Review: ‘Harriet’

Harriet one-sheet poster

Harriet | Kasi Lemmons | November 1, 2019

Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet stars Cynthia Erivo as the powerful historical figure Harriet Tubman and tells the incredible story of how she escaped slavery and helped hundreds of slaves find their freedom leading them through the Underground Railroad.

Before she became Harriet Tubman, she was known as Minty, a slave owned by the family of Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). She is denied her freedom by the hateful family who threatens to sell her away, so she is forced to work isolated from the rest of her family – including parents Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and Ben (Clarke Peters) – who also work nearby. She takes her fate into her own hands and escapes from enslavement with the help of Reverand Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and some Quakers along the way and reaches Philadelphia, where she finds the welcoming embrace of abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and freed proprietor Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monae).

Harriet still - Harriet next to a tree

Her freedom is not enough for her; the freedom of her family and fellow slaves becomes paramount and her life’s mission. With visions from God (or the result of abuse and head trauma years prior) and her own sheer bravery and determination, Tubman makes the journey back to the very same place she escaped from to bring more people to freedom under the pseudonym “Moses”, risking her very own newfound freedom and life along the way as Brodess is on the hunt for the person costing his family a fortune, hiring an African American slave hunter named Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) and slave tracker Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) to help with this task.

While such an important and awe-inspiring figure such as Tubman deserves to have her life’s story told in the utmost cinematic fashion, Lemmons’ film is anything but that. Aside from Erivo’s performance, there isn’t a single signature memorable moment of the film that you haven’t seen done better and in a more impactful manner. Some will have issues with how Lemmons and fellow screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard script the historical accuracy of Tubman’s life, but in terms of the cinematic treatment, Harriet feels like a subpar History channel special rather than a memorable or powerful cinematic treatment.

Harriet still - Brodess on the hunt

Lemmons frames it all in such a bland and uncinematic fashion that isn’t helped by the blue-hued cinematography of John Toll, which doesn’t help bring any of the script to life. It’s a dull experience, one that doesn’t inspire or captivate. Brodess comes off as a cliché villain, played too matter of factly by Alwyn. Truth be told, you have seen this film 100 times over and the only thing that keeps your attention is the performance of Cynthia Erivo.

She impressed with her film debuts in Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale last year, and she has proven again that she is a true star in the making here. She once again shows off her impressive singing pipes but more importantly can do so much with a simple glance, gesture or moment that always rings true. Leslie Odom Jr. is fine in his role, as is Monae, but any of the villains in the film play off as hollow caricatures and don’t feel true to life.

Harriet still - Harriet kneeling

Harriet Tubman is one of American’s most important and inspirational historical figures and deserves a film that highlights her in a way that feels authentic and full of the passion and inspiration that she invokes within us. Harriet, though, is nothing but a subpar biopic that plays off as forgettable Oscar bait.

Rating: 5.0/10

Harriet premiered at TIFF, had its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival, and is now in wide release.