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Slave rescuer Harriet Tubman's biopic has been a long time coming but at Inverness Film Festival Kasi Lemmons' film only partly shows what makes her tick

By Margaret Chrystall

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FEMALE director Kasi Lemmons has made a film that tells the lifestory of American slave rescuer and abolitionist Harriet Tubman – an achievement in itself.

The fact it’s taken so long to bring such a film to the big screen is surprising as it’s a remarkable story about a truly unique person.

Talking about making the film, the director has explained she was trying to make a film that could be seen by a “sophisticated 10-year-old” who could see it with his grandmother – difficult when set in the time of slavery – and also to represent Harriet accurately.

And perhaps the film suffers from trying to be all those things.

There is something almost too wholesome and easy about the life of the slaves shown in the film – given the cruel attitude of Harriet’s family’s owner Gideon Brodiss (though it turns out that this character didn’t actually exist and like the altered date of the Fugitive Slavery Act in the film, presumably for plot reasons, was licence taken with the truth).

Cynthia Evivo as slave rescuer Harriet Tubman.
Cynthia Evivo as slave rescuer Harriet Tubman.

Perhaps being totally accurate about the conditions slaves lived in, the physical cruelty inflicted on them, for example, would mean the film could not be seen by a more general audience. But maybe it needs to be there to give a true picture?

Cynthia Erivo’s performance powers the film, but creates a picture of Harriet as driven, incredibly brave, but humourless and remote. The only quirk we see is Harriet being guided on routes to freedom from the messages of God she believed she saw in narcolepsy blackouts, caused probably by being hit on the head by her owner when she was young.

Clarke Peters gives a standout performance as Harriet’s wise father and Joe Alwyn is easy to hate as Gideon Brodiss, the young son of Harriet’s recently-dead owner.

Just before the movie ends, in a recap of Harriet’s achievements, you learn of the more than 750 slaves she and 150 African-American soldiers brought to freedom in 1863’s Combahee Ferry Raid in the American Civil War.

The achievements are there, but you come out of the film feeling strangely distant from Harriet and what made her tick. For example, her second marriage is mentioned almost as an afterthought.

But there is a strong scene between Harriet and Gideon near the end of the film that brings her credo on freedom to the spotlight.

And in a moving speech to abolitionists downhearted by the Fugitive Slavery Act which makes their rescue missions more difficult, she urges them on: "I ain't giving up rescuing slaves because it's far. Many of you don't know slavery first-hand ...But I remember, children beat for not working before they understand what work is. Girls raped for their first blood ...Those things slaves are going through right now. I've heard their groans and sighs and seen their tears and I would give every last drop of blood in my veins to free them."

And later: "I'll do what I need to do to free as many slaves till this beast, this monster called slavery is slain dead."

It’s depressing to read as a postscript to the honour Harriet has finally been shown by having this film made about her life, that plans from President Obama’s time in office to have Harriet featured as the first black person (and the first woman since the 1800s) on a note of currency – the $20 bill – have been postponed by Trump’s treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin. Now it’s not likely to happen until 2028 at the earliest.

What happens: Slave Minty Ross hoped her master would honour his late father’s wishes and free her so she and her husband John, a free man, could have children that were free. But the owner refuses and puts her up for sale so she will be separated from John and her family. So she runs away to Pennsylvania to be free, but makes the dangerous journey back to rescue her family – and is known by slaves, owners, trackers and slave hunters alike as Moses, a legendary figure that guides slaves to freedom.

Short review: Slave Minty Ross takes on the freedom name of Harriet Tubland when she escapes to Pennsylvania from her Maryland master, living in Philadelphia and becoming a conductor on the famous underground railroad that helped slaves to freedom.

Who for: Anyone who wants to enjoy the story of a brave, spirited woman. Anyone who doesn’t know the story of Harriet Tubland already and wants to know more about the history of slavery in America.

Best quote: Harriet: “I’m going to be free or die.”

Harriet is set to return to Eden Court Cinema in January.

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