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Harriet Tubman’s incredible life story instantly screams cinematic. Yet somehow, the renowned icon, among the most celebrated freedom fighters of American history, has never been given a major movie to her name before; a fact that is all the more frustrating considering Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for biopics that feature important male figures. Through her assured feature “Harriet,” director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) thankfully rights this long-standing wrong with passion, putting forth an appealing retelling of Tubman’s rousing tale, while we still wait for the delayed issuing of the new $20 bill slated to honor her legacy. It’s one that involves peerless contributions to abolitionism with hundreds of lives saved, after Tubman, played by a stirring Cynthia Erivo here, escaped from the hands of her slaveholders in the Maryland of 1849 at great risk and steadily became a fearless, storied conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Before she fled her ill fate, Tubman was known as Araminta “Minty” Ross, working at the Brodess plantation alongside her family members that included her husband John ( Zackary Momoh ); a free man on paper but not quite in practice in the racist South. Embellishing it with brief and well-parsed flashbacks, the joint screenplay by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard diligently portrays the tail-end of Minty’s days down in the Dorchester County, swiftly introducing us to the plantation’s soon-to-be-departed patriarch, his ruthless son Gideon (a chilling Joe Alwyn ) and the countless horrors of life in bondage.

And Minty manages to escape from it all through a series of acts that often feels like divine mysteries guided by faith and the bright light of North Star. At first, she runs away on a whim after facing permanent separation from her loved ones and being told by the merciless Brodesses that her children, should she have any, can’t be born free regardless of a law (and a letter from a lawyer) that states otherwise. But despite eventually making it to the Pennsylvania border with the prospect of a new life and fresh start, Harriet—her self-chosen free name—can’t rest easy, knowing that her people continue to endure doomed lives as slaves. Ignoring the protests of William Still (Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton”), who leads an organization that helps escaped slaves, and Marie Buchanon (a dazzling Janelle Monáe ), an entrepreneur who owns and runs the Philadelphia boarding house she moves into, Harriet embarks on an endless string of round-trip journeys down to the South, assuming a disguise and the nickname “Moses,” rescuing more and more slaves with each miraculous expedition.

For the most part, Lemmons keeps things straightforward and engaging as Harriet faces the perils of her nighttime, on-foot trips head-on, always under the threat of Gideon and the initially villainous yet later-on protective watchful eye of Walter ( Henry Hunter Hall , memorable and chameleon-esque), a slave hunter taken by Tubman’s determination and unique connection to God. Meanwhile zippy and truly moving montage sequences of various escape scenes mixed with occasional scares when Harriet gets stopped and searched by white officials elevate the pull of a package that is admittedly more standard issue than innovative. But given this is the first major film tackling such a vital figure of American civil rights history, that simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing. Neither is Lemmons’ choice to keep the bloody brutality in check on screen, prioritizing an inspirational and womanly character study. While the heartbreaking truths in “Harriet” feel somewhat glossed over in that sense (especially compared to that of Steve McQueen ’s unforgiving “12 Years A Slave”), the reach of Lemmons’ film might be demographically broader, speaking to even younger audiences thanks to this visual palliating.

But beyond these strategic storytelling decisions, Lemmons’ greatest asset here is undoubtedly the tough-as-nails performance at the heart of her film. Erivo captures Tubman’s shining spirit and courage with compassion, beautifully reflecting her bravery on a toughened face she wears with pride. It’s thanks to her reflective commitment that the occasional wooden dialogue of “Harriet” flows with grace and the sporadic visual misfortunes don’t linger in one’s mind for too long. This might not be the optimal film to tribute an American hero who’s long been neglected on our screens, but Erivo’s performance might very well become a definitive one, synonymous with Tubman. And that’s not a bad place to start by any measure.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to , Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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Film credits.

Harriet movie poster

Harriet (2019)

Rated PG-13

125 minutes

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

Janelle Monáe as Marie

Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still

Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess

Jennifer Nettles as Eliza Brodess

Tim Guinee as Thomas Garrett

  • Kasi Lemmons

Writer (story by)

  • Gregory Allen Howard


  • Wyatt Smith
  • Terence Blanchard

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movie review harriet

Tubman biopic includes realistic violence, racist slurs.

Harriet Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

Shows the importance of integrity, sticking to you

Harriet Tubman is a courageous, devout, confident,

Both Black and White abolitionists organize the Un

White characters use historically accurate weapons

Couples kiss, touch, embrace (briefly). A Black ma

Frequent use of "N" word in reference to all Black

Adults are briefly shown toasting/drinking.

Parents need to know that Harriet is award-winning director Kasi Lemmons' historical drama about Harriet Tubman's evolution from being a young, married enslaved worker in Maryland, to her escape to Philadelphia, to her courage to become the "Moses" of the Underground Railroad. Starring Academy Award nominee…

Positive Messages

Shows the importance of integrity, sticking to your convictions, paying attention to signs and visions, not allowing odds or risk to get in the way of making a difference, making sure no one takes away your dignity or self-worth. Some things are worth risking everything for. Undercurrent of hope throughout film: Harriet has strong conviction that enslavement will eventually be a thing of the past.

Positive Role Models

Harriet Tubman is a courageous, devout, confident, dedicated conductor on the Underground Railroad. She fearlessly travels to the South again and again to guide her family, friends, even strangers to freedom. Story also depicts the bravery of those who didn't/couldn't escape.

Diverse Representations

Both Black and White abolitionists organize the Underground Railroad and train/help Harriet learn best practices. She remains the primary protagonist, helping others by virtue of her own personal strength. In Maryland, free Black people secretly help enslaved people flee North. Clearly negative depictions of enslavers who want to stop their "property" from disappearing.

Did we miss something on diversity? Suggest an update.

Violence & Scariness

White characters use historically accurate weapons (as well as fists/feet) to pursue, beat, even shoot African Americans -- both free and enslaved. Several characters are beaten bloody, and one is killed in a brutal, close-up scene; another is shot. Young enslaved people tie up their enslavers' children to escape. Harriet wields and points her guns to protect herself and others she's leading to freedom. Scars shown on characters' backs. Lots of implied violence/talk of past violence, including stories of beatings and rape. Harriet leads armed soldiers in a Civil War battle. Harriet's enslaver menacingly talks to her very close, tells her she belongs to him. Family separations as the result of enslaved people being sold.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.

Sex, Romance & Nudity

Couples kiss, touch, embrace (briefly). A Black man who hunts down enslaved people tells a White enslaver that he'll use his payment for "White hos."

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.

Frequent use of "N" word in reference to all Black people. Language also includes one nonsexual use of "f--king" (followed by the "N" word) as well as "Black bitch," "hell," and "damn." Harriet's young enslaver tells her that having a favorite enslaved worker is like having a favorite pig: You eventually have to sell it or eat it.

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Harriet is award-winning director Kasi Lemmons ' historical drama about Harriet Tubman's evolution from being a young, married enslaved worker in Maryland, to her escape to Philadelphia, to her courage to become the "Moses" of the Underground Railroad. Starring Academy Award nominee Cynthia Erivo as Harriet, the film is intense: Expect frequent use of the "N" word, as well as one use of "f--king" and a few other terms. Violence is often upsetting and almost all aimed at Black characters, both free and enslaved. White enslavers/catchers pursue, beat, and even shoot Black men and women. A few characters die, both from brutal beatings and gun violence; some scenes show the violence close-up. Families are separated when people are sold, and enslaved workers tell stories of the horrible things they've experienced. Viewers will learn how Harriet interpreted her visions and seizures as prescient visions from God and how she ultimately took 19 trips into the South and escorted more than 300 enslaved people to freedom, demonstrating courage and integrity. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .

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Community Reviews

  • Parents say (21)
  • Kids say (50)

Based on 21 parent reviews

Excellent fictionalized version of a true hero's story

Historical biography done well, what's the story.

