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Film / Harriet

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Fear is your enemy.

"If I’m free, my family should be too. I made up my mind, I’m going back."

Harriet is a 2019 biopic film covering the escape from slavery of abolitionist freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, as well as her early career as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. It was directed by Kasi Lemmons (who also directed Eve's Bayou), and stars Cynthia Erivo in the title role, with Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. featured among its supporting roles.

After a lifetime of slavery at the hands of a hard-hearted Southern plantation family, Araminta "Minty" Ross and her freeborn husband, John Tubman, hire a lawyer to present legal papers proving that Minty and her mother and siblings should have been freed years ago, according to a former "owner"'s will. It doesn't go over well, and Minty finds herself fleeing north to escape the threat of being sold downriver. In the journey that follows, she will find freedom, a new name, and a divine purpose in life: braving unimaginable danger to shepherd hundreds of other enslaved souls to freedom.


The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2019, and received a wide release in the United States on November 1, 2019.

This work provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: After Harriet escapes from slavery and is declared dead in her escape attempt after leaping into a raging river, Harriet's husband remarries in the year between then and her return. One of her brothers' wives does the same after he escapes without her.
  • Artistic License – Geography:
    • When Harriet is taken to the Pennsylvania border, she's pointed towards the setting sun and told Philadelphia is twenty-five miles away. As the sun sets in the west, walking in that direction would take her closer to Lancaster. Philadelphia is actually north of Wilmington.
    • Ironclad gunboats can be seen when Harriet is leading a raid in South Carolina. Those particular boats would have been used in the Western theatre of the American Civil War, and not in South Carolina. This is because they were not designed to be ocean-going.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The Gideon Brodess character is a fictional creation of the movie. Harriet's real life owner at the time of her escape was actually a woman: Eliza Brodess, and she most certainly didn't hunt Harriet down personally. The son of Edward Brodess was actually called Jonathan, and very little is known about him historically.
    • The movie implies that the Meaningful Rename of Araminta to Harriet happened as soon as she reached freedom. It actually happened earlier, around the time she was married.
    • While Harriet did indeed pray for the death of Edward Brodess, she was not sold as punishment for this. Additionally, the movie leaves out the fact that her two brothers escaped with her on the first attempt (but ended up going back out of fear).
    • After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, William Still gives a speech about how it allows slave catchers to go after slaves in any state of the Union. This had always been allowed, thanks to a previous law. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 actually just gave more power to those hunting slaves, and weakened the protections of those accused of being escaped slaves.
    • The Marie Buchanan character is completely invented for the film - although it is possible someone like her did exist.
    • Harriet's first trip back south was actually to rescue her niece Kessiah Jolley Bowley and her two children. Her trip to rescue John came after that - but he did remarry in her absence.
    • The movie depicts the Brodesses hiring Bigger Long - a black slave catcher - to recapture Harriet and her brothers. There's no evidence suggesting the Brodesses hired a slave catcher and, while it was possible that there could be black slave catchers, they would have been extremely rare.
    • The will says that Harriet and her siblings would be freed when their mother turned forty-five. In reality, the will stipulated that the siblings would be set free when they turned forty-five - not at the same time as their mother.
  • Bad Boss: Gideon Brodess is just as terrible to his employees as he is to his family's slaves, especially if they are freed blacks. He threatens to kill Walter for asking a fee for his service and then treats him like when dirt when Walter "loses" track of Harriet. Even Bigger Long, the only black person that Gideon seems to treat as an equal, is shot in the back by Gideon without hesitation or regret.
  • Bait-and-Switch Sentiment: One serves as Gideon's Establishing Character Moment. He listens quietly as his father refuses to free Harriet to get married. Then as he hears Harriet praying, he asks her What Were You Thinking? and says his father never would have freed her. You expect this means he's genuinely concerned that Harriet took such a risk. Then he smacks her and all but says that she belongs to him so she's never going to leave the farm.
