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History Nerd's Review: Harriet (2019)

"You'll die right here. On a frozen, blood-soaked battlefield, the moans of a generation of young men in your ears, dying in agony around you, for a lost cause. For a vile and wicked idea! For the sin of slavery! Can you hear them? God don't mean for people to own people, Gideon!"

Born into slavery in 1822, Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in 1849, joined the abolitionist cause, and became the Underground Railroad's most daring and successful "conductor," liberating some seventy people and never losing a "passenger" in her charge. She later served the Union army as a spy and armed scout during the Civil War, and her portrait will be appearing on the $20 bill in the near future.

The film, co-written by director Kasi Lemmons and producer Gregory Allen Howard, stars Cynthia Erivo in the title role. It follows Harriet's career from her escape through the antebellum period, with an epilogue showing the 1863 Combahee River Raid. It was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. I rate it four out of four history books for entertainment value. Now it's time to grade the history homework.

Yes, that really happened: Harriet Tubman had "spells," attributed to a head injury she suffered in her youth, in which she would randomly lose consciousness for a few minutes. She often came out of her spells to recount dreams and visions which she took to be messages from God. And yes, sometimes spells came on her in the middle of an Underground Railroad mission, and she followed the instructions those visions gave her, and those instructions were always right.

As shown in the epilogue, Harriet Tubman planned and led the Combahee River Raid, which liberated over 700 people. Yes, you read that right, a black woman, who was not enlisted in the army and had no formal military training, commanded a successful military operation--in 1863.

In short, Harriet Tubman was a badass.

Points off for: The Brodess family, from whose plantation Harriet and her family escaped, did not have an adult son in 1849. The fictional Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) was placed in the story to give Harriet a consistent adversary and foil. He and the slave-catchers he employs also serve as composite characters representing all of the various agents of slavery that opposed Harriet's work.

Marie Buchanon (Janelle MonĂ¡e), the free black woman who gives Harriet her first paying job and instructs her in the use of firearms, is also a composite character, meant to represent all of the people who assisted Harriet Tubman after she escaped to freedom.

Extra credit for: Cynthia Erivo totally nails Harriet's speech patterns and dialect, as they are recorded in contemporary accounts of her speaking.

The weird-looking ironclad gunboats that appear in the background in the 1863 sequence are correct.

The final confrontation with Gideon, where Harriet prophesies his death in the upcoming Civil War (see quote above), is fictional--but it is also eleven kinds of awesome.

Additional comments: It took over twenty years for Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard to find a studio willing to finance this project. At one point in this long process, a studio executive suggested to Mr. Howard that Julia Roberts should play Harriet Tubman. I did not make that up.

Final grade: 96%


  1. That Julia Roberts thing -- I remember laughing about that, but it's almost not funny.

    This movie is definitely on my to-watch list. Thanks so much for the review, Baby M.

  2. It's kind of even a little less funny, given that Minneapolis is going up in smoke this week.


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