Review: Harriet — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Bill Newcott reviews Harriet, a sprawling, inspiring, and at times downright enthralling biopic of Harriet Tubman.

Scene from the film Harriet

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Harriet

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

Stars: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn

Writers: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons

Director: Kasi Lemons

 

In epic historical biographies, it’s tough for a film director to strike a balance between intimate portrait and grand scale. The spectacle can easily overshadow the human story — or else the central character may become an inordinately oversized player on a broad historical canvas.

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia got the mix just right, as did Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. And so does Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a sprawling, inspiring, and at times downright enthralling biopic of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who courageously kept returning to the South to usher fellow slaves to freedom.

First and foremost, Lemmons (Black Nativity, Eve’s Bayou) understands that the story of slavery is a lot bigger than even a dominant figure like Harriet Tubman. Here Lemmons paints a stark picture of a country divided between freedom and slavery; of people whose fates are defined by imaginary lines and misbegotten fantasies of racial superiority. As those two worlds engage in a clumsy dance of accommodation and resistance, Lemmons depicts the widening fissures that will inevitably lead to all-out war.

And then there’s Tubman. In Lemmons’ telling, after Harriet escaped from the slaveholding South to the free North, she continued to slip between those two tectonic plates with almost supernatural skill. Indeed, Tubman credited direct guidance from God Himself for her uncanny ability to avoid and outsmart the Southerners who were always hot on her trail. As director and co-screenwriter, Lemmons doesn’t shy away from Tubman’s claims of heavenly guidance; she lets Tubman have it her way, and why not? After all, she was there.

Cynthia Erivo arrives as a legitimate big-screen powerhouse in the title role, playing Tubman as a diminutive dynamo who answers to no one but God. She peers at the world through impassive eyes, informed by a tortured combination of rage and compassion.

Skeptics will scoff at the passages where Tubman’s divine chats result in inspired changes of strategy and last second, slave hunter-avoiding detours. But Erivo portrays those episodes with unnerving and convincing matter-of-factness. Plus, there’s no arguing with the breathtaking success Tubman had against long odds, skittering back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line with scores of escaping slaves in tow on the Underground Railroad.

There’s one other element that makes Harriet resonate in a way many other slavery era films might not. Historically, films about slavery tend to unfold in the Deep South, that “other” place where isolated human monsters reigned over their African captives. In those movies, slavery is distant from most of us not only in time, but also in geography. Like the similarly powerful 12 Years a Slave — the story of a free Black man kidnapped from the North into slavery — Harriet explores the thin veil that separated the free states from those that practiced slavery, a veil that was so easily pierced it becomes impossible to sustain the myth that the North was utterly non-complicit in the sin of slavery.

I happen to live in Delaware, where Tubman lived under the whip of a family that genuinely thought it was their birthright to own and abuse other human beings. I drive the back roads here; roads that Tubman and her companions slunk across under cover of night, following the North Star to the Pennsylvania border, and freedom.

When I drive up Route 1 past Wilmington, a sign proclaims, “Welcome to Pennsylvania.” Thanks to Harriet, I doubt I’ll ever again read that billboard in quite the same way.

Featured image: Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

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Comments

  1. This film is on my short list of films to see, along with ‘The Current War’. ‘Harriet’ takes us into an uncomfortable place for most Americans, which is all the more reason we need to see it. Hopefully it can be useful in understanding what happened, how wrong it was, yet help bring about healing in the 21st century which is desperately needed.

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