Harriet, rated PG-13
Harriet is a well-made and acted film about Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and her work with the Underground Railroad. The film is directed by Kasi Lemmons. Lemmons co-wrote the film with Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans). Lemmons has indicated that she wanted to make a freedom film, not a slavery film. As such, there are no beatings or lynchings depicted in the film.
The story is told chronologically, beginning in Maryland in 1849. Araminta “Minty” Ross, played by Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple), is married to the freeman John Tubman, played by Zackary Momoh. Tubman has obtained legal documentation to verify that under the terms of a will left behind by the great-grandfather of Maryland plantation owner Edward Brodess, played by Michael Marunde, Minty, her siblings and their mother should have been freed more than a decade ago. But Minty is denied the freedom that she’d been promised, and when she is to be sold to slave owners from the deep South, she escapes and runs away, landing in Philadelphia after a treacherous 100-mile journey.In Philadelphia, she finds find a network of sympathetic brothers and sisters, including the abolitionist William Still, played by Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton), who records her history along with those of other fugitive slaves. She also meets Marie Buchanan, played by Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, Moonlight), the owner of a boarding house who was born in freedom, who sets Harriet up in a paying job as a domestic worker. Minty exchanges her slave name for her mother’s first name and her husband’s last name, to become Harriet Tubman.
A year later, Marie, gives Harriet a gun, teaches her how to pass for a free woman, and secures her fake ID papers when Harriet insists on taking the dangerous journey back to Maryland to bring her husband John with her to the free state of Pennsylvania.
We see Still introduce Harriet to the secret organizing committee of the Underground Railroad, making her an official conductor. Harriet then makes repeated secret trips to the South to bring slaves back up North, earning her the nickname of “Moses”. All the time however, the son of her former master, Gideon Brodess, played by Joe Alwyn (The Favourite), is chasing after Harriet as are slave trackers such as Walter, played by Henry Hunter Hall and Bigger Long, played by Omar J. Dorsey.
Themes in the film include courage, faith, slavery and freedom. Tubman was a woman of faith. Throughout the film we see her being given visions from God as she is experiencing seizures from brain trauma. Content concerns include some violence and adult language, including the use of the “n-word”.
The film features a good cast, led by Erivo, who delivers a powerful performance as Tubman, including her wonderful singing. Watch the lyric video of her singing “Stand Up” here.
Odom Jr. and Monáe offer strong supporting performances. Oscar nominee Terence Blanchard (BlacKKKlansman), handles the musical score, and Emmy winner Paul Tazewell (The Wiz Live!), handles costume design.
Tubman is portrayed as a courageous and headstrong woman. A small criticism of the film is that it didn’t really show any weaknesses in her.
Harriet is an important film telling the story of Harriet Tubman, a story that needed to be told about the woman whose face may end up on our $20 bill.