Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a rewatch.
The Superheroic: Harriet
Actress Cynthia Erivo snagged an Oscar nomination for this film, which features her in her first leading role. And a hell of a role it is: Harriet retells the life story of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery, Tubman eventually escaped to the Free States, and devoted her life to helping other slaves escape northward to safety. Even more badass, Tubman was a queer woman, having had a passionate affair with the beautiful Marie (played in the film by Janelle Monáe), the daughter of free slaves who comes to aid Tubman in her work.
Director Kasi Lemmons (best known as an actress in such films as The Silence of the Lambs) takes a marvelous, inventive approach to Tubman’s life: she makes her into a superhero. The tropes of superhero epics are by now familiar to audiences, and are all present here: the life-altering event which imbues a hero with a quest; the adoption of a costume and alter-ego (in Tubman’s case, the name “Moses”); the ways in which the quest puts a love interest at risk, and the confrontation with a life-long nemesis. For Harriet Tubman, that supervillain figure takes the form of Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), Tubman’s former owner. Their final confrontation in the movie carries as much dramatic weight as any standoff between Batman and The Joker or the X-Men and Magneto.
Inventive, polished, unapologetically queer and featuring one Hell of a lead performance, Harriet is exactly the kind of hero all Americans could benefit from knowing. That she plays for our team is just an added bonus.
Streams on HBO Max, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube and VUDU.