Harriet is cinematic church. This weekend, Black women gathered in a Tampa theater reciting spirituals, sniffling, clapping, and talking back to the big screen at the larger-than-life historical heroine, Harriet Tubman. In the wake of national conversations about the delay of “General Tubman” on the $20 bill and the arrival of the first Africans to the British (American) colonies in 1619, Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons brings her auteur style to the Virginia-production using dreamscapes, conjure women, and spirit-filled land to flesh the early lives of Black folk freedom-dreaming along the Chesapeake, and Combahee and Delaware rivers. The movie is riveting.
Early talk about Harriet could have tanked it. To date, negative criticism about the live free or die tryin’ OG has been anchored by two claims to authenticity—the authenticity of a British-Nigerian actor, Cynthia Erivo, playing a revered African American, and the authenticity of a life narrative dramatized without the documentary conventions of a typical biopic.
Critics picked. Pulling up old social media posts and pulling out fact-checking sheets critics tried to poke holes in a movie amid the surging fanfare by Black women who take politics and popular culture seriously. Never mind that some critics have found offense at a movie’s narrative truth but remain unmoved bypresidential untruths that have had deadly consequences for communities of color. Never mind that some critics could have applauded Erivo and Lemmons on a Hollywood-produced story mining a diasporic past and a Wakanda-like Afrofuture. They did not remark on the overrepresentation of African Americans who stand in for all Black people across space and time. The selective picking is not surprising. In my mind, the criticism about Harriet has less to do with the actor or the narrative. Some critics do not know what to do with our stories. They do not know how to see us when there is no charismatic Black male lead(er), white savior, pinup superhero battle, or Hart-Haddish outlandish comedy. For critics and a country still catching up to the badassness of unbossed blackness, screening an abolitionist-conductor-soldier-suffragist through a Lemmons Black feminist lens is akin to seeing Moses.