Harriet tells the remarkable story of Harriet Tubman, in Kasi Lemmons’ new biopic of the 19th-century slave-turned-abolitionist. Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard deliver a stirring portrait of the one of America’s more iconic historic figures. Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was born into slavery on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland, in the early 1800s. By the time she died at the age of 91, she was famously remembered as a leading American abolitionist of her day.
Cynthia Erivo, who takes up the role of Harriet, brings a fierceness and grit that dominates the film with her steely determination to be free. At the beginning of the film we learn that Harriet’s husband, Johnny Abrams (Zackary Momoh) has hired a lawyer to confirm that Harriet and her mother are indeed free. Edward Brodess (Mike Marunde), using his debts as an excuse for being reluctant to forfeit his slaves, tears up the letter, an act which sets the spirited Harriet on a path that will change her life. Edward’s son, Gideon (the wonderfully sinister Joe Alwyn) makes it his mission to 'recapture' Tubman, yet she escapes at great risk, and shows fearlessness to become a leading conductor on the Underground Railroad.
This rousing tale chronicles Tubman's evolution from slave to freedom fighter with a zeal and heroism, celebrating the fierce determination of a woman born to slavery yet destined to lead 70 slaves to freedom, prior to the American Civil War. Tubman’s work continued during the Civil War, when she became the first woman to lead an armed mission during the war that freed 700 slaves.
Erivo's voice acts as an additional character in the film, as she stunningly and beautifully sings her coded messages, 'Farewell, Farewell', 'Sorry I had to Leave You' or 'Let my People Go,' with the choir of family and other slaves who are working in the fields all joining in. The music, under the direction of Terence Blanchard, weaves a magical thread throughout the film.
Tubman suffered a serious head injury as a child when Edward Brodess threw a heavy metal weight, that hit her so forcefully that she was unconscious for two days. This left her with a lifetime of hallucinations that Lemmons translates as a source of divine understanding of what was to come. Tubman believed her visions were inspired by God, and Erivo’s portrayal of these moments, along with flashes of black and white images revealing what caution to take, adds to the intrigue of the film.
Erivo’s portrayal of Tubman’s indomitable spirit and courage drives the film but its supporting cast is equally watchable: Leslie Odom Jr as the free-born abolitionist William Still; Clarke Peters as Ben Ross, Harriet’s free father who can’t leave his children behind; Jennifer Nettles who plays Eliza Brodess, the grieving plantation mistress of the plantation Tubman escapes from; Henry Hunter Hall as the rakish Walter, who has a change of heart in hunting down Tubman; and Janelle Monáe, the beautiful and generous Marie Buchanen, the owner of a Philadelphia boarding house who befriends Harriet. Each, along with other cast members, offer powerful and convincing performances that add to the impact of the story.
Visually striking in many scenes, this is a story that needed to be told. Harriet leads us through a time in American history that required courage, vision and commitment. This woman who couldn’t read, lead the effort with her firm belief “God don’t want people to own people. My people are free.”