HARRIET starts during a Sunday church service for enslaved workers at the Maryland plantation where Araminta "Minty" Ross ( Cynthia Erivo ) lives with her free husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momo), and her family, including her free father, Ben Ross ( Clarke Peters ). When Ben and John plead with Master Brodess (Mike Marunde) to abide by his dead father's wishes to free Ben's wife and her offspring after a certain age, Brodess balks. Minty, who suffers spells that she believes are divine visions, begs God to strike down her enslaver. Brodess dies, and his son, Gideon ( Joe Alwyn ), decides to sell Minty. She escapes, leaving John behind, and finds her way up to free Philadelphia. Once in Pennsylvania, Minty renames herself Harriet Tubman and trains with prominent abolitionists like William Still ( Leslie Odom Jr. ) to become a fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad. Harriet returns time and time again to rescue both loved ones and complete strangers and guide them to freedom, all while Gideon Brodess hires mercenaries to track and capture the "Moses" who's helping local enslaved people escape.

Is It Any Good?

Erivo's intense, nuanced performance is an achievement, but the filmmakers' insistence on sanctifying Tubman makes an already powerful film unnecessarily melodramatic. Really, every role that the Tony Award winner takes on should include singing, because Erivo's voice is a thing of fierce and startling beauty. As it did in the fields where enslaved workers toiled and along the Underground Railroad, music plays an important role in the film. Kudos to director Kasi Lemmons for the sequences of Harriet's coded spirituals and the early moment in which actor-singer Jennifer Nettles (who plays Brodess' widow) sings along to the opening church service. If only Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe (who's brilliant in a small but pivotal role as Harriet's Philadelphia friend/boarding-house landlord) could have sung on-screen, too.

The cast is wonderful and the movie's story is important, but Harriet suffers in its exploration of Tubman's condition. Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard portray her traumatic brain injury as leading to actual divine prescience. The film credits that supposed skill with her ability not only to turn the right way and avoid capture (she never lost anyone she guided to freedom) but also to see the future -- like the time and place of a White man's death while fighting for the Confederacy. Tubman did believe that her visions were inspired by God, but Harriet 's focus on her spells as supernatural turns the film into a case for her sainthood and near invincibility rather than concentrating on the ongoing bravery and clarity of purpose she required to continue returning down South. The film is definitely worth seeing, but a little less about the visions and more about the woman would have made it even more powerful.

Talk to Your Kids About ...

Families can talk about the historical aspects of Harriet . How much did you already know about Harriet Tubman? What new facts did you learn? Did anything make you want to do more research?

What are the character strengths that make Harriet Tubman a role model ? Why is she an important inspiration to Americans?

Discuss the violence and racist language in the movie. Is it necessary to the story? Why is it important for viewers to understand the violent nature of enslavement?

How is this movie different from, or similar to, others that explore the subject of racism and the history of enslavement in the United States? How does the stain of enslavement continue to impact the country? What are some other films that shed light on the far-reaching impact of this horrible practice?

Movie Details

  • In theaters : November 1, 2019
  • On DVD or streaming : January 28, 2020
  • Cast : Cynthia Erivo , Janelle Monáe , Leslie Odom Jr.
  • Director : Kasi Lemmons
  • Inclusion Information : Female directors, Black directors, Female actors, Bisexual actors, Black actors, Non-Binary actors, Pansexual actors, Queer actors
  • Studio : Focus Features
  • Genre : Drama
  • Topics : Great Girl Role Models , History
  • Character Strengths : Courage , Integrity
  • Run time : 125 minutes
  • MPAA rating : PG-13
  • MPAA explanation : thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets
  • Last updated : May 13, 2024

Did we miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.

Suggest an Update

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Harriet Reviews

movie review harriet

Lemmons' direction does not lessen the famous story.

Full Review | Original Score: B- | Jul 8, 2024

A riveting performance by Cynthia Erivo as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.

Full Review | Dec 7, 2022

movie review harriet

Cynthia Erivo puts in a potent turn in the title role.

Full Review | Sep 28, 2022

movie review harriet

Shining through the haze of studio formula is Erivo who puts the entire movie on her back. Her performance captures the spirit of Harriet Tubman which has shamefully been missing from the big screen.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Aug 21, 2022

movie review harriet

It's a good movie... I think it's going to encourage some deep conversations about history.

Full Review | Sep 16, 2021

movie review harriet

Despite its flaws, Harriet gives due diligence to the role faith played in Tubman's life.

Full Review | Aug 12, 2021

movie review harriet

A momentous figure like Harriet Tubman deserves to be honored in every way possible. Unfortunately, Harriet is just a so-so celebration of her life, delving too much into storytelling tricks instead of letting Tubman's story lead the way.

Full Review | Feb 17, 2021

movie review harriet

While Harriet may not be a masterpiece, it's worth seeing for its fantastic lead performance and its important message.

Full Review | Original Score: 6/10 | Feb 1, 2021

movie review harriet

The movie that celebrates her life occasionally errs in its excess-it covers a great deal of ground-but the light it shines on Tubman and her accomplishments burns brightly.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Jan 31, 2021

movie review harriet

There is something here that hooks you, that has you feeling better upon leaving [the theater] than when you sat down.

Full Review | Jan 29, 2021

movie review harriet

The movie unproductively splits the difference between reverence and thrills. The thriller scenes aren't particularly suspenseful, and the dramatic stuff isn't particularly graceful.

Full Review | Original Score: C+ | Jan 28, 2021

movie review harriet

Cynthia Erivo delivers a stirring performance as iconic American abolitionist Harriet Tubman... But the movie falls apart in its final third, departing from history in an implausible bid to turn Tubman into a gun-toting superhero.

Full Review | Dec 21, 2020

movie review harriet

Embodying Harriet Tubman is the talented Cynthia Erivo who gives a richly textured performance.

Full Review | Original Score: 2.5/4.0 | Nov 22, 2020

movie review harriet

'Harriet' is not a film about slavery. It's a powerful, inspirational and redemptive film about a woman who changed the course of American history.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/4 | Nov 15, 2020

movie review harriet

Director Kasi Lemmons makes an admirable attempt at bringing Tubman's story to the big screen and even makes it more cinematic than its "glorified TV movie" criticisms have suggested.

Full Review | Sep 23, 2020

Importing an actor to portray her, no matter how talented Erivo is, strikes the wrong note, so to speak.

Full Review | Sep 17, 2020

movie review harriet

Harriet is the kind of movie I would have liked to have seen in high school when learning about the Underground Railroad and the fight against slavery.

Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Sep 16, 2020

movie review harriet

It doesn't mean that Harriet as a film doesn't have value - the merit alone is worth telling, especially in this cinematic climate. But it also represents a missed opportunity to delve deeply into an aspect of history that's simply not taught enough.

Full Review | Original Score: 3.5/5 | Sep 3, 2020

movie review harriet

This is Erivo's movie and she's an incendiary presence, capable of immense sensitivity as well as soaring defiance.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Aug 16, 2020

movie review harriet

Despite the solid performance from Cynthia Erivo, it is still an indulgent, predictable and not very moving biopic. [Full review in Spanish]

Full Review | Original Score: 6/10 | Aug 6, 2020

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Film Review: ‘Harriet’

Cynthia Erivo plays the escaped slave Harriet Tubman with a mournful fury, but the rest of Kasi Lemmons' biopic is more dutiful than inspired.

By Owen Gleiberman

Owen Gleiberman

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Harriet movie Cynthia Erivo

When you see photographs of Harriet Tubman (and many exist), she appears, in an eerie way, to be staring right at us. Her implacable scowl throws down a gauntlet that cuts across the ages. Cynthia Erivo , the British singer and actress who takes on the title role of “Harriet,” nails that thousand-yard glare with a furious and mournful eloquence. She looks just like you’d imagine Harriet Tubman might have looked when she wasn’t staring down a photographer’s lens. As Harriet, Erivo communicates anger and anguish, fear and resolve, all held together by something like possession. (When you regularly commune with God, your eyes might tend to fixate on something beyond the everyday.)

