FILM REVIEW – HARRIET. With Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Janelle Monáe. Written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Rated: PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets. 125 minutes.
What do you know about Harriet Tubman? Like most people, including this reviewer, you probably respond with “Underground Railroad” and that is the extent of your knowledge. HARRIET is the long-overdue movie about this incredible American hero. It is also a breakout role for Cynthia Erivo.
Tubman was born into slavery and saw members of her family sold off, never to be seen again. Married to a free black man, she did not want to have children who would be owned by the master of the estate where she was bound. She escaped, managing to survive on her own for hundreds of miles before arriving in Philadelphia. It’s what she did next that makes her not only heroic, but an iconic historic figure. Having made it to freedom she went back – at risk of her own life and freedom – to help other slaves escape.
Tubman was a real-life superhero, astounding everyone from the free blacks of Philadelphia to the family members she left behind. As depicted here, Tubman was surrounded by skeptics who insisted that there was no way she could succeed. She refused to be dissuaded, demonstrating that a woman – no less, a woman of color – could define her own destiny and not have it dictated by others.
As Tubman, Erivo gets a chance to make her mark after a number of supporting roles. It is a powerful performance, depicting Tubman as more of a biblical prophet than military strategist. She seems to have had some form of epilepsy, occasionally falling into unconsciousness but returning with visions of what the future holds. This comes to a point in a confrontation with Gideon (Joe Alwyn), son of her late owner who has his own abuses to answer for, where she holds back from exacting vengeance, instead sharing a vision of his future that we know is true even as it’s horrifying to him.
“Harriet” brings to mind “12 Years A Slave” in presenting us a vision of this dark stain on American history. Both films focus on the horrors of slavery, which has been characterized as America’s “Original Sin,” but there’s an important difference. As powerful and praiseworthy as “12 Years” is, it is a movie of black victimization. telling a story where a good white man is crucial to its protagonist’s redemption. “Harriet” does have those good white people contrasting with the slave owners, but that’s a sideshow. This is a movie where a black heroine defies everyone who tells her she cannot succeed in her plans to liberate slaves, and then proceeds to do just that.
The current administration has put plans to put Tubman on the $20 bill on hold. Contemporary politics aside, “Harriet” shows that she should not only be so honored, but that her recognition as a true American hero is justly deserved.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.