“Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons, opens with the titular hero, Harriet Tubman lying on her back in the grass. Behind her closed eyes she sees moments of her own life fade in and out, some she has already lived through and some yet to come.
“Harriet” is a film with strong actors and a heroic story. Cynthia Erivo plays Tubman and captures her steadfast and unyielding nature. The emotion she portrays, when running for her life and fighting for her family’s lives, especially, but throughout the film, is authentic and heartbreaking.
The film starts at a point where Minty (Tubman) was still enslaved but not long before she tries to escape due to the threat of being sold and separated from her family. Miraculously, she makes it to Philadelphia where she chooses her free name, Harriet Tubman. But before long Tubman decides to travel back down to the South to help her family escape to freedom as well. The film chronicles many of Tubman’s journeys as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, her struggles to escape her slave owner, her fight to free her family, and the trouble that comes when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed.
The film emphasizes Tubman’s faith. Due to a head injury, she is able to see visions of the future, visions she believes are from God. The opening scene depicts this and throughout the film, she gets these visions which often save her life when it comes to leading slaves to safety.
All of this is accurate to Harriet Tubman’s real life. After being hit in the head with a two-pound metal weight Tubman suffered seizures, bouts of fainting, and, self-reportedly, visions. With the film leaning on this aspect of her life, one might worry that the film loses its legitimacy for the sake of a more cinematic take, but this isn’t the result. Instead, the film is much more true to Tubman’s personal experience than it would be without this aspect. Tubman’s devotion and trust in God was a major part of her life, and the depiction of it in the film works without being distracting or excessive.
The film does have its issues and one is pacing. It is an understandable side-effect of covering so much ground, but the film was put together in a very robotic fashion. Very few scenes flowed into the next, and all emotional moments were pushed aside too rapidly for the audience to really feel it before we were on to the next thing. Characters, besides Tubman, were not given enough time to make the audience really connect with them.
Despite most of the characters being given not enough or inconsistent screen time, one character that the film did not shy away from was Gideon Brodess. Played by Joe Alwyn, Brodess was Tubman’s slave owner. Gideon has a strange obsession with Tubman, calling her his “favorite slave” and unrelentingly chasing her after she escapes. Brodess is the villain of the story, showing that the movie has unfortunately fallen into the trap of the hero vs villain archetype. This does the film no favors since Brodess’s story is not so simple. He is overall given too much screen time and much too relevant to the plot which seems artificial and forced.
Many of the journeys Tubman took to lead slaves to freedom were in the montage so the suspense was not given time to rise. Furthermore, when going to a movie about Harriet Tubman one expects a focus on the dynamics of the underground railroad. Due to the lack of specifics with this system, Harriet appears like a person with superhuman abilities, and while she is undoubtedly a hero, this depiction removes her humanity.
Despite this, the film was good. Sadly, because of these issues, I left the theater feeling like things were missing and that the film was just good but not great.
“Harriet” shows the life of one of the most amazing women of all time. It is a must-see for people who care about history, freedom and honoring the woman who led more than 800 slaves to freedom.