  • Bargain with Heaven: After Mr. Brodess rips up the letter from her lawyer and refuses to free her, Harriet has a bit of an emotional breakdown and begs God to either change his heart or strike him dead. When he dies in the night soon afterward, coincidentally or otherwise, the rest of the plot is kicked into motion....
  • Beard of Evil: Gideon, his father, and Bigger are all bearded men without any redeeming qualities to speak of.
  • Benevolent Boss: It's a brief moment, but the mill owner John works for steps up to defend him when Gideon is threatening him after Harriet's escape.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: William Still is a Nice Guy of the Anti-Slavery Society, who makes sure every runaway is given food, a bed, and a chance to tell their story. The whole Society follows his example. When Gideon and Bigger try to intercept Harriet before she can get on an escape boat and fire into a crowd, the entire Society pulls out rifles and make it clear that if he fires again, he and Bigger are dead. William is also shooting daggers at Gideon as he gets Harriet out of range.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Anger doesn't live up to her name for most of the movie because she doesn't get the chance with being intimidated into behaving. When her aunt Harriet gives her a pistol and instructs her to hold the Brodess children at gunpoint as she ties them up, Anger complies, all the while not saying much except where her brother is.
  • Beyond the Impossible: William Still is astounded when Harriet explains she didn't travel with a group; she came alone. As he puts it, most slaves who try that get caught. She continues to surprise him by making many trips, the last one being 600 miles.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Gideon may play the part of a Southern debonaire, but he is a cruel slave master and boss, even assaulting Harriet's husband against his employer's protests. Harriet sees through all his machinations.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Gideon shoots Bigger Long in the back of the head for trying to kill Harriet instead of capturing her alive.
  • Born into Slavery: Pretty much all of the enslaved characters, and some of the freedmen, to boot.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Harriet returns to the Brodess plantation one final time to rescue her niece, but finds the girl about to be raped by the two younger Brodess sons. She gets the drop on them, then her niece holds them and their sister (who she was a maid for) at gunpoint while Harriet binds and gags all three. The two then leave, but not before Harriet fires a round right between one of the boy's legs, causing him to piss his pants.
  • Category Traitor: Marie Buchanon calls out Bigger Long for being a traitor to his race. Notably, he's the only black slave catcher who doesn't undergo a Heel–Face Turn, unlike his partner Walter.
  • Checkpoint Bluff:
    • While traveling with forged papers on her way to rescue more slaves, Harriet is stopped by a US Marshal at a train station. The marshal takes too much of an interest, questioning Harriet on her bonafides, and noting that she's way too short for her listed height. Harriet bluffs by saying that she must have been wearing tall boots that day, while simultaneously preparing to draw her hidden pistol. Fortunately, the officer buys her story and lets her pass.
    • In one of the most nail-biting scenes in the film, one of Harriet's passengers (the mixed-race enslaved daughter of a local plantation patriarch) is driving their wagon full of fugitives and is forced to bluff her way across a bridge, passing as a young white man.
  • Childhood Brain Damage: An angry overseer cracked Harriet's skull with a two-pound lead weight when she was about twelve, putting her in a coma for two days. She recovered, but suffered from fainting spells for the rest of her life.
  • Cool Aunt: Harriet becomes this in Anger's eyes when she sees the lady hold a pistol to save her and her brother. Even though Anger doesn't say much, she is clearly impressed.
  • Cowardly Lion: In the climax, the biracial runaway posing as a white man is freezing up in terror as she drives their hijacked cart through a checkpoint. Harriet can only offer her a few minutes of comforting words. Nevertheless, she conducts herself with courage and successfully bluffs their way through.
  • Cruel Mercy: Harriet spares Gideon at the end of the film but only because she foresees his Undignified Death in the coming Civil War.
  • Cursed with Awesome: It's strongly implied that the blunt-force trauma Harriet sustained as a preteen "opened her mind" in some way that gave her genuine clairvoyant visions. The real Harriet Tubman genuinely believed that she heard the voice of God.
