Harriet, A Clear Oscar Contender That Finally Centers Black People In The History Of Enslavement

Harriet, the recently released movie by Kasi Lemmons (film director of Eve’s Bayou and actress on Candy Man), was generally quite wonderful.  Although the beginning of the film starts off rather slow, the pace picks up nicely, with key moments that will bring you to tears, or nearly so.  This movie truly shines with great acting by Janelle Monae and others, along with the great flow between scenes.  There are some films that drag to the point where one thinks about refreshing their popcorn or taking a bathroom break.  But in Harriet, no scene is wasted, it is all important and engaging.

Cynthia Erivo, a British actress, was extremely convincing as Harriet Tubman, mainly because of her look, which approximates images we know of Harriet herself.   Seeing a dark skinned, “regular” looking woman was beautiful to me.  This type of casting is critical because there is tremendous value in seeing Black women of all colors and who look like the everyday women who are all around us on the screen.  This not often seen in blockbuster Hollywood movies where sadly, only a certain look, which is a small subset of our culture, is shown.  This is problematic because African Americans, especially young people, do not see enough positive images of dark-skinned Black women, which is needed.  Even though there is slightly more diversity on television, light-skinned people are still placed on a pedestal and stereotyping of Black women based on skin color still occurs. In turn, African American youth, especially Black boys, who constantly see this misrepresentation, internalize it leading to self-hatred.

What I really like about this film is that there are no white savior characters.  The focus of the story is Harriet Tubman and it remains that way throughout the film.  The white characters, when we do see them, are properly placed: the racist enslavers, slave catchers, the white “woman of the house.”  Even the white people who were portrayed to be a part of the Underground Railroad were not highlighted in a way that so many other films often and wrongly do by centering white characters.  It was refreshing to see such an important account of our African American history without the inclusion of the solitary good white person trope.  In fact, such inclusions are not only irritating but dangerous, because it paints a narrative that is not historically accurate.

Kasi Lemmons, who masterfully did Eve’s Bayou, a Black classic film, has done a wonderful job of bringing humanity to her films, including Harriet.   The film also shows the reality that truly great people are just ordinary people who decide to do extraordinary things.   Even the traitor, Bigger Long, excellently played by Omar J. Dorsey (of Queen Sugar) was immediately recognizable as typical of the modern day traitors who currently walk among us, and actively work to undermine our people.  Harriet leaves you feeling inspired, as though you too could be a freedom fighter.  The movie is clearly an Oscar contender.  Overall, I would rank it a four out of five.