A film that will have you throwing your fist in the air, Harriet is quite the promotion for the next face of the twenty-dollar bill.
The woman, the myth, the legend, Harriet Tubman…played by Cynthia Erivo. I’ll start by saying, can it be an unwritten rule that any movie Erivo stars in, she is required to sing? If you saw Bad Times at the El Royale, you know what I mean; woman’s got pipes! And in Harriet, she shows it once again. But not only can she sing, Cynthia Erivo is an emotionally powerful actress. When the script affords her the chance, she commands the scene. In moments when she faces doubt, or cowardice, sometimes even from her allies, she snaps back and inspires courage. She tells the world, “I’m Harriet Tubman and there is nothing that can stop me.” The film is successful in portraying this freedom fighter as brave and selfless, a U.S. history superhero; it covers Tubman’s life from her initial escape to freedom, all the way to her role in the Civil War, and along the way we are exposed to elements of her story textbooks don’t often tell us.
Just like the person the film is a tribute to, Harriet is always on the move; this a briskly paced film. We bounce from scene to scene, one-minute Harriet is fighting for her own freedom, and in the next she is freeing entire groups of slaves. This pacing comes with benefits and drawbacks. While it does make for a more watchable and entertaining film, it also comes at the cost of intimacy. There were times where I wished the film would slow down, and spend more time focusing on Harriet’s internal struggle of being free while her family and others still suffered at the hands of slavery, or focused on her struggle adjusting to a life of freedom. The film explores Harriet’s connection to God, how she was able to talk to God and be shown the future and unfortunately, these aspects only get shallowly explored and sometimes left behind. The script likes to point out how significant and intense the journeys are that must be undertaken to free certain slaves, at one-point, Leslie Odom Jr., who plays William Still (a key cog in the Underground Railroad), tells Harriet the distance between the New York-Canada border and Maryland is 500 miles, 5x the distance of Harriet’s original escape from Maryland to Philadelphia, and yet, one shot we’re at the New-York Canada border, and the next we’re at Maryland. By showing more than telling, the story of Harriet Tubman could’ve been more engaging, placing us by her side as she risks everything more than once.
The cinematography is beautiful and admiring of nature, with shots of the sun rise and moonlight establishing Harriet’s “no time for sleep” determination. The score is sweepingly dramatic and emotionally manipulative, hitting all the cues you’d expect it to in a film of this material. The costumes of the period were also pretty to look at.
I liked Harriet, it’s empowering. But it’s receiving some of the same criticism Bohemian Rhapsody did last year, of not being emotionally complex and nuanced, and doesn’t have a Live Aid concert scene or rocking soundtrack to help it. 7.5/10