Fleeing from the Maryland plantation on which she was born and raised, Minty, as she’s first known, winds up on a bridge suspended over a rushing river, with armed men hemming her in from either side. She takes a leap into the rapids — her smartest strategy, but it’s also a mortal plunge. At that moment, having gotten rid of her spiritual shackles, she would rather be dead than find herself a slave again. (It’s not a choice, it’s an instinct.) The river carries her off, and once she’s alone in the woods, she winds up taking the 100-mile trek all the way up to Pennsylvania, the free state that borders Maryland. As she approaches the state line, bathed in the light from the sunrise, she takes a little hop over it, and her face opens into a smile, giving off a momentary glow that lifts you. It may be the only time in the movie she’s completely unburdened.

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Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, when she was 27, and wound up in Philadelphia, where she could have chosen to settle into, for that time, a (relatively) safe and comfortable existence. But that choice wasn’t in her mental-spiritual vocabulary. She had left her husband, and the rest of her family, and so she went back to get them. She wound up making 13 missions and guiding 70 enslaved people to freedom. She is one of the most heroic individuals in America, and her story is one of the most extraordinary.

“Harriet,” directed and cowritten by Kasi Lemmons (who made “Eve’s Bayou” and the even better “Talk to Me”), has got the heroism covered — the courageous audacity of Harriet Tubman’s struggle. Minty, who is subject to fainting spells (the result of one of her masters cracking her head open when she was 13), goes into the wilderness armed with nothing but her wits, and comes out the other side. Rechristening herself Harriet, she turns into a stealth abolitionist, and a leader too, brandishing a pistol that she’s willing, if need be, to turn on her own people (to get them to cross the water they’re scared they’re going to drown in). She’s cautious, but she can also be reckless, because that’s the unprecedented nature of what she’s doing. As she becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad, her bravery just grows, to the point that she wields that pistol as if it were part of her.

As a heroine, Harriet Tubman is long overdue on the big screen, and “Harriet” is a conscientiously uplifting, devoted, rock-solid version of her story. Yet when it comes to putting the audience in touch with what’s extraordinary about Harriet Tubman — not just illustrating what she did but letting us connect with that quest, and with her, on a moment-to-moment level — “Harriet” is a conventional and rather prosaic piece of filmmaking. I don’t tend to complain much when movies feature inspirational musical scores, but the score of “Harriet,” written by the jazz composer Terence Blanchard, has a surprisingly standard Jerry Goldsmith-meets-Aaron-Copland blandness that keeps getting in the way of what we’re watching. There are too many scenes where the music is asked to do the movie’s work for it: to create a rush of emotion, when the scenes, as written, should be doing that on their own. At one point, Lemmons uses Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” to accompany a slave-escape montage, which gives the film a momentary charge but just makes you think: This isn’t a subject that’s really right for a montage.

And there’s a crucial way the film could have been more experiential. Since “Harriet,” as a biopic, is long overdue, whenever we’ve heard her story we’ve had to imagine the details of how she made it all that way, evading lethal wildlife and racist white Southern hunters. Theoretically, that should make for a kind of Civil Rights adventure movie. But Harriet’s voyages from the South to the North feel physically underdramatized. Wouldn’t we want to know, as if we were taking the journey ourselves, just what it felt like? Too often Harriet’s odysseys have the generic flavor of ‘70s TV-movie chase scenes.

It’s not as if there are a ton of dramas about slavery, but six years ago “12 Years a Slave” was so scaldingly intense in the depths of its agony, the power of its faith, that it’s hard to watch “Harriet” without noticing how much less potent the characterizations are. Joe Alwyn plays Harriet’s most sadistic master, who grew up with her and has to suppress his love for her, to the point that he only talks about slaves with ugly animal metaphors — a completely believable 19th-century racist characterization, but not exactly a deep or resonant one. (Just compare him to the Paul Dano or Michael Fassbender characters in “12 Years a Slave.”) In Philadelphia, Harriet finds a community — the born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor Marie, played by Janelle Monáe with saucy pride, and the abolitionist William Still (a disarmingly benign Leslie Odom Jr.). The actors hold you, but I wish the characterizations were richer. Even the great Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has a sweet presence but limited impact.

“Harriet” ultimately evolves into a kind of righteous Western action movie, built around the logistics of how to escape a posse of slave hunters. Harriet gets to get good with her gun, and that’s fair enough, since she wound up being one of the only women in the Civil War to lead a military patrol. It’s one more thing about her to be in awe of, and “Harriet” is nothing if not a dutiful and eye-opening salute. But it still leaves you feeling that the great movie about Harriet Tubman has yet to be made.

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 10, 2019. Running time: 125 MIN.

  • Production: A Focus Features release of a Stay Gold Pictures, Martin Chase Productions production. Producers: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard. Executive producers: Josh McLaughlin, Shea Kammer, Nnamdi Asomugha, Bill Benenson, Pen Densham, John Watson, Kristina Kendall, Elizabeth Koch, Charles D. King.
  • Crew: Director: Kasi Lemmons. Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard. Camera (color, widescreen): John Toll. Editor: Wyatt Smith. Music: Terence Blanchard.
  • With: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh.

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Harriet review: A flashy, formulaic biopic of one of America’s great heroes

The film would have felt more at home if it had been released in the nineties, when gregory allen howard wrote the first version of the script , article bookmarked.

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Dir: Kasi Lemmons. Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe. 12A cert, 126 mins.

A handful of films about Harriet Tubman should have been made by now. She escaped slavery, and then turned back and helped countless others. During the Civil War, she became the first woman in US history to lead a military expedition. She’s one of America’s great heroes, with a story of such risk and bravery that it seems primed for the big screen. You have Hollywood’s institutional racism to thank for the fact that Harriet is the first major biopic dedicated to her.

What a shame, then, that Harriet is such a flashy, formulaic film. It takes historical reality and stretches it over the canvas of an old-fashioned adventure story – at one point, someone genuinely utters the phrase, “We’ve got company”. The film attempts to cover all the basics of Tubman’s life, including her escape to Philadelphia in 1849 and her missions back into the slave-owning states of the South. She saved an estimated 70 slaves over the course of 13 expeditions, earning her the title of “Moses”. An epilogue covers the Combahee River Raid, an armed assault she led during the Civil War that resulted in the rescue of more than 750 slaves.

This isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from Kasi Lemmons , whose directorial debut Eve’s Bayou – a drama rich with the mysticism of the Southern Gothic – remains one of the most impressive first features ever made. But Harriet would, at least, have felt more at home if it had been released in the Nineties, when Gregory Allen Howard wrote the first version of the film’s script – a time when historical biopics (such as Braveheart ) were expected to be both epic and a little overcooked. Terence Blanchard’s score feels like it was ripped from this era, too. It often intrudes on the drama, announcing every single one of Tubman’s heroic acts with the swell of an orchestra.

Still, Cynthia Erivo is magnificent in the role of Tubman. It’s a performance driven by pure will, and a desire to understand how a woman who’d suffered so much could continue to put one foot in front of the other and push forward. She’s gorgeously costumed by Paul Tazewell in jewel-toned dresses, layered coats, and hats set at the perfect angle. Yet Erivo is hampered by Lemmons and Howard’s script, interested only in upholding the myth of an American icon, not revealing the humanity that lived within it.

Directors who have made cameos in films

Tubman suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 12 years old, after a slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intended for another slave, but hit her instead. She started experiencing odd visions and hallucinations, which she interpreted as direct messages from God. Harriet interprets these premonitions far too literally, using them as a plot device to save the day over and over again, as though she’s an 1800s X-Men superhero.

There are a handful of interesting themes at play here, namely in Tubman’s interactions with black abolitionists William Still (Leslie Odom Jr) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe, whose character, unlike Still’s, is fictional). The former is averse to risk, since he’s fixated on maintaining the secrecy of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses. The latter was born free and must learn to see the world through Tubman’s eyes. The film even touches on the collective trauma experienced by those who were enslaved.

But these all feel like mere inklings of the film that Harriet could have been. Hopefully the next project about her will take a deeper look.

Harriet is released in UK cinemas on 22 November

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‘harriet’: film review | tiff 2019.

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, the courageous Underground Railroad conductor who became a hero of the anti-slavery movement, in Kasi Lemmons' bio-drama 'Harriet.'

