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Nothing is more satisfying than a good superhero origin story. And the tale of how the slave Araminta “Minty” Ross became American freedom fighter Harriet Tubman is more than a welcome change of pace from fictional caped crusaders.
While there have been several television specials about Tubman, the famed conductor of the Underground Railroad has never been the subject of a feature-length movie—something to the film industry’s shame. We may wish, now that we have one, that it was a little less conventional and a little more imaginative in telling her story. But there’s no question it does justice to Tubman and the faith that motivated her.
Beautifully staged and tremendously acted, the PG-13 Harriet provides fascinating (though awful) legal details on slavery as an institution. How it was enforced through violence has been explored in numerous other films, sometimes to the point of seeming to revel in it. While it’s important not to turn away from the bloody reality, it can also make the perpetrators of that evil seem like far different creatures from us. We can safely judge their wickedness because we see so little of ourselves in it.
Harriet, in contrast, explores the banal, daily pragmatism that allowed the practice to persist for so long. This isn’t the snarling, mustache-twirling villainy of Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Instead we see self-justification grounded in ledger books and family finances. Tubman’s oppressors deny both her moral and legal claim to freedom for the most uncomfortably relatable of reasons—the desire to keep up appearances and maintain their standard of living.
The film does an equally fine job depicting the Christian faith that shaped Tubman’s life and motivated her actions. When she was a child, an overseer struck her on the head with a 2-pound lead weight. Along with other ailments, it caused Tubman to suffer from lifelong bouts of narcolepsy. During these periodic dazes, she would see what she believed were visions from God.
Some Christian viewers may feel uncomfortable with the mystical way the movie characterizes these dreams. One scene, in particular, has a bit of a “Luke using the force” feeling. But could God use the physiological symptoms of Tubman’s brain trauma for His purposes? Certainly. And there’s no doubt that Tubman believed that’s what was happening. But whether it was audible supernatural guidance or God simply using her natural intellect providentially to order her steps, the number of times Tubman manages to escape danger and circumvent her enemies is near miraculous.
This is far from the only representation of Christianity in Harriet. Her father’s example of trusting the God of the Bible inspires Tubman to take risks in faith. And she can only rise to claim the nickname Moses because her family’s minister helps her flee to the North. Though she can’t read, her fervent prayer life is a clear source for her courage.
Tubman’s life was so extraordinary, some of the most riveting facts about it are told only in postscript. What a crime to see her exploits as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War covered by a quick placard. Or her work in the suffrage movement. Or her late-in-life romance with her much-younger husband. All of which argues—if Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman all merit a multitude of sequels, surely, so does the daring adventurer who, in her own words, “Never ran her train off the track and never lost a passenger.”