Reel Reviews | Harriet

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Cynthia Erivo plays a real-life American superhero in the loosely based biopic, Harriet.

Araminta (Cynthia Erivo) wants to get married to her fiancé John Tubman.  Unfortunately, Edward Broadus, her master, won’t allow it and chases the freeman, Tubman off his property.  After the unexpected passing of the cruel master, Edward’s son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn convinces his mother Eliza (Jennifer Nettles) to sell “Minty” downriver.  Fearing for her life, “Minty” (as her family and friends call her) runs away from the plantation.  With some help, she gets to Philadelphia and freedom. She renames herself Harriet Tubman and becomes determined to go back and help her family escape too.

Such is the beginning of the new movie Harriet from director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (Ali, Remember the Titans).  The movie stars Erivo Alwyn and Nettles along with Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr., Clarke Peters, and Vondie Curtis-Hall.

The most outstanding part of this film is Cynthia Erivo.  Director Lemmons does a great job of showing off all of Erivo’s talents in this film.  In Bad Times at the El Royale viewers saw her singing ability that won her a Tony award as Celie in The Color Purple.  In Widows, filmgoers were able to see her phenomenal physical conditioning. Here Lemmons puts both of those qualities together with Erivo’s ability to command the screen to create the woman known as Black Moses.  There have been many complaints and some protests about having an English woman with Nigerian descent play the historic African-American hero but Erivo justifies the choice with the stellar work that she does in the film. 

Much of Harriet plays like a history lesson giving details like Tubman’s real name, and the reason for her running away in the first place.  Lemmons and Howard even document the legislation change that made the Mason-Dixon line obsolete and forced slaves to escape to Canada.  For those who had no idea about these things, the movie is very educational about the life of Harriet Tubman.

There are two problems with the movie, one major and one minor.  The minor problem is the location of filming.  The Harriet Tubman story occurred mostly in the state of Maryland however, the movie was filmed on location in the Richmond Virginia area.  Lemmons, Erivo, and crew commented about the harsh conditions they experienced while filming.  Maybe Harriet was unhappy that they did not come to the actual area where it all happened. 

The second problem is the actual tone of the movie itself.  The movie shows the efforts of Tubman as almost superhuman.  There is a part where the movie claims a brain injury that she suffered allows her to connect with God and make miraculous decisions.  She stands up to her slave owners, face to face.  It all seems like a game.  In a time where a certain rapper can claim that slavery was a choice or a certain leader can be involved in justifying hate speech, it is very detrimental to portray running away from slavery as such an easy thing to do.  It runs the risk of justifying the statements that if slaves didn’t like the way that they were being treated that they should just leave.  Lemmons should have shown or even at the least discussed the consequences of being caught after attempting to run away.  Maybe she should have even shown the fear and mistrust that a runaway slave lived with after getting up North instead of showing the city of Philadelphia as a utopian sanctuary where one could forget where they came from and what they went through.

Rated PG-13 for frightening and intense scenes, Harriet, despite the efforts of Erivo, is barely a good history lesson much less a good movie.  It suffers from a lack of vision even though the visuals are delightful. It’s a feel-good movie that communicates a dangerous message.

Grade:  C+