By David Rooney

David Rooney

Chief Film Critic

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The Obama administration’s plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill remains in limbo thanks to the stalling of the Trump government, but Kasi Lemmons ‘ lustrous epic treatment of the legendary freedom fighter’s life etches an iconic portrait for better or worse, resonating more as a symbolic figurehead than a nuanced flesh-and-blood character. Cynthia Erivo is a powerful physical presence in the title role and Harriet recounts an important chapter in American history too long neglected by Hollywood. If the movie doesn’t escape the hagiographic trap of the reverent biopic, it nonetheless will move audiences with a taste for large-canvas inspirational drama.

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Lemmons, who first turned heads with her 2004 indie debut, the poetic Southern Gothic Eve’s Bayou , doesn’t exactly tread lightly here. That tendency is evident from the very first widescreen frame, as Terence Blanchard’s lush score swells into soaring uplift mode over a rain-soaked field, aggressively signaling emotional cues before we’ve encountered a single character. The use of music is often heavy-handed, one exception being the thrill of hearing Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” over a montage of daring Underground Railroad rescues.

Release date: Nov 01, 2019

The screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons begins in 1849 with the brutal experience that sparks the freedom-or-death fire in the belly of the slave then known as Minty. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh), a free man, has obtained legal documentation to verify that under the terms of a will left behind by the great-grandfather of Maryland plantation owner Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde), Minty, her siblings and their mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) should have been freed more than a decade ago.

John states his case calmly and respectfully, explaining that they want to start a family and wish for their children to be born free. But Brodess rips up the paper and dismisses them with indignation, telling his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) he should have sold the troublesome Minty years ago.

Having nursed him through typhoid as a child, Minty holds a strange position for Gideon, mingling possession with obligation and devotion. He’s unsettled by the intensity of her prayers, and evidence that she communicates directly with God is conveyed throughout the movie in black-and-white vision sequences revealing flashes of the future to her. But a sudden change in the family’s circumstances causes Gideon to act belatedly on his father’s advice and put Minty up for sale. The prospect of being separated from her family is the impetus she needs to make an escape attempt, but she refuses to let John run with her, arguing that capture will cost him his freedom.

From then on through much of its two-hour running time, Harriet becomes a chase movie, with action sequences driven by Blanchard’s propulsive score and John Toll’s agile camera. There are brief emotional markers on the journey, especially early on, as Minty says farewell to her mother in the field by singing a traditional spiritual, embraces her father (the great Clarke Peters , underused) and receives guidance from the local Reverend (charismatic veteran Vondie Curtis Hall), whose church serves as a waystation for fugitive slaves. But despite Erivo’s tenacity in the role, the drama feels more stately and impressive than urgent and affecting.

It’s never uninvolving though, and the script does a solid job of tracing the formation of a courageous freedom fighter out of a scared runaway. That process happens once Minty arrives in Philadelphia and marks her liberation by choosing a new name, combining those of her mother and husband to become Harriet Tubman. She meets abolitionist William Still ( Leslie Odom Jr. ), who records her history along with those of other fugitive slaves; and Marie Buchanan ( Janelle Monae ), an elegant business owner born in freedom who sets Harriet up in a paying job as a domestic worker.

It’s Marie who gives her a gun, teaches her how to pass for a free woman and secures her fake ID papers a year later when Harriet insists on taking the dangerous 100-mile journey back to Maryland to bring John with her to the free state of Pennsylvania. That doesn’t go as planned, but she ends up shepherding a party of eight to freedom, including her brothers. Five of them come from the financially struggling Brodess plantation, described by Gideon as “three bucks, a female and foal” — words that underscore the horrific thinking of the time and place, that slaves were akin to livestock.

Lemmons introduces a welcome strain of low-key humor as Harriet’s rescue missions become more audacious even while slave-owners grow more ruthless in their bids to stop the swelling tide of runaways. The influx in Philadelphia gets to be so numerous that William can barely record their histories fast enough. Harriet’s success rate prompts him to introduce her to the secret organizing committee of the Underground Railroad, making her an official conductor, and her exploits make her notorious in the South, initially as an unidentified “slave stealer” dubbed Moses.

It’s a gripping story, for the most part efficiently told. But the frequent interludes of religious rapture, during which Harriet often senses danger in time to change course and get her charges to safety, contribute to the sense of invulnerable sainthood that keeps the central character at a slight remove.

When Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, allowing for escapees to be tracked and captured even in Northern states, Harriet’s rescue trips extend from 100 miles to 600 as Canada becomes the only safe haven. But the script becomes preachy around this point, indulging in big movie-ish speeches designed to reinforce Harriet’s valiant sense of purpose and proto-feminist spirit. Also, once Gideon learns the true identity of the liberator raising the hackles of the white Southerners and causing them to place blame on him, a confrontation is set up as an inevitability.

That encounter doesn’t pack the dramatic weight to provide a fully satisfying payoff, and Harriet’s involvement as an armed assault leader during the Civil War is given somewhat rushed handling. The unprecedented nature of her military role is conveyed mainly in onscreen text at the end of the movie, along with her subsequent dedication to the women’s suffrage movement.

British actress Erivo, who won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in The Color Purple , hits all the requisite notes of flintiness and selfless bravery born of suffering, determination and rage. But the movie bathes Harriet in the hallowed light of nobility without providing much access to what she’s thinking and feeling; its heavy bias toward action scenes leaves too little room for character study. Tubman is an extraordinary figure with a unique place in American history, but although Lemmons’ film is an admirable bid to do this giant of the anti-slavery movement justice, it’s a monument to her heroism rather than a full-blooded incarnation.

Production companies: Stay Gold Features, Debra Martin Chase Productions Distributor: Focus Features Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar J. Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hill, Tim Guinee, Janelle Monae, Vondie Curtis Hall, Jennifer Odessa Nettles, Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde, Michael Marunde, Tory Kittles, Zackary Momoh Director: Kasi Lemmons Screenwriter: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons Producers: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard Executive producers: Josh McLaughlin, Shea Kammer, Nnamdi Asomugha, Bill Benenson, Pen Densham, John Watson, Kristina Kendall, Elizabeth Koch, Charles D. King Director of photography: John Toll Production designer: Warren Alan Young Costume designer: Paul Tazewell Music: Terence Blanchard Editor: Wyatt Smith Casting: Kim Coleman Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

Rated PG-13, 125 minutes

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Cynthia Erivo brings an American icon to imperfect life in earnest biopic Harriet

movie review harriet

Her place on the $20 bill has been delayed, maybe indefinitely; but more than a century on, Harriet Tubman finally has her biopic. (As a festival director drily pointed out at the movie’s world premiere in Toronto, there have been over 20 films centered on Civil War commander George Armstrong Custer, but zero about America’s most famed abolitionist — until now).

If its aim to inspire and educate inevitably leaves the movie feeling a little classroom-bound, Harriet is still an impassioned, edifying portrait of a remarkable life, and a fitting showcase for the considerable talents of its star, Tony-winning British actress Cynthia Erivo.

It’s 1849 in Maryland and Araminta “Minty” Ross has never known a world outside of slavery, though her husband is a free man; when her young master, Gideon ( The Favourite ’s Joe Alwyn, leaning hard on petty entitlement and pretty hair) refuses to let the pair live together, she impulsively breaks for freedom in the North.

Miraculously, she survives the treacherous 100-mile trek on her own, and lands in Philadelphia to find an entire network of sympathetic brothers- and sisters- in arms, including the Underground Railroad conductor William Still ( Hamilton ’s excellent Leslie Odom Jr.) and a glamorous boarding-house matron named Marie (Janelle Monáe).

Given the opportunity, Minty gladly sheds her slave name, taking on her mother’s first and husband’s last to become Harriet Tubman. Mere survival makes her restless, though; within months, she’s telling William she wants to return for her loved ones, whatever the risk. And she proves to have a singular gift for spiriting captives away under impossible circumstances, soon earning the deified nickname Moses.

Director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons ( Black Nativity) has an unfortunate penchant for color-treated flashbacks that evoke low-budget TV recreations. And her choice to portray Tubman as having a sort of supernatural communion with God — who often comes quite literally to her aid — may be its own act of faith, but has the odd affect of diminishing her very real accomplishments; was her own ordinary, extraordinary bravery not enough? (You can’t blame Lemmonsm though, for finding almost any excuse to let Erivo sing; so did last year’s Bad Times at the El Royale .)

