Maryland, 1849. A black couple meet and embrace outside. He is clutching a piece of paper. She asks him to read it out but he already knows the contents by heart. Meet John and Araminta (Minty) Tubman. He is a free man. She is a slave but the piece of paper might just change all that. And then she could have kids – she’d always promised herself that her children would be born free.
The paper contains a ruling by a lawyer that Minty‘s slavehood is unconsitutional according to a promise by her owner‘s predecessor. They take the ruling to the owner who screws it into a ball and throws it to the floor. South of the Mason-Dixon line, its not lawyers who have the last say on who owns what.
One thing the film is clear about is that slavery was primarily an economic transaction. Having more slaves enhances your status, but if you have financial difficulties you can always sell a couple. The worst thing that could happen would be if slaves were to escape – this would be a violation of your property rights for which you wouldn‘t be properly compensated. So escaped slaves were beaten badly, but it was always important to bring them back alive.
Minty‘s owner dies, and his son decides to sell her. This is partly because he has a dangerous obsession with her after she tended him when he had a childhood illness. But its also because she‘s become troublesome. Best sell her to slavers “in the South” who can take responsibility for disciplining her.
Faced with the prospect of losing her family anyway, Minty makes a run for it, making sure that John does not follow her. If he were caught, he’d lose his limited liberty. Somehow she makes the 100 mile trip to free Philadelphia alone – an almost unprecedented feat. She rejects her slave name, and now only answers to Harriet Tubman – named after her mother and husband.
Once she’s tasted freedom she needs to bring John to live with her in freedom. But he’d been told that she had died and married another woman, who is now very pregnant. So instead she brings back 9 members of her family and friends. After this, she becomes a conductor on the Underground Railway, leading 70 slaves to freedom inside a decade. This is made more difficult after the Fugitive Slave Law is passed in 1850, meaning that freed slaves now have to be taken all the way to Canada.
This is a righteous film, but it is also very well told. As Minty/Harriet, Cynthia Erivo is superb, effortlessly making the transition from the timid illiterate Minty to the self-assured, confident Harriet. In a later reunion with her mother, the mother exclaims “but Minty was so plain”. Harriet, on the other hand, impresses such a sense of fear in her racist adversaries that they think she must be a white man in blackface.
The film is also imprinted with a religious consciousness. Harriet talks to God and experiences premonitions. Her first stop in her escape to freedom is Reverend Green, who leads prayers in front of the slavemasters finding bible quotes justifying the compliance of slaves, while secretly organising their passage to relative safety in the North.
When the slaves want to communicate without the slave owners knowing who is speaking, they use the medium of spirituals, which are all the more poignant because the lyrics are suffused with a desire to escape to a better place. There is a wonderful sequence of a mass breakout as an old spiritual segues into Nina Simone’s much more lively and contemporary “Sinnerman”.
This Old Testament narrative is echoed as the slaveholders put a bounty on the head of the mysterious figure who keeps freeing their slaves. Not knowing it is Minty, they name their prey “Moses”, who knew a thing or two about bringing people from a life of desperation to escape to the Promised Land.
You could find a secular reading of the film – seeing Minty’s communion with God as being mere instinct, but it would be unfair to ignore the role of religious faith in emboldening slaves to break their bondage. The religion of the slaves truly is the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.
The film shows the indignity and viciousness of slavery – every black body carries a series of weals on its back and many contain permanent facial scarring. It also shows that the slave system is on its way out – in the old form at least. The film ends with Harriet leading a squadron of black troops in a battle in the Civil War which, formally at least, ended slavery.
It would have been easy for this film to be Worthy but Dull, but it carries us with Harriet in her long fight against injustice. And though it was released last year, the recent Black Lives Matters demos show its contemporary relevance. We see before us both the people whose statues are being torn down and the heroes like Harriet who remain an inspiration to our side. Long may she continue to inspire.