Starring Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monae, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Leslie Odom Jr.
The first major motion picture to explore the life of Harriet Tubman comes with a lot of expectations. Transferring the life and courage of the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad is about finding a way to tell the complete story while balancing it with entertainment and engagement. Kasi Lemmons admitted during the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival that her involvement came years after development and trying to get the project made. Her version takes a more cat and mouse angle between Harriet and a young slave owner trying to reclaim his escaped property.
Minty (Erivo) grew up alongside Gideon Brodess (Alwyn), praying for him when he was ill as a child. As she grew into adulthood she came to understand her place. There comes a time where Minty decides that she would rather die trying to escape than live as someone’s property. Escaping over 100 miles from Maryland to Pennsylvania where slavery was illegal, she soon realizes that she cannot be happy without her family. After taking the name of her own choosing, Harriet Tubman, she goes back for her family. In small groups, she leads them and others through the wilderness and to safety and freedom. Outrage from slave owners makes pathways more dangerous and new laws are enacted threatening their newfound freedom.
"Harriet" avoids much of the violence of slavery, focusing more on Harriet’s accomplishments.
Erivo had a breakout year in 2018 with “Bad Times at the El Royale” showing off both her acting talent and amazing voice. Then she showed us her stamina in “Widows.” Both strengths are featured in “Harriet” as the screenplay focuses on a God-fearing woman who communicates with God during visions. Lemmons script shows that for every evil person there is a good one and that prayers do work. “12 Years a Slave” reinserted the violence that previous filmmakers avoided for fear of making audiences ‘uncomfortable.’ “Harriet” avoids much of the violence of slavery, focusing more on Harriet’s accomplishments. Harriet Tubman’s life is not a story where the best cinematic approach is immediately obvious. The choice made here is rather plain, straightforward, and generic.
The dedication from the cast, especially Erivo is evident but “Harriet” never becomes more than just a retelling of her journey. The climax builds to a confrontation between Harriet and Gideon who dedicated his life to finding her even if he means losing everything. This film’s main accomplishment as a movie is education, bringing her story into the mainstream and beyond the few anecdotes that most know about her life. “Harriet” feels restricted by budget and torn between factual history and creative fiction that might have elevated it to something better. This version of “Harriet” is likely only the first of many to explore the woman who defied racial and gender roles during the late-1800s.
Good Intentions can’t free "Harriet" from its confining, generic delivery.