Even as the story paints Tubman with the broad, noble brush of sainthood — her only flaw, if she has one, is supreme stubbornness in the face of adversity — Erivo keeps her grounded in something fiercely and gratifyingly real; a woman clearly meant for the history books, but not yet entirely hardened into myth. B

( Harriet debuted at the Toronto International Festival and will come to theaters in wide-release Nov. 1)

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‘Harriet’ Review: An American Heroine Gets Her Biopic

By Peter Travers

Peter Travers

Cynthia Erivo captures the spirit of Underground Railroad freedom fighter Harriet Tubman with enough ferocity and feeling to set this biopic soaring. The passionate acting of this British dynamo — a Tony winner for The Color Purple on Broadway — comes in handy when the film itself threatens to trip on its own hard-sold uplift. Harriet surely doesn’t need to push the importance of Tubman’s story to the Civil Rights movement, though it does, disappointingly and often. Luckily, Erivo is always there to remind us what counts in this dramatization of one woman’s heroic fight against the odds.

Director Kasi Lemmons ( Eve’s Bayou ), who wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard, ( Remember the Titans ), opens the story in 1849, when Harriet — then a slave known as Minty— fought the idea that she was the personal property of Maryland plantation owner Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde). Her husband, John (Zackary Momoh), a free man, has found legal proof that Brodess’ great-granddaddy left a will freeing Minty, her siblings and their mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway). Brodess, of course, is having none of that. That’s when he and his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decide to put the rebellious woman up for sale.

Minty has visions of the future that come when she communicates with God, The glory of Erivo’s voice as she sings spirituals in the field adds poignance to the scenes when the resistance leader says goodbye to her husband, mother, father (Clarke Peters) and family,  and runs away to the free state of Pennsylvania.. A local minister (Vondie Curtis Hall), known her helping fugitive slaves, offers advice. But Minty is pretty much on her own.

The great cinematographer Jon Toll ( Braveheart, Legends of the Fall ), aided by Terence Blanchard’s celestial score, brings a lustrous beauty to Harriet’s harrowing, 100-mile journey. It’s in Philadelphia that she meets Marie Buchanan (an outstanding Janelle Monae ), who finds her a paying job as a maid and a gun to protect herself herself against a retaliatory white South. But our heroine finds her real vocation through abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton ), who records her history and instills her with a desire to lead rescue missions for other runaway slaves.

Minty changes her name to Harriet Tubman, and is lit from within with a fire to lead others out of bondage. Her increasing fame puts her in a dangerous spotlight, especially when Harriet joins the Underground Railroad and becomes a conductor whose reach extends to Canada. Known as a female Moses, Harriet — who sometimes dressed as a man — becomes the face of a movement while resisting becoming a martyr to It.

It’s a big role, written with dimensions of sainthood that might defeat a lesser actor. But Erivo is up to every challenge, never losing Harriet’s compassionate humanity even as the film moves to the Civil War and pumps up the action at the expense of characterization. Tubman’s place in anti-slavery annals looms so large that her life virtually spills off the screen, as if no single movie could hold her. But there’s Erivo, hardly more than five feet tall like the dynamo she’s playing, giving us a woman in full on her march into history.

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Harriet (I) (2019)

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Harriet Can’t Conjure the Humanity of Its Iconic Lead

Portrait of Angelica Jade Bastién

There is power in a name.

Early into the film Harriet , not long after its lead makes the 100-mile escape from slavery to freedom on her own, the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) asks Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) whether she’ll take on a new name. Erivo’s eyes scan the room, as if trying to conjure the right answer out of the air: “Harriet Tubman,” she says, offering up a name we’ve certainly heard before. It’s a moment meant to make the heart swell — to commemorate the fact that she holds her destiny in her hands now — but instead, it lands with a thud, with Erivo communicating a resolute hopefulness and little else. Despite the talent in front of and behind the camera, this scene, like so many others in this mostly by-the-numbers biopic, plays out like a hollow turning point, stripped of the weight we know it could possess.

Harriet unfurls like a beefed-up Wikipedia entry as it charts the titular character’s journey to freedom, from the compound of her former slave master (played with bland malevolence by Joe Alwyn) to the echelons of the Underground Railroad, where she becomes a conductor of high regard — so high she eventually helps to command an armed expedition in the Civil War. The script hits the notes (triumphs of will, rousing speeches, obvious turns of fortune) we’ve come to expect from a film genre angling for award traction, but it’s bloated with clunky, expository dialogue. The score is increasingly saccharine, approaching Hallmark movie territory; the visual landscape of the film is brimming with basic shot decisions. In the end, Harriet demonstrates none of the curious, perspicacious abilities of Kasi Lemmons, who burst onto the scene with the beguiling Southern tale, Eve’s Bayou. But Lemmons does add to the story of Harriet’s life in one less expected way — namely by making her a psychic .

A project like this might not be saved by its performances, but it can be complicated by them. Cynthia Erivo proved to have a spiky presence in Widows, having already gained acclaim in The Color Purple on Broadway. But in Harriet , Erivo delivers a performance free of the fierceness for which she’s become known. Harriet understands its lead is remarkable, framing her as such with amber lighting and swelling music every chance it gets. But Harriet never feels like a fully formed human being with all the doubts and desires that come with that distinction. In this retelling, Harriet’s psychic visions (not simply her ferocious faith) guide her to freedom, nearly casting her as a magical Negro figure. I’ve always been interested in how people behave alone, in the dark, far away from prying eyes — it’s there we reveal so much of ourselves, and biopics should usher us into these private moments of grand lives. But Harriet is too interested in framing Harriet Tubman, undoubtedly one of the most fascinating people in American history, as a superhero , rather than an extraordinary member of humanity.

Despite its issues, there are a few intriguing threads. The brutality of slavery is seen primarily in the aftermath of violence otherwise shown briefly onscreen — bodies only appear burned, whipped, and scarred after the fact. This choice sets Harriet apart from other historical films about the era, known for their unflinching approach to displaying the ills of a loathsome institution that it can be argued is necessary for showing the truth of the matter. Harriet also pays attention to the tension between blacks born in freedom and those born enslaved, which manifests in the tender relationship between Harriet and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a proprietor of high standing who was born into freedom and has had to unravel her own prejudices and blind spots as a result.

Harriet brings up a lot of questions about the purpose of slavery epics. Are they meant to entertain or to challenge? What is the purpose of a glossy, superheroic rendition of one of America’s most terrifying sins? How informative or realistic does it need to be? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Harriet only highlights how this genre can fail despite the so-called important nature of the picture and a talented black director at the helm.

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Review: ‘Harriet’ gives Cynthia Erivo the star turn she deserves in an overall acting triumph

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Cynthia Erivo knows how to make an entrance.

In “Harriet,” her first starring film role and one she signed for before she had any big screen experience at all, the British actress galvanizes the proceedings as Harriet Tubman, a figure of rescue and resistance so legendary she is scheduled to take her place on the $20 bill.

In work that emphasizes the unstoppable power of a persuasive performance, Erivo not only convincingly conveys the strength of the celebrated abolitionist’s fierce personality, she creates her as a realistic, multi-sided character, a complex woman of formidable self-belief and not any kind of plaster saint.

Entertainment & Arts

Podcast: ‘Harriet’ director Kasi Lemmons on bringing ‘a tremendous hero’ to life

Host Mark Olsen sits down with “Harriet” director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons about creating a biopic based on the life of abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman.

Nov. 1, 2019

Erivo, of course, is not exactly a beginner . Seen on screen in last year’s “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale,” she’s already won a lead actress Tony and other awards for “The Color Purple,” so it’s no surprise that her work here elevates the handsomely mounted “Harriet” to a higher emotional level than it would otherwise have achieved.

Despite Tubman’s eventful and significant life, which most famously included a decade as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading slaves to freedom in the years leading up to the Civil War, she has never been the subject of a big screen biopic before.

