet, instead of totally debilitating her, it’s indeed a super-power, which gives her a sixth sense, guiding her away from danger, almost akin to Peter Parker’s so-called spidey-sense. For those who are religious and recognize the faith of black people, you can read it as not comic book but biblical.
The second trope of super-hero origin stories is the secret identity. Peter Parker’s secret identity was Spider-Man. People didn’t know that one was the other and vice-versa. Mendelsohn’s comparison to Captain America falls apart because Steve Rogers didn’t hide the fact that he was Captain America. More apt comparisons would be to someone like Bruce Wayne whose secret identity is Batman. Minty wasn’t a wealthy socialite like Bruce Wayne, but her alter ego was a kind of vigilante who worked in the cover of night, just like Batman. Minty Ross does change her name. She takes on her husband’s surname and her mother’s Christian name, calling herself Harriet Tubman. But when she becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad, which might as well be called the Avengers or the Justice League, her alter ego is known as “Moses.”
Yes, her sixth sense is treated like a super-power and practically a magical ability. This could lead people to criticize this film as playing into the Magical Negro denouncements. The difference, though, is that the Magical Negro is a supporting character that usually exists to aid white people or make the lives of white people better or more enriched. That isn’t the case here. Minty isn’t aiding white people. She isn’t making their lives better or enriching them. She’s taking from them what was taken from black people.
Therefore, that criticism doesn’t hold much water. A criticism that does is how this film treats its other characters. I understand why the film is so hyper-focused on Minty, aka Harriet Tubman, because Harriet Tubman has become one of the greatest historical American figures to rise to the level of the Founding Fathers. In 2014, President Barack Obama managed to honor Tubman by signing into law a historic park and a museum. In 2016, Obama pushed for Tubman to be put on the $20 bill. Unfortunately, the following year, President Donald Trump’s administration shot that down. But no one would argue that she’s an American hero, not only on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but on a grander scale, as it’s revealed she fought and was a leader in the Civil War. Yes, she did a lot on her own, but she didn’t do it all by herself.
She had help, but those other characters who helped her aren’t given much. It’s a testament to the power of each of the actors that they make an indelible mark without much material or screen time. Among them is Leslie Odom Jr. (Murder on the Orient Express and Red Tails) who plays William Still, a man in Philadelphia who was an abolitionist in charge of the American Anti-Slavery Society there. Besides being a free man, we don’t learn much about him. He’s basically just a figure head. There’s also Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures and Moonlight) who plays Marie Buchanon, another abolitionist who owns her own hotel in Philadelphia. She was born free. The film gives more insight into her than William Still, but she’s still rather short-changed.
Henry Hunter Hall (Black Nativity and Waist Deep) plays Walter, a black man who helps Gideon track down slaves and return them to bondage, seemingly making him a villain. Later, he makes a change and the film doesn’t give us enough to make us understand why he changes his mind and his ways. However, those kinds of criticisms aren’t enough to dissuade me from the overall power of the film. That power mainly resides in the performance in Erivo and her character’s perseverance and her strength. There aren’t really any horrific scenes that would be akin to the whipping scenes in Glory (1989) or 12 Years a Slave. There are only remnants of horror like the scars on people’s backs.
There is a violent scene but it consists of a black person exacting violence on another black person. However, even that scene didn’t bring me to tears as the scenes of Minty’s perseverance. I wept throughout the film, but I was no more lachrymose than in the iconic scene where Minty crosses the Mason-Dixon line, which is a beautiful and faithful re-creation of how the real Harriet Tubman described it, as noted by her biographer, Sarah Hopkins Bradford. Lemmons really sells it as a triumphant and golden moment that hit me in my heart.
Rated PG-13 for violent material and language, including racial epithets.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 5 mins.