Harriet is the first film about the famous underground railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet will finally break ground on an overdue story. While this would usually give the film an edge, it has been plagued with various criticisms since its announcement, which has hampered public excitement. I think several of the critiques are understandable and worth considering, and I would recommend reading responses by black critics for more insight. However, for this review, there wasn’t any criticism that I agreed with that pertains to the film directly.
Harriet is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers biopic. Sometimes Oscar-bait speeches and historical reverence threaten to bring it down. However, those moments never bring down the film too much. There are a couple of reasons why I think Harriet is able to rise above being a subpar biopic into a great film.
- There simply aren’t a lot of biopics of black women.
- There is a strong emphasis on family, and it’s genuinely touching to see Harriet’s family play such a key role here. It helps humanize her and balance out the more superhero-esque feel the movie tries to go for.
- Harriet’s Christian faith is leaned into. There are moments of this film that remind me of Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Harriet is not nearly as stylized or flat-out weird as that film (although explicit connects between Harriet and Joan of Arc are made) but it does take Harriet’s religion seriously. One of the reasons I love The Messenger is because when I saw it, I realized it was the first time I had seen a movie focus on, and take seriously, a woman’s religious faith.
- There are several stylistic choices (including the depictions of her visions) that elevate the film and make it feel worthy of the big screen.
- The whole cast is wonderful. Lesley Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae are excellent and charismatic, and director Kasi Lemmon’s son Henry Hunter Hall, in particular, is a surprise. He has a cool “look” and is a scene-stealer. Joe Alwyn is fine as the (mostly fictitious) son of Harriet’s owner. In all honesty, though, I spent most of his screen time thinking about how strange it is that he’s dating Taylor Swift, and that his southern accent is pretty good for a Brit.
- And speaking of Brits, Cynthia Erivo is our titular hero, and she’s incredible. There are two aspects to her performance that stuck out in particular. First is Erivo’s acting in the scenes where Harriet arrives in Philadelphia and has to learn how to be free. I had never considered this- acting free after a lifetime of enslavement- as a difficulty freed African Americans had to face, but Erivo is able to wordlessly communicate Harriet navigating through this new world through observation and imitation of those around her. And second, Erivo conveys a deep inner life of Harriet that we aren’t privy to. I always felt like Harriet, no matter how quiet she was being, had an incredibly complex mind and a thousand thoughts going at any given moment.
Harriet is American History, biopic, slavery, and feminist storytelling 101. It’s a primer that will hopefully be an access point for many people. I don’t mean this to be derogatory in the least; this means I want another movie about Harriet Tubman, and other movies about all sorts of black women and other heroes (or villains) of history.
After all, Harriet Tubman’s last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” It seems in that spirit that Harriet will hopefully help prepare a place for even more stories like it, stories that can go even further, higher, and deeper.