4 Stars — Inspirational

Harriet Tubman may be one of America’s most famous historical figures of whom most Americans know little. She is only getting her greatest and well-deserved recognition a century after her death.

Director Kasi Lemmons has brought “Harriet” to the screen in a remarkable bio-pic that blends together the historical accuracy of the slave trade in the years leading up to the Civil War with the inspiring role that a humble but strong woman played in being the greatest “conductor” of the Underground Railroad.

Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) not only led dozens of slaves north all the way to Canada to freedom, but returned home, time and time again, to the most dangerous locations in the South, where she was being sought to be burned to death. The old negro spiritual “Go Down Moses,” which referred to the Jewish flight from Egypt, was also code to the fields of slaves that when it was heard being sung, it was time to leave. Tubman became tagged as “Moses,” and a price was on her head as slave owners throughout Maryland sought to find the mysterious ghost who sang the song and caused them economic ruin.

Born around 1820, Tubman’s embodiment of God’s presence became her strength, inspiring many to follow her because of her uncanny sense of how the Holy Spirit used her to bring people past danger to the promised land.

Her first escape around 1850, solely on her own and without guidance, brought her from the fields of Maryland to Pennsylvania and freedom. Once there, she adopted the “free” name of her mother, Harriet, and the last name of Tubman, her husband who was still back in Maryland.

“Harriet” gives an inspirational glimpse into the role that the black Christian church and its sense of hope embodied in its music of spirituals, becoming the rallying cry for transformation on every level. While this genre of music is a deep part of American history today, its cadence and fervor gave birth to ragtime, jazz, rap and rock-‘n’-roll. From Mahalia Jackson to Elvis Presley, the spirituals of the mid-19th century became catalytic in changing every aspect of American history and culture, from generation to generation. At the end of her life, she gave a significant piece of her land in Auburn, N.Y., to the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Beyond the Underground Railroad, Tubman became a symbol of determination in anti-slavery movements and actions in the United States and Canada. Challenging others who had never known the insufferable pain and indignity of slavery, she motivated thousands of people, both black and white, to lead a revolution to end this great sin against God’s people.

By the time of the Civil War, which she prophetically saw coming, Tubman played a key role in being a spy for the North and leading black soldiers into battle. As a result, she was buried with military honors in the cemetery in Auburn, N.Y., where she lived out her final years.

Tubman lived a long life of 93 years, but it was not an easy life despite her fame and notoriety. She relied on the kindness of strangers throughout her lifetime. No one would be more surprised than her, if alive today, that by the year 2028, she would become the first woman represented on U.S. currency ($20 bill), replacing Andrew Jackson, a president who was a slave owner and who became most famous in his presidency for moving Native Americans off their land.

Discussion

» It is easy to look back and see the victory of justice. Do you think you would have participated in the Underground Railroad if you had lived then? Why do you answer as you do?

» The recognition of greatness often comes a lengthy time after the transformational leader is dead. Why do you think it is hard for the majority of us to follow the leadership of one who we know is bringing justice?

» Churches like our own Free Methodist Church was founded by abolitionists, and some early FM people participated in the Underground Railroad. Why was this not obvious to all Christians at the time of our Civil War? Why is racist subjugation still a part of American life as seen by our unbalanced incarceration of black men?

» What are you doing today to set people free?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.