So, as directed by Kasi Lemmons, who co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard, “Harriet” is significant for the story it tells as much as if not more so than for the way it tells it. It’s an important and involving event because a mainstream, traditional film on this woman is way past long overdue.

And because Lemmons was determined, as she’s said in interviews, to avoid “the ‘fuzzification’ of African American heroes, where we make them kind of cuddly and take all the edges off of them,” her film’s Tubman so fiercely goes her own way that we worry for her safety — even though the white antagonists arrayed against her can seem like cardboard figures and our sense of history tells us that everything is going to be OK.

How ‘Harriet’s’ Cynthia Erivo found Harriet Tubman’s voice

‘Harriet’ star Cynthia Erivo on bringing Harriet Tubman’s legacy to the screen

Sept. 9, 2019

The first time we meet the film’s namesake, at this point in her life known as Araminta “Minty” Ross, the year is 1849; the place, a plantation in Maryland’s Dorchester County, and the young woman is flat on her back experiencing the visions that we come to recognize as one of her defining characteristics.

For both in visions and premonitions, this woman trusts completely that God is in communication with her, calling an early injury to her head an occurrence that simply “made God’s voice more clear.”

At this moment, however, earthly things are more on her mind. Though herself a slave, she’s married to free black man John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), and he’s consulted a lawyer who says a will left by her owner’s great-grandfather stipulates that both her mother and she should have been freed years ago.

But that information turns the owner apoplectic, so much so that control of the plantation passes to his widow, Eliza (country star Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland), and their son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who has known Minty all her life.

That familiarity, and a hinted-at earlier infatuation, however, have gone sour, and Gideon now refers to Minty as a favorite pig he refuses to get too attached to. In line with that, he threatens to sell her farther south, insuring that she will never see her family again.

The realization that that grim future is a distinct possibility so horrifies Minty that she decides to take off for freedom all by herself, disregarding her husband’s worries that she needs him to come along because she can’t read and is subject to those incapacitating spells.

First, however, she says goodbye to her father, Ben (“The Wire’s” Clarke Peters), who, in a touching moment, refuses to look at her face so he can later deny having seen her. When she says, “I’m going to be free or die,” it’s with such conviction we know she means it literally.

Against considerable odds, Minty gets to Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr, a Tony winner for “Hamilton”), head of that city’s Anti-Slavery Society, who is astonished at her “just me and the Lord” feat.

Still encourages her to change her name (she picks Harriet Tubman) and arranges her to board with Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a free black woman who looks like someone from another planet to the newly escaped slave.

For most people, this kind of success would be the end of the story, but Tubman is not even close to most people. She decides against Still’s advice (“Don’t tell me what I can’t do”) to go back home to rescue her husband, but once she gets there, things turn out to be more complex than she had anticipated.

As Tubman begins the series of rescues that will create her legend, the white people in the area, especially Gideon, get increasingly frantic, even hiring a celebrated black slave-catcher named Bigger Long (an excellent Omar J. Dorsey).

Though “Harriet” falters when it adds increasing amounts of action melodrama to the mix, the truth of Tubman’s life, like leading Union soldiers during the Civil War, continues to astonish, as does the performance of the woman who brings her to life.


Rating: PG-13, for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes Playing: In limited release

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Harriet review: harriet tubman gets a superhero origin story.


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Denzel Washington's Gladiator 2 Role Sounds Like The Perfect Replacement For One Original Movie Character

The perfect movie to watch while waiting for top gun 3 just got a thrilling first trailer, it's criminal how much steven spielberg's $76 million box office bomb was overlooked, although it's weighed down by its hackneyed biopic framework, harriet has a spirit and heart befitting of its daring namesake and her legacy..

Harriet Tubman's long overdue Hollywood biography has arrived, and it both is and isn't the film you're expecting. On one level, Harriet is exactly the type of respectful, yet formulaic testament to the incredible life of a historical figure that comes out every awards season and earns polite applause, but is mostly forgotten thereafter. But in the hands of writer-director Kasi Lemmons ( Eve's Bayou , The Caveman's Valentine ), the movie also plays out like a superhero origin story for Tubman, right down to her having super-abilities (more on that later). Heck, there's even an exchange where Tubman chooses her non-slave name as though she's a newbie costumed crime-fighter selecting her vigilante moniker. Though it's weighed down by its hackneyed biopic framework, Harriet has a spirit and heart befitting of its daring namesake and her legacy.

The film begins in Maryland circa 1849, as Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) - then still a slave born Araminta Ross - tries to escape to Philadelphia, leaving her family behind. Guided by her inner strength and the premonitions she's had since suffering a head injury in her youth, but believes are messages from God, Tubman miraculously makes it to freedom, 100 miles away. Soon after, she seeks help from the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and well to do proprietor Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) in returning to Maryland and rescuing her loved ones. In doing so, Tubman goes on to become a member of the Underground Railroad and a legendary freedom fighter in her own right.

Leslie Odom Jr as William Still in Harriet

Harriet isn't the first memoir in recent memory to portray its subject like a real-life superhero (Reginald Hudlin's Marshall not only did that two years ago, it even cast T'Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman), but it goes further with that approach than other films have before it. Lemmons strives to deliver a stirring biodrama by way of historical adventure, serving up action-driven sequences with scenes that chart Tubman's evolution from inexperienced runaway slave to confident, gun-toting warrior. Combined with the stylized moments in which Tubman has her "spells", this is an effective way of making an otherwise cut and dry biographical feature more entertaining. At the same time, Lemmons never loses sight of the pain inflicted by slavery and often pauses the story to reflect on the trauma that freed slaves still carry with them. Harriet is similarly sensitive in its portrayal of those slaves who (for good reason) are too afraid to follow Tubman in her crusade and even calls out those who would judge them.

But in spite of Lemmons' heartfelt and spiritual direction, Harriet is restricted by its routine biopic storyline. The script by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard ( Remember the Titans ) spans several years in Tubman's life, from her time freeing other slaves as the soldier plantation owners call "Moses" (see again, the superhero parallels) to her battle against the Fugitive Slave Act and run commanding troops in the Civil War. As fascinating as these events and the people involved are, though, Harriet hurries on through them like it's checking items off a grocery list. Tubman's relationships suffer the most for it, from her found sisterhood with Marie and friendship with William to her affections for her parents (Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway), and personal war with Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), her former slave owner, who's been obsessed with her since they grew up as children. And with so much ground to cover, the film simply can't spend much time dwelling on the important topics it broaches, like social privilege and the role the law played in upholding the institution of slavery.

Joe Alwyn in Harriet

Unsurprisingly, Harriet is elevated by its talented cast and especially Erivo, who delivers yet another spirited performance (one fueled by passion and righteous fury) following her equally great work in last year's Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows . It also helps that Lemmons finds ways of painting the morality of the film's setting in shades of grey by including characters like the scheming black slave trackers Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) and Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) into the mix - though again, one wishes the movie devoted more effort to fleshing them out. And of course, Harriet is a beautiful sight to behold on the big screen, where the richly earthy tones of John Toll's cinematography are done proper justice. Together with Terence Blanchard's rapturous score (not to mention, a perfect needle drop of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman"), these elements breathe life into the film, even as it settles into the rhythm of a paint by numbers memoir.

Attempting to cover the vastness of Tubman's amazing real life was always going to be a challenge for a movie, and the task might've been better left to a TV miniseries instead. Harriet makes a proper go at it all the same and there's something inspired about the way it draws from superhero tropes to make its story more accessible to a mainstream audience. In the end, however, the film is a fairly standard awards season offering and probably won't have much luck appealing to those outside of the crowd that usually turns up for biographies of this kind. Still, it's not like the actual Tubman needed Hollywood to confirm she was a real-life badass anyway.

Harriet  is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 125 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets.

harriet poster

Harriet is a 2019 biographical film about the life of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who personally helped more than 70 slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. The movie was directed by Kasi Lemmons, who also wrote the screenplay along with Gregory Allen Howard. Harriet stars Cynthia Erivo in the title role, with Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe in supporting roles.

