“Harriet” is the biographical film about the most prominent abolitionist in American history. Kasi Lemmons is the director of this film, which she co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard. Cynthia Erivo dons the title role of Harriet Tubman. Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monae are included in the cast as well.
First of all, Erivo is an inspired casting choice, although I was pretty amused to read she is actually British. Well, she fooled me because her performance with an American accent was quite convincing. I will have to keep an eye on some of her future projects.
I am not sure where the artistic license came into play, but the movie was quite riveting. There are some truly amazing and at times heart-wrenching moments as expected in a movie that centers on the brutal practice of slavery. The film also touches on the sometimes complex relationships between the slave owners and their perceived property. The film does make anyone with a conscience glad that this practice is long gone in the United States. Tubman and other abolitionists are already easy for me to applaud, but Erivo’s depiction solidifies that sentiment.
I will also note that the costuming was quite well done. Tubman’s coat and hat during the escape scenes looked pretty slick. The set designs were also well realized. The movie just looked good.
The other aspect that I appreciated is that there was an acknowledgement of the white people involved in the Underground Railroad. In today’s political climate, it is easy for some movie producers to sell the idea that all or most white people approved or celebrated the idea of slavery when that was not the case at all. What Lemmons also did well is just basically sticking to Tubman’s story without a political and social commentary hidden in the film beyond the obvious position that the practice of slavery need to end. The movie just demonstrated the inherent evil of slavery and celebrated Tubman’s relentlessness when it came to freeing as many slaves as she could. She apparently was also quite germane to the Union efforts during the Civil War, although this film centers on the years leading up to that conflict.
Joe Alwyn plays a fellow named Gideon Brodess, the son of the slave owner who inherited his father’s plantation and the slaves. He also was the main antagonist, who manages to be quite nasty without slipping into a cliche character. There are times when characters in this sort of film come off as a bit over the top. Alwyn did well on avoiding that pitfall, in my opinion. I think that specific character was fictional as well as the reasons for his obsession with recapturing Harriet, but the whole thing was handled and performed well.
The film just works on so many levels. I think whatever lapses others may find in this particular telling of this extraordinary woman’s life should be forgiven since Tubman was very much involved in various forms of activism even after slavery was finally abolished, and it would be hard to properly display all of her accomplishments in a standard movie running time. “Harriet” is probably one of the best films I have seen all year.