As Harriet Tubman — played by British musical actress Cynthia Erivo in the new historical film Harriet — inspires more and more Southern black slaves to desperately join her run for freedom in the North, a newly converted collaborator confides, “We’re gonna need a bigger cart!”
What kind of anachronistic nonsense is this? Both the history and the legend of the Underground Railroad, and the courageous woman who led herself and others out of bondage, are now jokes of woke entertainment. That the film grossed $12 million (a small yet surprising sum) on its opening weekend suggests some moviegoers seem as ready to enjoy this travesty as slaves were ready for liberation. In terms of calculated crowd-pleasing, Harriet is the Jaws of slavery movies.
Set in 1849 Maryland, full of danger, rescues, superstition, frivolous gunplay, and pop-politics, Harriet demonstrates the current exploitation of African-American history, through historical revision, simply to sell tickets while aggravating political identity, tribal separation, and perpetual grievance — the same way that politicians manipulate voters.
Ever since Harvey Weinstein confirmed Hollywood’s Obama Effect, film culture has sought various ways of appeasing racial anxiety through movies about black victimization and white guilt. It’s the new diversity, as one of Harriet’s progressives summarizes: “Civil war is our only hope.”
Director and co-screenwriter Kasi Lemmons knows this trick and seizes the opportunity to capitalize on get-even anger. She has modeled Harriet after the formula of 12 Years a Slave, the horrific fantasy where the art strategy of “duration” was used to depict existential captivity. Her choice stands in cruelly teasing contrast to Beloved, Jonathan Demme’s visionary elaboration of Toni Morrison’s novel about slavery’s unending psychological trauma.
The difference in approach tells everything about the modern state of Hollywood race consciousness. Dismissing Demme and Morrison’s perception of slavery’s aftermath (its internalized stress and ongoing need for explanation, relief, and catharsis), Harriet looks at Tubman on a first-name basis, as if to standardize her travails into a Slavery Land thrill ride: She suffers spells after a head wound that causes hallucinations (or prophecies) that may indicate either madness or saintliness; she sacrifices her love life to crusading zeal (the film’s only complex moment occurs when her lover laments, “I’d a died for you. If you’d a let me”); and she frequently sings out her discontent in several message-driven musical interludes: “Sorry I have to leave” and “Lord, why you let me live?”
That’s a lot of emotional turmoil even for a project based on Black Lives Matter fabrication more than historical accuracy. (In one outrageous scene, Tubman lectures a gathering of smug abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, whom she singles out for scorn: “You got comfortable and important!”)
These sentimental, actorly ploys recall the fact that Lemmons switched from a career as an actress (Silence of the Lambs) to indie director, for a better chance at success. Her films — Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine, Talk to Me, and now Harriet — exemplify black striver’s syndrome. They are not culturally grounded so much as they show a hustler’s desperation, using race anxiety for success — the commercial and electoral formula that Obama made popular.
Actress Lemmons’s best performance was in Rusty Cundieff’s brilliant 1993 satire Fear of a Black Hat, in which she played a clueless journalist bent on exploiting hip-hop for nominal black triumph and, above all, her own egotistic ends. As in that tirade against Douglass, Harriet adds #MeToo feminism to Tubman’s puzzlement about her mission in life.
This Tubman bio-pic, with its trite, fashionable historical revision (bits of Hamilton, including actor Leslie Odom Jr.), is part of the plan to propel the tiny dynamo Erivo into movie stardom. Erivo’s eager-beaver energy and wild-eyed intensity epitomize unpleasant aggression rather than the strength of character that Cicely Tyson conveyed when she portrayed Tubman in the 1978 TV movie A Woman Called Moses.
In Harriet, Millennial hindsight and historical revision come off as pompous and patronizing.
Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” underscores a slavery montage, and pop singer Janelle Monae makes another consciousness-raising cameo appearance, this time as a Northern fairy godmother who not only totes a tub of water to bathe Harriet but teaches her how to fire a pistol and lovingly brushes Harriet’s hair while insinuating, “What’s a man to a woman touched by God?” Echoes of the universal human healing that made The Color Purple and Beloved great can be heard fading in the distance, lost in this Jaws-like political moment.