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Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Focus Features, 2019)

As part of a lesson on persuasive writing, students at my daughter's school recently wrote essays on the topic, "Who was the bravest abolitionist?" Harriet Tubman won hands down. The essays, posted in the hallway for parents and visitors to enjoy, offered as evidence the facts of Tubman's life. Born a slave in antebellum Maryland, Tubman escaped to seek freedom in Pennsylvania. She returned to the South to rescue her family and led about 300 other people to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Kasi Lemmons' movie Harriet builds upon these familiar historical beats and produces a portrait of the abolitionist far more vivid than what most of us learned in school.

The film's frank treatment of Tubman's (Cynthia Erivo) profound spirituality is initially startling. We learn that her rescue missions are guided by divine visions and that she often leads parties of escaped slaves on unfamiliar paths, telling them to trust that God will protect them.

When Tubman partners with Philadelphia abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), this faith becomes a source of tension. Where she sees the hand of God, he sees the lingering effects of a vicious head injury inflicted by a white overseer when Tubman was a child. Still acknowledges this trauma but worries it drives her to take excessive risks. Tubman, for her part, finds Still's pragmatism and caution morally inadequate in the face of slavery. Still's wariness grows into respect as Tubman refuses to be swayed from her mission.

Over the course of the movie, Tubman's mission becomes more dangerous and more urgent as the Fugitive Slave Act expands the reach of slave catchers. The men pursuing Tubman refer to her as Moses or, upon learning that a woman is the one eluding them, Joan of Arc. They mean these as pejoratives. Harriet shows us these names are apt.

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Title Annotation:watch
Author:Manning, Kathleen
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Feb 1, 2020
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