Movie Review: Harriet
Harriet is a film about Harriet Tubman, a slave who freed herself and became one of the most important and prolific conductors on the Underground Railroad and an important commander in the Union Army during the Civil War. The film stars Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr., Omar Dorsey, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and Joe Alwyn. It is co-written and directed by Kasi Lemmons.
In a film like this, there is often a trope used to give more credit to the white people that may have helped the person of color or LGBTQ+ protagonist achieve their goal. It's called a white savior. It's an invention to make it more palatable for white people to watch historical dramas so they don't feel attacked. It's a way to say to the audience who may experience white guilt, that "see, not all of them were bad." Yet, Harriet never falls into that trap, in fact the very few white characters we see with names or histories are the people Harriet herself had a relationship with. This is thanks to the guiding hands of director Kasi Lemmons.
Lemmons is able to paint a portrait of an American hero with an intimacy that's often lacking in biopics like this. It's especially hard to focus a story on one family's yearning to be free when the grand shame of slavery and the rumblings of the Civil War hang over it, but the camera rarely leaves Harriet herself. We as an audience see in sharp detail who this woman was and why she fought so hard for what she wanted. It's strong and assured storytelling on Lemmons' part.
The storytelling also benefits from the stories about Harriet being guided by God on her travels. It takes on a mystical Joan of Arc like element as she has "spells" that become premonitions about who she should find or how she should get going. Like Joan of Arc, there are people that believe her and those that doubt her, but those scenes feel grounded in the beliefs of people like Harriet and the need of answers for those who have experienced great trauma. Though, it goes slightly too far when one of Harriet's former masters rallies a crowd by telling them they'll "burn her at the stake like Joan of Arc."
The story does fall into a few inspirational biopic traps. It does have the grand speeches, the confrontations, the road blocks to success, the doubting, but well meaning ally, and the tragic death of a mentor. I feel that those trappings take me out of the narrative at points and reduce the tension. Even though it was produced by the independent arm of one of the big studios, Harriet is built to be highly commercial and palatable. It has the scars of the brutal nature of slavery, but makes sure to keep people in their seats. They should stay in their seat as this is a story that needs to be told and that needs to inspire.
The biggest inspiration in this film is in Cynthia Erivo's indelible performance. This is where Harriet avoids the biggest biopic traps. Erivo shows strength, tenacity, and vulnerability in equal measure without languishing or falling toward character flaws that feel other worldly. She embodies, rather than imitates, who we believe Harriet Tubman to be. She has created a whole person with the help of the excellent script by Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard. Erivo commands the screen with every word and action.
I think everyone should go out and see this film. Let it make money, let it breed more films like it and educate people about the incredible works of this woman. It's not perfect, but it may inspire people to seek out other obscure or unknown people of color that history has deemed only worthy of footnotes and bring them into the light where they belong. I also highly encourage you to seek out Kasi Lemmons' feature directing debut Eve's Bayou as it is some incredible original storytelling as well.