Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet begins with Harriet Tubman and her husband asking for what has previously been promised: her freedom. She wants to start a family with her free husband and she wants their children to be born free. Their request, unfortunately, is not granted and when her master realises that this particular slave cannot be tamed, he decides it’s time to sell her. So Harriet decides it’s time to run or die.
Despite the horrific journey that awaits her, she manages to reach far enough north to request sanctuary – and here, perhaps surprisingly, is where her story really begins. Because Harriet Tubman is not known just for the fact that she managed to escape slavery but for the fact that she made the bold and highly risky decision to go back south to rescue her family who she’d been forced to leave behind.
Portraying a historical icon like Tubman is not an easy challenge to take on. Yet Cynthia Erivo absolutely smashes the role here, flawlessly bringing both the gut-wrenching emotional core and the fiery determination that is needed to capture Tubman. We see her weak and desperate, strong and brave, hurt and powerful – and she perfectly captures each of these many layers. It’s no secret that Erivo has an incredible singing voice, too, so seeing that on display here is the cherry on top of an already breathtaking performance.
Though she is the heart of the film, Erivo is not alone in the acting brilliance brought to this story. She also gets phenomenal support from the likes of Leslie Odom Jr., Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway and the incomparable Janelle Monáe, all of whom are able to rise to the high bar she’s set for this impressive cast of smaller but still very important roles.
What we see of her story is great but it does feel a little unbalanced as if we’re missing about two hours of film that would bring everything together. After a harrowing beginning, we jump forward in time and have montages showing all the amazing feats she achieved, rather than being afforded the time to sit in them and really appreciate the sheer force of will this woman was.
Though there is apparently some truth to Harriet claiming to have heard God speak to her, the way these visions are played in the film also does her a huge disservice and is tonally rather confusing. She is arguably one of the most courageous women from American history, a woman who repeatedly put herself in danger to help others. Yet it’s played as simple obedience. She gets a vision and does as instructed out of apparent religious duty. On many occasions, she and the people she’s rescuing are about to walk into danger and she suddenly gets a vision that warns her of that impending peril, opting then for a different route that leads them to safety. It doesn’t feel like a nod to her faith or to the brain injury she suffered when she was younger. Instead, it feels akin to science fiction and glosses over the huge part her own bravery, courage and determination played.
To say that a film about Harriet Tubman is long overdue would be a huge understatement. And the intent was clearly there because the film is really engaging overall. However, despite the absolutely flawless cast, Harriet doesn’t quite capture the legendary status of the woman herself, feeling instead like an introduction to this iconic woman rather than an all-out celebration of her life and many accomplishments.