toronto film festival 2019

In the New Biopic Harriet, God Gives Harriet Tubman Superpowers

Photo: Courtesy of TIFF

Initially, there is little about Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, that you won’t see coming. Anchored by a gutsy performance by star Cynthia Erivo, the film is not out to radically reinvent our notion of Harriet Tubman: It’s a straightforward historical epic about a national hero whose story has gone untold for too long. (A running joke on Twitter is that before this Tubman had previously only appeared on film in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) There’s a snarling slave owner played by Joe Alwyn, plenty of rousing emotional speeches, even blue-toned flashbacks to Harriet’s past. If you’ve seen a biopic before, you will not be surprised by much. But you may be surprised by one particular thing.

(Mild spoilers to follow.)

Erivo’s Harriet is a woman of outstanding gifts — she doesn’t just have an undaunted spirit, and a fantastic singing voice, she also has an intense spiritual relationship with the Almighty. Just like the real Tubman did, she experiences flashes of images that she interprets as visions from God. (Upon hearing this, Leslie Odom Jr.’s William Still dryly jots down “possible brain injury.”) Gradually, both Harriet and the audience realize that those blue-tinted shots are not flashbacks, but flash-forwards — God showing her the way. If she and some runaway slaves are being pursued in a forest, the visions will tell her to turn left. When they get to a river, visions of waves spur her to swim across. It’s a method to explain how the movie’s Harriet has so much faith in her own mission, as well as a way of presenting the historical Tubman on her own terms, and it ends up spurring a rescue-mission montage, set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” that’s the clear highlight of the film.

But other times, it can’t help but feel a bit like God has given Harriet Tubman superpowers. As the film escalates toward its big showdown, Harriet is able to subconsciously detect when the bad guys are closing in on her, almost as if she’s got her very own spidey sense. And later, she reads a villain to filth by revealing to him the precise time and nature of his own death. The critical response to these moments has been mixed. “Contextualizing Harriet as the kind of person who fights for good against great odds, who achieves an improbable victory and demoralizes her foes isn’t too far from reality anyway,” notes Sarah Marrs at Laineygossip, while David Rooney of THR writes that these superhero elements “contribute to the sense of invulnerable sainthood that keeps [the movie’s Harriet] at a slight remove.” Which way will audiences lean when the movie hits theaters in November? Unlike Harriet, I can’t see the future, but I’m not personally in the habit of betting against superhero movies these days.

In the Biopic Harriet, God Gives Harriet Tubman Superpowers