Movie Review: Harriet

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PG-13 |

Director: Kasi Lemmons

by Jason Koenigsberg

Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous and courageous figures in American history, it is baffling that it took this long to get a major motion picture biography made about her. Perhaps because she is a woman? Perhaps an unattractive black woman by conventional standards? But either way, she has long deserved a good movie and Harriet is the standard biopic treatment that most historical figures get. But fortunately under the direction of African-American female Kasi Lemmons Harriet is good enough to be the definitive movie for an American hero for quite some time. Biopics are pretty run-of-the-mill these days, but have no fear, Harriet is better than the average big screen hero story. The main reason is because Harriet is a smart film with a screenplay that does not give the audience too much information every step of the way. It shows images and allows the viewer to infer what is happening or what is going to happen rather than explaining everything out as so many movies do. The viewer feels like they are on the treacherous journey to freedom with Harriet Tubman. It was nice to have a biopic treat its subject and its audience with respect for their intelligence. 

The opening shot displays some trees during a misty morning at dawn. The camera then pans over to reveal some cabins, slave quarters, and then cuts to our hero Harriet Tubman played with a confidence by relative newcomer Cynthia Erivo. She showed off her singing talent in last years Bad Times at the El Royale and her portrayal of Harriet Tubman is spot on in the biggest role of her career thus far. This is another case of a British actress playing an American icon, but Erivo is so good nobody in the audience will notice and if they find out she is British they will admire her performance even more for playing Harriet Tubman so convincingly. Her acting carries the audience on the journey and even though most people will already know what happens at the end, they will be rooting for her and in suspense every step of the way. 

One of the most predominant themes of Harriet are the strong religious undertones. They are one of the only elements in the film that stand out as being too blatant. When they attempt to make Harriet Tubman out to be a messiah who can speak to God, which is more frequently than the film should have, it did not work and took away from the realism the rest of the movie worked so hard to illustrate with painstaking detail. Few films have ever shown the devastating effects of when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as well as Harriet does, and it even threw in a subtle jab at fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass who did not risk his life and freedom as much as Tubman did after he escaped from bondage. 

The cinematography is gorgeous, one can almost smell the water and the trees as they walk through it at night evading the bounty hunters on their trail. The costumes are also top-notch for a period piece, if anything sometimes Harriet Tubman’s clothes look too nice as she is traveling miles back and forth from the North to the South to help free slaves. Terence Blanchard, who scores most of Spike Lee’s movies, composed the music for Harriet and it enhances the drama every step of the way. There is an inevitable montage of Harriet Tubman showing her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and unfortunately it is the logiest moment in the movie set to the song “Sinner man” by Nina Simone. A great song by a talented activist/artist but it took away from the timeliness of the rest of Harriet. Plus that song has been overused in so many other movies, it did not fit right and felt downright lazy. Also, unfortunately since Harriet is a biopic the viewer will be able to tell where parts of her life story were modified to fit the script so that it could work as a two hour movie. One could probably tell which characters are composites, my guess would be many of them. 

Harriet is worth seeing as an educational and thoroughly entertaining history lesson. Cynthia Erivo delivers a strong performance and if this movie is successful it could make her into a bigger star with a multitude of parts being offered to her. Kasi Lemmons is a confident director who does not get to helm a film as often as she probably should. Her directorial debut Eve’s Bayou (1997) was a bold picture that caught the attention and admiration of Roger Ebert who called it the “Best Film of the Year”. It was indeed a uniquely powerful tragic drama, yet her career has not translated to directing pictures with ease and it is probably a struggle for an African-American woman to still succeed in such a male dominated profession. But she does have a great eye behind the camera and Harriet illustrates that she can be a great storyteller because this script could have felt rote and mundane in the hands of another director. 

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