Harriet is based on the extraordinary life of Harriet Tubman and her journey from slave, to free woman, to abolitionist, to American hero.
This film opens with Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) trying to legally acquire her freedom. When that situation quickly sours, Harriet is forced to run for her freedom. Harriet makes the solo journey from Maryland to Philadelphia (around 90 miles) without knowing how to read or write.
After a year of freedom in Philadelphia, Harriet decides to go back to get her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) and the rest of her family. This leads to Harriet finding her purpose as an abolitionist and working with the Underground Railroad – a network of people that helped free slaves from the south and take them to free states and Canada.
Harriet’s story is widely known, some of the details of her life are not and the film does a great job exploring those. A lot of films with slavery as a foundation focus on the agony and pain of slavery. The foundation of Harriet is Harriet Tubman and its story focuses on her and her journey. There are moments of violence and conversations surrounding the treatment of slaves – Gregory Allen Howard’s screenplay serves more as an educational tool than one that pulls at your emotions.
Cynthia Erivo is a star and does fantastic job depicting Harriet. From how improbable Harriet’s life was to how iconic she became, Erivo masters every stage of Harriet’s life. Erivo is surrounded by solid performances by Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Omar Dorsey, and Joe Alwyn.
Director Kasi Lemmons does a great job capturing Harriet’s journey. The most difficult and interesting part of the story was Lemmons trying to capture Harriet’s hypersomnia – a condition that she suffered after being hit in the head, but she says allowed her to have visions and hear from God. Harriet’s dreams and visions were difficult to depict on film. During a run to freedom, Harriet would stop (sometimes comically), sit like she was in a trance, and then she would know what direction to go next. It was almost MacGyver-ish the way she would figure out the solution right before it was too late. It was like watching an action hero defuse a bomb with one second left.
The film could’ve used more of Harriet and her shotgun and Harriet as a spy. Harriet as a spy during a Civil War is a part of her life that most people don’t know and it could’ve made for a very interesting third act. The story could’ve used a little more information about the Fugitive Slave Act and how it impacted Harriet and others working to free slaves.
Harriet isn’t a slavery story about the pains and ills and chattel slavery. It’s a story about Harriet Tubman that chronicles events in her life and her faith. The film’s time jumps don’t allow for audiences to process the weight of her decisions or how it truly impacted people. This story is more of an information dump than a deep dive into her life. Erivo and her co-stars performances do enough to keep this story above water and headed in the right direction.