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The Stunning Achievement of Kasi Lemmons’s “Harriet”

movie review harriet

A common failure of movies, especially historical ones, is that they don’t open their drama to intellectual context or to the inner lives of their characters. Kasi Lemmons’s “Harriet” is a bold and accomplished exception: this bio-pic of Harriet Tubman develops her actions as a freer of enslaved people with ardent and detailed attention to the prophetic visions that impel her, and the intellectual and political currents, the widespread collective activity and the ideas that they embody, on which her anti-slavery activities inescapably depend. Yet the effect of this wide-ranging and deep-delving approach to an apparently straightforward and conventional narrative is gloriously paradoxical: far from dispersing the movie’s dramatic arc and energies, it focusses them. Far from diminishing its heroine’s ardent efforts, it magnifies them. In the process, the movie relates Tubman’s story, and the story of her times, with the exalted power of secular scripture.

It’s also, remarkably, a geographical drama, which does more than inscribe its action in distinctive landscapes and cityscapes: “Harriet” renders particular environments with dramatic characteristics, revealing some to be haunted and awaiting an exorcism, others to be sanctified and awaiting a consecration. With such mighty forces looming around and emanating from its protagonist, “Harriet” breaks out of the confines of its chronological span and its dramatic action to advance into the present day. Without dramatic anachronism or frame-breaking, the movie—written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard—addresses more than the monstrous institution of slavery, which was officially ended in 1863. It also addresses the underlying presumption of white supremacy and its ongoing influence in American politics and culture.

“Harriet,” with cinematography by John Toll, begins with an incongruity and an atrocity: a pan shot over a lush and misty green landscape that features brown-gray wooden structures, unnaturally bare and brazenly unadorned—slave quarters, made by white overlords with conspicuous indifference to the barracks-like housing meant merely to warehouse those people they presume to own. There a woman lies, seemingly sleeping, on the bare earth: Araminta (Minty) Ross (Cynthia Erivo), an enslaved black woman who is in something like a trance, or having something like a seizure, in the course of which she has a vision, a memory of her sister being sold and dragged away from the quarters where they lived.

The setting is Bucktown, Maryland, in 1849. Minty has been given permission to marry the free black man John Tubman (Zackary Momoh). Now, after a Sunday service on the porch of the farm that’s led by a black preacher named Reverend Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), Minty approaches her enslaver, Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde), with a claim: her mother had been promised freedom by his grandfather, and Minty saw a lawyer to enforce judgment in favor of her own freedom. He responds with rage, declaring that “a favorite slave is like a favorite pig,” says that he’ll never set her free, and threatens to sell her (which would separate her from her husband). Minty owes her relatively favored place in the Brodess farm to her religious fervor—her devoted and answered prayer for the recovery of the family’s scion, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), when he was gravely ill—but the horrific scars on her back and shoulder attest to the atrocities inflicted on her nonetheless.

Guided by her prophetic visions, Minty declares her intent in code, singing by night a song of farewell, with reference to a journey to the Promised Land and an escape from Pharaoh’s yoke, that holds a magnificent symbolic place in the movie; it’s a vision of cultural resistance and its elusive complexities. With its Biblical references, Minty’s song can “pass” in white society as abstractly beautiful and politically neutral, but for those who share her experience it’s a personal declaration, a collective affirmation, an act of revolt.

In the presence of the Brodesses, Rev. Green preached, to the enslaved black people held on that farm, a sermon of obedience and fervent service to their presumptive masters. He is, however, secretly a part of the Underground Railroad, and hides escapees in his church, offers counsel for their northward escape, and recommends them to trusted associates along the way. There’s a wonderful scene in which Minty visits her father (Clarke Peters), also a freeman, by night, to tell him of her plan to escape; he refuses to look at her (it’s not the last time that this will happen) so that, if interrogated by whites, he can truthfully deny that he had seen her. He also confers Minty to the counsel of the preacher, whose public exhortations to meek servility mask his daring activities.

Minty’s escape is harrowingly dramatic. Though it proved successful, the grievous dangers and high risks that she confronts shadow her successes with the menace of tragedy and reveal her efforts as a blend of purpose and chance—of a desperate fatalism that’s redeemed only by a confidence that’s bolstered both by an absolute sense of the justice of her effort as well as by her invocation of her own prophetic power. She uses that power openly, as a sort of deadly weapon against Brodess, as he and his posse pursue her. Once she gets out of Maryland and into Delaware, her flight involves the help of white sympathizers, ones who work with the Underground Railroad and even ones who don’t. Among the activists, one helps her get across the border to Pennsylvania (a Northern state, where slavery was barred) and advises her to head to Philadelphia and contact William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.), of the Anti-Slavery Society.

Still, a black man, is both an activist and a historian. He asks Minty about her story; he keeps a volume of the stories of every escaped slave he encounters. (Still’s actual historical records have been published .) He asks whether she wants to take a new name (she takes Harriet, her mother’s first name, and Tubman, her husband’s family name); he elicits the story of the brutal beating by a master that put her in a coma for two months and left her, she says, with her power of prophetic vision. (The solemn account gives rise to a moment of humor: Still records her story with the added note: “Possible brain damage.”)

Harriet’s freedom, of course, is only the beginning. She intends to return to Maryland and help John and her other family members escape, and she does so in defiance of Still, who fears both for her safety and for the Railroad’s network, which would be jeopardized if she were to be captured. Crucially, the owner of the rooming house where she lives, Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), prepares her for the journey—and for the series of journeys that she’ll undertake to help free others—by giving her a gun. In the course of her return trips to Bucktown, and despite her efforts to bring members of her family to freedom in the North, she endures agonizing separations. Yet her trips, which she undertakes disguised as a man, are crowned with success, and she becomes—anonymously—a subject of local myth and obsession among the white population, who hope to catch and punish “Moses the slave stealer,” the unknown person who has been depleting their properties’ population of slaves.

In “Harriet,” Lemmons examines the practice of slavery—including the financial and social interests of white enslavers. She dramatizes the role of paid black trackers (played by Omar J. Dorsey and Henry Hunter Hall) in slave owners’ efforts to capture escapees. She depicts, in a series of interactions of an appalling violence, the vast price paid by black people for the slightest display of independent action; her vision of a society of unchallenged and unquestioned white supremacy is terrifyingly totalitarian—including in the compromises for mere survival that it imposes on those who are its victims. A crucial turn in the drama is the passage, in 1850, of the Fugitive Slave Act, meant to placate the South, that unleashed a virtual army of bounty hunters in Northern cities and forced Tubman, Still, and other Railroad activists to leave Philadelphia and head farther North. Harriet moves to Canada, then joins Still at a meeting in Auburn, New York, with one of the state’s senators, William Seward, where, in a passionate speech, she rousingly reminds the gathered dignitaries of the physical and moral horrors of slavery and declares her intention of continuing her missions regardless of the dangers they entail.

At that gathering, Still far-sightedly notes that, ultimately, only a civil war would abolish slavery. Likened by many Maryland whites to Moses, Harriet is also compared, by the Brodess matriarch, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), to Joan of Arc, and the martial metaphor is proved in action. Harriet doesn’t shrink from using the gun that Marie has provided. (There’s a notable moment when Harriet fords a river and holds the weapon high above her head to keep the powder dry.) What’s more, she envisions the Civil War and warns Gideon of the ruin and death that he will endure in the name of the “vice and vicious idea,” for “the sin of slavery”—and when her vision of war is realized, she’s at its forefront, training a regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army and leading them in a raid at the Combahee River, in South Carolina, that frees seven hundred and fifty people from slavery. It’s a raid that Harriet heralds, to those who would soon be freed, by raising her voice in song.

The wide-ranging and far-reaching vision of “Harriet” endows history with personal passions, deeply rooted in memory and in collective identity and experience, that fuse into an energizing and amplifying power. It’s a drama of a hero whose heroism depends crucially on that of others, of a prophet whose efforts would be empty without others of the faith, a warrior whose battles are part of a war fought by many. It’s one of the rare movies that joins the radical subjectivity of a visionary to the manifold and complex forces of the times, that fuses its story with the story of the writing of history itself, that unites the concepts of political and cultural freedom, that acknowledges the historical centrality of armed self-defense as a practical necessity and a moral right. It emphasizes the unredeemable atrocities and crimes that are minimized or even celebrated by today’s white supremacist, Confederacy nostalgists, and their political allies of convenience or ignorance. The taut dramatic arc of “Harriet” is built from the substance of complex and daring ideas.