  • Defiant to the End: Marie Buchanon refuses to give up Harriet Tubman's location when she's being beaten by Gideon and Bigger Long. Her last act is to give a harsh denunciation to Long for being a traitor to his own people, which Long responds to by fatally kicking her in the face.
  • Demoted to Extra: Frederick Douglass, a major abolitionist in the time that Harriet operated, is reduced to two cameos and one line. No one even calls him by name, and unless you're familiar with his iconic hairstyle, you might not even realize it's him.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Apart from Harriet in real-life dying penniless and sick, the movie portrays this. Harriet gets most of her family out as well as a number of slaves, assists as a spy in the Civil War, and sees the South defeated. She earns her freedom and is treasured for it.
  • Entitled to Have You: There are undercurrents of this in Gideon's behavior toward Harriet, just in case he needed to be any more creepy than he already was.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: It may fall under Pragmatic Villainy, but Gideon looks disgusted when his mother claims that Anger blames her for Rachel's death. If Mrs. Brodess did indeed kill Rachel, then Gideon had no part in that crime at least. Could also be a case of him being a hypocrite since he had no qualms with hurting Marie.
  • Exact Words:
    • Harriet's father averts his eyes or blindfolds himself when she first escapes and when she returns for her family so he can "truthfully" say that he never saw them. This, and the fact that his former owner/current boss vouches for his honesty, is enough to relieve suspicion on him.
    • One female mixed-race slave is attempting to cross a checkpoint by passing as a white boy. The sheriff asks if “he” is related to a local slave owner, as they look so alike. “He” truthfully replies, "He's my daddy."
  • Eye Scream: Gideon Brodess pistol whips Harriet's husband in the face while interrogating him after her escape. He's shown later with a massive scar and some apparent vision problems in the eye.
  • Fainting Seer: When Harriet has her "fits", she often crumples to her knees or falls down helpless for long, nerve-wracking moments.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Every enslaved character who's threatened with being sold "down the river" or otherwise further into the deep South reacts with terror and panic.
  • The Ferryman: Jasper, captain of a ship that takes first Harriet, and then various people she rescues, across the Mason-Dixon Line.
  • Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: Harriet's philosophy, as quoted on the movie poster above.
  • Good Is Not Nice: When her "passengers" falter, consider turning back, or challenge her authority, Harriet doesn't hesitate to pull her pistol on them, even when one of them is her own brother. It makes perfect sense, considering the consequences for everyone else in the group if one of them were recaptured.
  • Good Is Not Soft:
    • Marie impresses this into Harriet while giving her a pistol in preparation for rescuing John. She has to prepare to fight to make sure that she gets out and knows how to defend herself. While it turns out John doesn't need rescuing and is already married by the time Harriet returns, Harriet remembers this as she makes several dangerous treks. The gun pays off in the climax when she uses it to fire at Gideon and hold him at her mercy. Much later, she leads an armed expedition in the Civil War to rescue slaves from their owners.
    • The Anti-Slavery Society may be made up of fairly middle to upper-class folks, some who didn't see slavery personally, but they are also tough as nails. As they prepare to escort all of the runaways they rescued to Canada, each is armed with a rifle and demonstrate that they will fire on any slave owner or bounty hunter who tries to mount a kidnapping. Much later, they all agree with Frederick Douglass, even Nice Guy William Still, that Civil War is on the horizon and they must prepare to fight.
  • Gospel Music: The score is rich with classic spirituals.
  • Guttural Growler: Bigger has a deep, somewhat intimidating voice.
  • Handicapped Badass: Harriet's seizures and fugue states put her in danger, but don't slow her down much. (They also provide glimpses of the future).
