Movie Guru: ‘Harriet’ tells the story of the Underground Railroad with a polished Hero’s Journey
Editor’s note: This film is not currently showing at the Riverwalk of Edwards, CineBistro in Vail or Capitol Theater in Eagle.
A real-life hero has been given all the drama and polish of a big-screen superhero.
The creative team behind “Harriet” finally corrects a long-standing cinematic wrong by making a movie about Harriet Tubman. Unsurprisingly, her gritty, powerful story gets the polish we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies. Surprisingly, all of the polish has a purpose – to treat Harriet’s story the same way Hollywood typically treats characters played by A-listers like Angelina Jolie and The Rock. We all but get the triumphant background music, and though it’s not the most artistic approach to a harrowing story, it’s hard not to argue that Tubman deserves every minute of it.
More than that, it might just bring a tear to your eye.
This movie starts at Harriet’s adulthood, just before her family attempts to legally free themselves from slavery thanks to an old will. When that’s rejected by their current owner, a series of events forces Harriet to run for freedom. When she does get free, she defies all expectations by going back south to get her family. That snowballs into more and more journeys back south, freeing other slaves and becoming a symbol of hope for thousands. For the slaveowners, though, she becomes someone to hunt.
The movie loves its tropes, but it prefers fictional tropes to the ones usually seen in a biopic. Tubman’s life is laid out like a Hero’s Journey, with a failed first marriage shown less like a mistake than a companion who wasn’t valiant enough to continue the quest. Another figure, a young black man who hunts lost slaves only to switch sides and help her, is the classic fallen soul redeemed by knowing a true hero. The showdown with a slaveowner at the end is structured exactly like a final battle against a lifelong nemesis.
The most seemingly fictionalized element of the movie, her visions of the future, do have a realistic root. Tubman was convinced she received visions from God that helped her during her work on the Underground Railroad, visions that the movie takes as fact. It’s a narrative tool that only polishes her heroic status, making her seem specially chosen and drawing allies to her side.
Cynthia Erivo adds to the heroic feel, giving Tubman a majestic sense of righteousness, humility and power. Her voice carries a lot of that, designed like it’s meant to sing gospel songs rather than speak. It adds to the feeling that Tubman’s power comes from inside, an internal force that lights her up and propels her along.
Is it the kind of storytelling that will make the Academy shower them with awards? Probably not. But is it a version of her story that the majority of movie audiences can understand and hopefully embrace? Absolutely.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.