“Harriet,” directed by actor-turned-director Kasi Lemmons, tells the legendary story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman (portrayed by Cynthia Erivo) and her journey in leading over 800 slaves to freedom.
Originally named Araminta Harriet Ross, better known as “Minty,” Tubman was born into slavery but escaped into freedom in 1849 to become one of the most famous “conductors” of the Underground Railroad.
Along the way, she experiences visions from God — choppy, washed-out premonitions that guide her back to the South to save her family and friends. Haunted by memories of her sisters being sold, she is devout to save as many slaves as possible, constantly on the run from her abusive master (Joe Alwyn).
Slavery is a dark issue, one that must be faced at its full weight, and this film well-documents the intricacies within families as well as the culture of that time. From Erivo’s internal emotion when crossing the border to her determination in saving others, this biopic brings us into Tubman’s life and depicts a journey that took many years to complete.
The film isn’t subtle in its emotional music or its blatant messages of freedom, and although it doesn’t shine with the polish of an Oscar winning film like “12 Years a Slave,” the weight of Tubman’s story itself connects deeply and engages with the audience.
“Harriet” not only encapsulates her life, but it highlights the heavy tension between the South and the North, the slaves and their owners.
Although weighed down by its standard biopic-feel, the film’s elements of heroism and courage bring Tubman’s story to life. Erivo captures the perfect essence of determination mixed with faith and fear. Covering such a heavy story with many layers is a difficult task, and both Erivo and Lemmons successfully capture an inspiring story.
Regret, loss and melodramatic beats hit home throughout the movie, as well as lighter moments with Janelle Monáe as Marie Buchanon, a proprietor and friend of Tubman. They each get their moments to shine in moments of laughter, honor, and pain.
Monáe, as a confident, compelling free-born black woman, helps Tubman grow and nurtures her character. On the other hand, Leslie Odom Jr. plays a one-sided character, abolitionist William Still, who mainly exists to tell Harriet the almost impossible odds. Each time, she responds with defeating the odds; there is a very repetitive nature in the documentation of her rescues.
“Harriet” strives to remain accurate to Tubman’s story, in both its music of slave hymns as coded messages for escape and Tubman’s claimed “fits” that gave her visions from God. However, Terence Blanchard’s score sounds slightly ominous at times and the white and blue, choppy shots do not reflect any religious imagery.
I can envision seeing this film in high schools across America, telling this larger-than-life story of one woman and her goals. It pays tribute to the hardships of African Americans in the past, shows triumph over struggle, and will no doubt inspire people around the world. Kasi Lemmons combines filmmaking with a heavy subject to create a movie of spirit, heart, and bravery to uphold Tubman’s legacy.
If you plan to watch “Harriet,” do not expect too much gritty realism or gory images; it is meant to inspire and spread awareness of these incredible acts of valor.
“Harriet” releases in theaters Nov. 1.