  • The Heavy: While slavery itself is the ultimate villain in Harriet's life, Gideon Brodess serves as her personal adversary. He personally leads several hunts for Harriet, sells off her family members to pay off his family's debt, and abuses those that remain on his plantation.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Walter, a black slave catcher, ends up seeing Harriet pray to God and then successfully navigate through the deep river to lead her family members across safely. This convinces him that God is on her side and he becomes Harriet's ally the next time they meet, most notably escorting the last of her family out of the South.
  • Heroic Bystander: Many people help the slaves along the way, even if they aren't part of the Railroad. The man on whose cart that Harriet stows away doesn't turn her into the authorities but gives her a ride for part of her journey. He's later seen transporting some of Harriet's escapees in his wagon. Walter eventually becomes one when he realizes that Harriet is on a mission from God and sincerely helps her.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Marie sees Harriet in the house as Bigger and Gideon are beating her up for information. She refuses to give her new friend away and spends her last moments telling them Harriet is going to defeat them with her mission for God.
  • Hero of Another Story: In general the abolitionists that help Harriet are fighting against slavery in various ways.
    • William Still is revealed to be a member of the Underground Railroad. A few scenes are devoted to him getting the slaves that Harriet rescued settled with papers and jobs, as well as recording their stories. Those who read up on his life may find the man was amazing.
    • Meanwhile, we get a cameo of Frederick Douglass, another fervent abolitionist. He is carrying on the good fight by spreading awareness of the abuse that slaves suffer, while telling the Anti-Slavery Society that they need to prepare for war.
    • One of the members of the Anti-Slavery Society is a white man with a big bushy beard, who might be John Brown.
    • Thomas Garrett, who harbors Harriet as a conductor on the Underground Railroad when she escapes slavery, was personally responsible for helping 2,700 people escape aside from her ("only" that number, in his words).
  • Hiding Your Heritage: One of the slaves toward the end escaping with Harriet is a biracial woman, who's light enough to pass for White. This comes in handy as she covers their escape (while also disguised as a man) to the patrollers and when one sees her resemblance to her master truthfully answers that she's his child.
  • Hunter of His Own Kind: Bigger Long is a black slave catcher who hunts his own race because the money is better than he could make as a laborer. Walter is the same at first, but then feels remorse over it and leaves him to help Harriet instead.
  • Interscene Diegetic: Many of the beautiful gospel hymns sung in-story by enslaved characters are carried over into ensuing scenes as background music.
  • I Have Your Wife: Rachel refuses to go with Harriet because the Brodesses took her two children away, and she doesn't know where they are. Harriet promises to return to rescue her and the kids, though she only manages to get her niece and nephew.
  • I Want Them Alive!: Gideon Brodess explicitly says that he wants his slaves (and especially Harriet) taken alive, the former because his slaves are extremely valuable and he wants them in good condition to sell.
  • Karmic Death:
    • Mr. Brodess refuses to free Harriet from his plantation and then bans John Tubman from ever visiting her again. The next day, he dies and his plantation begins to fall apart starting with Harriet's escape.
    • Bigger Long is a black slave catcher who doesn't hesitate to beat up his own people (often to the point of death) for money. He ends up getting shot in the head by Gideon Brodess for disobeying his order to not kill Harriet in the final act of the movie.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Mr. Brodess not only rejects John Tubman's bid for Harriet's freedom but he also tears up the letter written by their lawyer just to spite them.
    • When Walter claims that Harriet's party "slipped" past him (in reality, he let them go after a Heel Realization), Bigger Long kicks him in the stomach.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Gideon abuses (emotionally and physically) Harriet every chance he's got, and the Brodess household continuously sell off her family down the river to pay off their debts. Near the end of the film, the Brodess plantation is in financial ruins due to Harriet liberating their slaves/her family (their neighbors want them to pay when they found out that "Moses" came from their plantation) and Gideon finds himself at the mercy of Harriet, who spares him but ominously tells him that he's fated to die as one of the many casualties during The American Civil War.
