Harriet is a noble, feel good historical biopic that seems tailor made for the
awards season. Since the acting is so above the norm It might nab some
nominations (The three leads were simply terrific). But the overall finished
product and script are not quite as impressive as the individual performances
The film was shot for around 17 million dollars yet it looks great, and ends up
being more satisfying than most recent big budget blockbusters. The movie was
directed by the talented Kasi Lemmons who made a masterpiece called Eveís Bayou
in the late 80s. When I was writing for The Star I picked it as best film of
that year, and so did Roger Ebert. She never made a film quite that good again,
but I was also totally enthralled by her second film, Cavemanís Valentine which
starred Samuel Jackson as a homeless man who gets visions on his unplugged TV.
Harrietís cast includes Cynthia Erivo as Tubman (her portrayal is almost
saintly), Joe Alwyn is a wealthy sophisticated underground railroad leader, and
funk/r and b singer, Janelle MonŠe as an elegant upper class free black lady who
helps Harriet and admires her bravery. There are definitely some parallels
between the way the main character is portrayed and the historical Joan of Arc.
Harriet was brutalized and beaten so badly that she gets seizures and she thinks
they are the way God talks to her and helps guide her decisions. Also like Joan
she sometimes wears menís clothing but in this case to get away.
The film has garnered some controversy for several reasons, but neither one
diminished the film significantly for me. Some were angered that the main
character was played by a British actress of Nigerian heritage, and they though
that her role should have been played by an African American. This was not a big
deal for me because early colonists were close to being transplanted Africans.
Also many were bothered when a white man prevents a black man from shooting her.
Some critics charged that the film panders to white audience members by offering
them a white savior. But since her rescuer is also her owner who wants to
repossess her and perhaps rape her I had trouble going along with this view. I
do not think there is any evidence that the scene in question took place in real
life but I expect a certain amount of poetic license in films. There was also a
rumor reported in several media outlets that an empty headed network exec wanted
to get Julia Roberts to play the lead role of the black civil rights leader. In
my view this would of course have of course completely sabotaged the whole
The film tells the story of how Tubman escaped from enslavement Maryland and her
subsequent advancement to a leadership in the underground railroad which was
dedicated to slave liberation. The film depicts her as not just a great leader,
but also as the main inspiration for the whole underground railroad movement.
Originally she was known as Minty Ross (short for Araminta), but she eventually
took on the name Harriet Tubman after she became free, but the sexist slavers
started to refer to her as Moses. The sexist slave owners could not believe a
woman could be so instrumental in a major movement for a long time even though
the evidence started to mount up about her identity. Like her sister and mom,
she was originally the property of the evil hearted Brodess family. Both her
father, Ben Ross (Clarke Peters) and her husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh),
were free, and even though legally she was a free woman, the owner refuses to
let her go,
When she finds out that her owners want to separate her family she runs off in
the middle of the night and leaves her husband behind. When she reaches
Philadelphia, she finds an ally in William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and she is
given shelter in by Marie Buchanon (played by one of my favorite current
vocalists, Janelle MonŠe). She wants to go back to help rescue her family
against impossible odds but they do not want to take big risks that would
jeopardize the whole organization.
To their surprise she is able to rescue several family members without getting
caught. Eventually she attempts to do what should have been impossible. She
tries to rescue a group of slaves from the south and march them all the way to
Canada where slavery did not exist. History buffs of course will know how this
ended. Whenever she goes on a slave rescue mission, she he brings a massive gun
with her to defend herself and I was tempted to call her Dirty Harriette in this
review. I almost expected her to ask ďDo you feel lucky punk?Ē
Her success in the slavery rescue missions can be attributed equally to her
courage and stubbornness. She believes in herself no matter what the odds are.
Despite the controversies and my minor reservations about the film this is a
substantial and engaging effort. The film has been out for a month now so it may
be leaving local theatres soon even though it has grossed more money than execs
expected. It is definitely worth tracking down either at the theatres or on DVD