Cynthia Erivo (Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale) gives an incredibly strong performance in her portrayal of the historical icon, Harriet Tubman, the freedom fighter who risked her own life to bring enslaved people to safety on the Underground Railroad.
As a significant figure in American history and considering her extraordinary achievements and amazing life story, it seems unbelievable that Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who single-handedly brought 70 people to freedom, has only just been given a major feature film to honour her life now, in 2019. Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, Black Nativity), Harriet follows Tubman’s journey from slavery to freedom and explores how her courageous efforts saved numerous lives.
Beginning in 1849, we meet Harriet as ‘Minty’, an enslaved woman owned by the Brodess family in the State of Maryland, as she awakes from one of her ‘spells’. We learn Minty suffered a severe head injury as a child at the hands of a slave owner, and as a result has regular episodes and visions which she believes are messages from God. Happily married to a free man named John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) and ready to start a family of her own, Minty requests her freedom from the Brodess family, as it was agreed that once Minty’s mother turned 45, herself and any of her children at that time would be freed. However, this reminder enrages the head of the family, Edward Brodess (Mike Marunde), and Minty’s request is denied. Edward’s son, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), who had been cared for by Minty as a boy, declares she will never be a free woman and following an altercation between the two, Gideon tries to sell her, risking separation from her family and husband.
Terrified of the prospect of being torn from her loved ones and determined to be free, Minty runs away and makes the incredible journey to freedom in Philadelphia where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr), an abolitionist who helps her find her feet as a newly free woman. Instructed to give herself a new name, Minty chooses ‘Harriet’, after her mother. But, not content with just her own freedom, Harriet risks her life by making numerous journeys back to Maryland to bring slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, all while being hunted by Gideon Brodess.
To take on the role of Harriet Tubman is a hefty task, but thankfully Cynthia Erivo gives a powerful performance here and captures the spirit of a woman who had unimaginable tenacity, courage and determination. There is a wonderful intensity to Erivo’s portrayal of Harriet and despite some weaknesses in the script, her delivery is gutsy and convincing. It’s clear that Cynthia Erivo put absolutely everything into this performance and her presence is certainly the most memorable aspect of the film. Joe Alwyn (Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite) also does a good job as the main villain, Gideon Brodess. His cold approach and cutting stare ensure you always feel uncomfortable while he is onscreen.
Despite these impressive performances, the cast and the film as a whole were let down by a screenplay that feels slightly weak. Although the linear structure of the story successfully shows the gradual development of how ‘Minty’ became ‘Harriet’ and the unbelievable journey she embarked upon, the film lacks substance in some areas. The script is a little bland which results in a lot of the supporting characters being left without any significant depth and the level of character development throughout the film was quite limited. On the surface everything works well and makes sense, but it would have been interesting if some characters had been explored on a deeper level.
There are some wonderful shots in the film which beautifully convey the emotional impact of certain moments. In particular, when Harriet is crossing the Pennsylvania border into freedom, there is an amazing sunrise coming over the horizon and Harriet takes a moment to bask in the light before stepping forward to start her new life as a free woman. There are several well-executed shots like this, however at times the editing feels a little choppy, and this is not helped by the repetitive use of music. Although the score produced by Terence Blanchard (BlackkKlansman) is powerful and moving, certain scenes would have made more of an impact without the presence of any music, but since it was over-used, some sequences felt too melodramatic.
One of the core elements of the film was Harriet’s ability to guide herself and others through precarious situations by relying on her visions which she believed came from God. The movie has rightfully tried to stay true to Harriet Tubman’s religious beliefs when telling her story, but the way these visions are depicted could have been executed better. Visions have a tendency to be used whenever something amazing that Harriet did needed explaining, however it is clear she had enough bravery and determination without the aid of spiritual guidance. Despite this, the source of someone’s strength is a personal matter and it is understandable that the film’s creators tried their best to respect Tubman’s beliefs.
Harriet does an excellent job of displaying Harriet Tubman’s remarkable journey from slavery to freedom and how her fearlessness and willpower knew no bounds when it came to rescuing others from enslavement. Cynthia Erivo captures the spirit of this incredibly courageous woman in her performance and the film successfully communicates the historical significance of Harriet Tubman's actions. However, the movie could have been improved by a further developed script. Hopefully, Harriet's release will spark a renewed interest in further projects focussing on the efforts and achievements of this incredible woman among many others.
Harriet will be released in theatres in the UK on the 22nd of November
Dir: Kasi Lemmons | Cast: Clarke Peters, Cynthia Erivo, Joe Alwyn, Leslie Odom Jr. | Writers: Gregory Allen Howard (screenplay by), Gregory Allen Howard (story by), Kasi Lemmons (screenplay by)