  • Mama Bear: Aunt in this case; Harriet comes to find her niece about to be raped by the other Brodess sons and pulls a gun on them, as well as the youngest Brodess daughter. She ties them up coolly as Anger holds the pistol. Then Harriet takes the gun and shoots the floor next to them, as a message for their mother.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": There’s a pretty heavy sense of panic and concern amongst the freed and fugitive slave committee when Stills announces to them how the Fugitive Slave Act has passed.
  • Master of Disguise: One of Harriet's most iconic skills during her "Moses" missions. She impersonates high-class women and even crossdresses as a male sailor to stay under the radar.
  • Mission from God: Over time Harriet comes to believe that God is guiding her in freeing slaves based on visions she has. The film depiction supports this, and the real Harriet Tubman believed it too.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: It's implied that Gideon's mother had a hand in Rachel's death. When Rachel's daughter is waiting on her, Gideon refuses to take the medicine that is offered, saying the girl blames her for what happened to her mother. Gideon tries to dismiss it as nerves but he looks worried.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Zigzagged; Harriet and John talk about escaping, but he insists on coming with her since he's a free man and can take care of her through her fits. She instead runs alone so that he won't be caught and sold into slavery. By the time she makes it back, he already remarried due to thinking that she was dead. Also, as John puts it, they had made a plan already and she left him. It's left ambiguous as to whether they would have made it since Gideon intercepted John as he made his way to the plantation.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain:
    • Mrs. Brodess and Gideon go out to meet the angry mob that wants to take their property. At first Mrs. Brodess does fairly well in explaining that Harriet has also ruined them, but then she goes too far in monologuing about burning the slave at the stake. This gives Harriet all the time she needs to not only rescue her niece but also several other slaves from the plantation and nearby ones.
    • Once the Fugitive Slave Act is passed, Harriet is prepared to flee to Canada, and possibly leave the Underground Railroad, then Bigger and Gideon kill her friend Marie, with the death of Rachel shortly afterwards, possibly murdered by the Brodess making her even more angry and determined.
  • Not Used to Freedom: The early scenes after Harriet escapes to the free North make her bewilderment and culture shock very clear. Luckily, she's able to access a good support network and quickly finds her feet. The way Jasper the blackjack and the apple seller in Philadelphia talk to Harriet makes it sound like they've seen this thing before (and since Jasper is later seen helping Harriet bring escaped slaves to freedom, he very well might have been helping with escapes before he meets her).
  • Only in It for the Money: Bigger Long and Walter are only catching fugitive slaves because they get paid for it. Despite this, the white slaveowners still treat them as lesser people. This eventually leads Walter to help Harriet's missions instead, and Bigger Long getting a bullet in the back of his head by the very person who hired him.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Gideon orders that Harriet be brought back alive, stating he’s the only one who can hurt her.
  • Paper Destruction of Anger: Mister Brodess shows the Rosses and Tubmans exactly what he thinks of his slaves hiring a lawyer to investigate his ancestor's will.
  • The Quiet One: Gideon’s sister never gets anything to say during her few short scenes, which makes her the most sympathetic of her family by default given what tends to come out of the others' mouths.
  • Rape as Drama:
    • One of the women Harriet rescued was raped by her master, and then punished by her mistress because she was jealous.
    • Harriet's niece comes within minutes of being raped before her aunt shows up and gets her out of there.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: During her impassioned speech to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, one of the things Harriet castigates slavery for is "young girls bein' raped before they first blood".
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • William Still is this, as a printing press owner and the head of the Anti-Slavery Society. He at first argues against Harriet returning for her husband and family because she just got out and it's dangerous because it could compromise their current contacts. When she does return, with most of her family in tow, he helps them all get settled and officially makes Harriet a conductor of the Underground Railroad. While he raises objections against her taking more risks, he supports her and helps get her out of Gideon's line of fire when the man arrives at Pennslyvania.
    • Ambassador William Seward was this. Many American students know him as the man who bought Alaska, but he is strictly abolitionist. Harriet tells her mother that Seward sold her a nice house in Canada where they can retire peacefully.
