Harriet Review: An American Hero Gets Her Due [Austin Film Festival 2019]


Harriet Tubman is a legendary and incomparably important figure from American history. Anyone who attended school in the U.S. is surely aware of her tale, that of a brave woman, herself an escaped slave, who led dozens of people to freedom from slavery. Yet, for whatever reason, her story has never been given the big biopic treatment. That has been amended with Harriet, a mostly by-the-numbers biopic, elevated by a terrific performance from Cynthia Erivo.

Harriet centers on the life of Harriet Tubman. When we first meet her, she’s still a slave and, due to growing pressure, she finally decides to make her escape. Upon narrowly making it to safety in the North, Harriet begins to make a new life for herself, only to soon find the desire to rescue her family. This leads her on a journey to becoming one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad, executing increasingly risky rescue missions. All the while, her former owner is hot on her trail and desperate to get her back.

Writer/director Kasi Lemmons based the movie on Gregory Allen Howard’s novel about the American icon. It’s clear that both of them have tremendous reverence for Tubman. The story at hand serves her legacy incredibly well. It’s moving, effective and cleanly showcases everything this woman had to go through just to gain the simple freedoms we’re all automatically afforded in this country. That said, it does mostly travel down a pretty straight line, narratively speaking. We see Tubman’s journey down an A to B to C. Path. It’s the familiar tale, with all of the major, historic moments beat for beat. It’s right up the middle.

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There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s important to know what you’re getting. This isn’t a gritty, auteur take ala 12 Years a Slave. It’s certainly not sugarcoating anything, but it’s the PG-13 version of this ugly period of American history. It’s also not like Steve Jobs, which takes creative license to paint a presumably honest portrait of the man, or Lincoln, where it focuses on a very specific and important moment in the President’s life. It’s a very traditional biopic. It’s the kind of thing that can be shown several years from now in a classroom to help kids gain an understanding of Tubman and her story. It’s that kind of movie.

Cynthia Erivo was tasked with playing Tubman and that comes with a lot of weight. Erivo delivered a pair of great performances in both Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows last year. Both criminally underseen, but especially in the former, Erivo cemented herself, in my mind, as a total star. Her work here grounds the movie and further confirms, in my mind, that she may well be one of the better performers working today. Leslie Odom Jr., Vondie Curtis-Hall, Joe Alwyn and Clarke Peter’s help round out a solid ensemble. Janelle Monae is also a welcome presence, but sadly winds up being a bit under used.

It’s genuinely difficult to imagine why this story hadn’t been told previously on the big screen. It’s a necessary, relatable human tale that needed to be told and deserved preservation using the medium of cinema. Mileage may vary on an individual basis in terms of how effective this specific approach winds up being. But, for my money, Harriet accomplishes an important job by finally delivering this story and treats this legend with nothing but the respect she deserves. Harriet arrives in theaters on November 1 from Focus Features.

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Ryan Scott at Movieweb