Perhaps the first superhero I encountered as a child was Harriet Tubman, the courageous conductor on the underground railroad who, with little other than her wits and will, escaped bondage and went on to usher nearly 200 enslaved people to freedom during the 1840s and 1850s. There are boulevards, schools, coloring books, stamps and even coffee mugs bearing Harriet’s name and likeness; she’s an ubiquitous figure on our cultural landscape; and yet the real woman behind the legend remains somewhat elusive and virtually unknown to most of us.
In “Harriet,” Kasi Lemmons has the awesome task of transforming the mythic hero into a complicated very human woman. She crafts a thrilling story of a strong black woman who, despite heartbreak and hardship, is able to gather the fractured pieces of self, and do the seemingly impossible: escape her brutal circumstances. As played with beautiful intensity by Cynthia Erivo, Harriet becomes accessible in a way that helps us understand not only her drive for freedom, but how her compassion and sense of community led to her vital role in the abolitionist movement. On the surface, it is an action film, but at its core, “Harriet” is an unconventional love story; it is about the love of family, womanhood and independence, and the extremes that one is willing to go when those precious things are denied.
In the midst of this overblown superhero-obsessed culture, there is something refreshing, necessary and restorative about seeing the real-life heroics of a tough and uncompromising black woman on the big screen. One of the most powerful and understated moments in the film is when Harriet gently jumps across the Mason-Dixon line to freedom; it is a small action with seismic implications, as we are watching a young woman taking full possession of herself.
Lynn Nottage is a playwright and a screenwriter, and the first woman in history to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. Her plays include “Sweat” (Pulitzer Prize, Obie Award), which moved to Broadway after a sold out run at the Public Theater and “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” (Drama Desk Nomination, Lilly Award).