  • Run for the Border: On one of Harriet's ventures, we see her escorting slaves across the New York-Canada border (which became necessary once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed). She herself has to flee once the act is passed and Gideon and Bigger come to Philadelphia to find her.
  • Sadistic Choice: Before she's forced to leave for Canada, Harriet goes to say farewell to Marie. Then she finds that Gideon and Bigger have caught up to the boardinghouse and are beating Marie to death to get information on her. Harriet draws her pistol but her choice is to either hide or shoot them. If she does the former, then Marie is badly hurt, and if she shoots she risks getting caught or killed and making Marie's injuries for nothing and she may be tried for murder. Ultimately Harriet hides and tries to go to Marie when the men left. Sadly, she is too late.
  • "Setting Off" Song: "Goodbye Song" is a heartbreaking example.
  • Slave Brand: Not common practice at the time, but at least one freed woman shows Still where her "mistress" branded her with a hot iron on her right breast, as punishment for being her husband's favorite sexual abuse victim.
  • Slave Liberation: Tubman first frees herself by escaping, then goes back to rescue many others, including her parents, while more abolitionists are seen who also did this. The most prominent example is when the leads a massive raid by Black Union soldiers to rescue more than 700 slaves in South Carolina amid the American Civil War.
  • Soft Water: Zigzagged. Gideon tries to convince Harriet not to jump into the river, where she will surely drown. Harriet jumps and nearly does drown, but miraculously washes up on the banks. Everyone writes her off as dead for a few years.
  • Song of Courage: Almost a superpower for Harriet, as she inspires others to run for freedom with the power of her voice or notifies them that she's come to rescue them. Not surprising, given that she's played by musical theater award-winner Cynthia Erivo.
  • So Proud of You: Harriet busts her parents out of slavery, explaining to her father that the slaveowners know he helped fugitives escape. Her mother thought she was dead for years and learns that her daughter is an Underground Railroad conductor. As they load her onto the wagon, she says to her husband, with wonder and pride, "Did you know Minty is Moses?"
  • Super Hero Origin: Several reviewers have noted that the movie has some elements similar to a superhero's origin story.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver:
    • Harriet dresses as a male sailor in one of her disguises.
    • In the climax, one of the runaway slaves is biracial and can pass for her father's son. She dresses as a man, lowers her voice, and keeps her nerves while talking at a checkpoint. It fools the men, but not Gideon who knows that the man in question has only daughters.
  • That Man Is Dead: When she returns to rescue some of her family members, Harriet explicitly tells them not to call her "Minty" anymore, that her name is now "Harriet".
  • To the Pain: At the end of the film, Gideon mockingly tells Harriet what awaits her in the South if they catch her: to be torn apart and burned alive like a roasted pig, which he could even smell right now. Harriet retorts with her own description of the fate that awaits Gideon from her clairvoyant vision: To die on a cold battlefield surrounded by dying, screaming men in gray uniforms for a "Lost Cause".
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Any time that a plan is explained, it goes wrong. John tells Harriet that he'll guide her North and they'll both be free. Unfortunately, she decides to go on her own and he gets intercepted by Gideon. Reverend Green tells her to cross the bridge, but Gideon comes (again) and traps her thanks to hunting dogs. When she and Marie concoct a plan to smuggle John north, she finds that he's married someone else and instead decides to get most of her family across, giving the sole suit to one of her brothers. Harriet seems to wise up to this by the climax where she's mostly improvising at this point.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Quite a few women use this tactic while escaping slavery, Harriet included. It's a solid defense against unwanted male attention on the road. Some of the men are seen dressing in women's clothes too.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Mrs. Brodess pulls this trick when an angry mob arrives to demand satisfaction for one of the Brodess slaves stealing their slaves. She immediately starts crying and complaining that her family are also victims, convincing the mob to go after Harriet rather than them.