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“Frankie” and the Performance of Life in the Face of Death

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Movie Reviews

In earnest, contrived biopic 'harriet,' tubman is an action hero.

Mark Jenkins

movie review harriet

Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman along with Aria Brooks (right). Glen Wilson/Focus Features hide caption

Cynthia Erivo (left) stars as Harriet Tubman along with Aria Brooks (right).

Unless and until Harriet Tubman assumes her place on the $20 bill, writer-director Kasi Lemmons' Harriet will have to serve as the anti-slavery heroine's national monument. It will do so reasonably well. Like most monuments, the biopic is somber, well-intentioned, and fundamentally inert. But British actress Cynthia Erivo, in the title role, animates it.

The story opens blandly with a shot of mid-Atlantic scenery, circa 1846, and a dollop of Terence Blanchard's score, which is as earnest and conventional as the movie. Then Araminta "Minty" Ross, a young enslaved woman on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has one of her spells.

The image turns bluish as the woman — later to rename herself Harriet Tubman — swoons and sees a vision. These trances are historically accurate. (They were likely the result of an injury that occurred when a slave master, throwing a metal weight at someone else, fractured her 13-year-old skull.) But the director's attempt to enter Tubman's head is unpersuasive. Harriet is very much an outside experience.

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Treasury Department Launches Investigation Into Delays Behind Harriet Tubman $20 Bill

Treasury Department Launches Investigation Into Delays Behind Harriet Tubman $20 Bill

Tubman was promised her freedom, but is denied it by young plantation heir Gideon Brodess owner (Joe Alwyn, in the same slave-holder-as-dissolute-rock-star mode as Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained ). Then Gideon decides to sell her, so Tubman runs away and heads for the Pennsylvania border.

In Philadelphia, she finds shelter and community, notably with abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and free-born African American boarding-house matron Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). But Tubman can't abide that she left her parents, husband, and brothers behind. So she returns in a bid to lead them to freedom.

That mission is the first of 13, and Tubman becomes known as the "Moses" who conducts enslaved people to Pennsylvania and beyond. (After the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act endangers people of color throughout the country, the favored destination becomes Canada.)

Tubman carried a pistol, as this film's protagonist does, but her principal weapon was stealth. The script — co-written by Gregory Allen Howard, whose Remember the Titans was almost entirely fiction — invents dramatic confrontations with slave holders and trackers. These would likely have turned out much worse for Tubman that they do here. But the principal reason they feel false is that they play like bits lifted from random chase flicks, not history. Tubman is even given a moment where she rides off on a white horse.

The action scenes aren't Harriet 's most contrived aspect, though. That would be the way Tubman periodically bursts into song, serenading her loved ones with gospel tunes that they — and everyone else on screen — somehow can't hear. It's as if Tubman is having a spell in a movie musical.

The film also become less convincing, and more preachy, in its final half hour, which depicts Tubman as an abolitionist celebrity. In the earlier sequences, the tight focus on Tubman — and on Erivo — energizes the generic material. Once Harriet widens to incorporate cameos by Frederick Douglass and the like, it feels more like a chapter from a history for young readers.

Vondie Curtis Hall and Henry Hunter Hall have nice moments as black men who, in very different ways, support both slavery and the people who flee it. But such ambiguity is not typical of Harriet , which is more attuned to righteousness than nuance. If the movie doesn't burn as brightly as Tubman's legacy, the tale it tells is illuminating nonetheless.

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A movie blog for movie reviews, trailers, and more.

movie review harriet

Harriet (2019) Review

movie review harriet


Throughout the course of U.S. history, there have been plenty of standout moments (be it collective times of central poignancy or historical figures) that have left their mark on the nation’s history. From the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the formation of the thirteen colonies, to palpable victory in the American Revolution, to the harshness of the Civil War, and many others, the U.S. history is dotted with war, celebration, struggles, and triumphs within its birth / expansion of a prominent nation. Likewise, individuals throughout this roughly 400-year time span (of both men and women) have played a part in the founding / shaping the US…ranging from political powers to lowly soldiers / civilians. As to be expected, Hollywood has taken an interest in these “moments” in US history, with such movies and Television series like 2012’s Lincoln , HBO’s 2008’s miniseries John Adams , 2012’s 12 Years a Slave , 2006’s Flags of our Father , and 1989’s Glory just to name a few. Now, Hollywood turns its gaze back to US history once again as Focus Features and director Kasi Lemmons present the film Harriet , a biopic drama on celebrated African American women Harriet Tubman. Does the movie honor Tubman’s legacy or does its thematic message gets lost within this cinematic undertaking?

movie review harriet

Born into the bondage of slavery in Maryland (circa 1849), Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia (Erivo) has lived a harsh reality of being denied her freedom by her master’s family (to live together with her husband) and being harassed by her master’s son, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alywn). When Gideon decides to sell Minty to another plantation owner, she decides to escape from captivity; escaping to Philadelphia and leaving her family behind. Guided by her inner strength and her visions she’s had since suffering a head injury in her youth (believing to being message from God), Minty miraculously makes it to freedom, 100 miles away from the Brodess planation. Soon after, she seeks help from the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom. Jr), who helps Minty in giving her a new life and new name…Harriet Tubman, while well-to-do proprietor Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae) in provding safe lodgings for her new identity. However, while Harriet is free, Tubman returns to Maryland to rescue family and love ones, which draws ire from the Brodess family as well as nearby planation owners in the vicinity. In doing so, Tubman goes on to become a member of the Underground Railroad and a legendary freedom fighter in her own right.

movie review harriet


As you guys (my readers) already know that I am fan of movies, but I am also a fan of history. I absolutely love history. I sucked at math and science in school, but I was more prolithic in both English and history. What’s my favorite time period of history? Well, I would say European history (anything from the Roman Empire to modern times), but I also enjoyed reading / learning about U.S. history. Not so much on the latter portion (modern times…even though it’s important), but mostly I’m fascinated on anything from the American Revolution to World War II. I just it all to be quite interesting (almost riveting) to learning and explore all the viewpoints that the United States faced (both good and bad) and how men and women (throughout its history) change the course of the nation into what it is today. Again, for better or worse. As I mentioned above, there has been several cinematic adaptations of certain events / people of US history for a presentation medium (be it accurate portrayal or fictionalized), with some of my personal favorites being Lincoln , HBO’s John Adams , The Last of the Mohicans , Glory , and Saving Private Ryan (yes, even though the movie doesn’t take place in the US, I still consider this moment a part of U.S. history).

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Harriet , a 2019 biopic drama that takes a look at the life of famed U.S. historical figure Harriet Tubman. To be honest, I really didn’t much “pre-release” announcement about this movie online, but I do remember seeing the film’s movie trailer and was quite impressed with it. Tubman, a prominent figure in U.S. history for involvement of freeing slaves and the utilization of the famous “underground railroad, does certainly deserve a feature film about her and the movie trailer for Harriet definitely showcases that point. I saw the trailer many times when I went to my weekly movie theater outings, so Harriet was definitely on my radar to see when it got released. Plus, Cynthia Erivo was gonna play the part of Harriet Tubman and I absolutely loved her in Bad Times at the El Royale. So, I finally got the chance to see Harriet in theaters. What did I think of it? Well, Harriet is a solid (if not standard) biopic drama from Hollywood that excels by actress Cynthia Erivo’s performance as the titular character, but lacks finesse in its narration framework and some wonky creative decisions. The movie definitely honors Tubman’s legacy (and what she did), but the film itself doesn’t quite stand out as much.

Harriet is directed by Kasi Lemmons, whose previous directorial works include such movies as Talk to Me , Black Nativity , and Eve’s Bayou . While her past projects have been more moderately size (in terms of the film’s scope and inherit hype), Lemmons makes Harriet her most ambitious theatrical feature to date and does succeed in that regard; approaching the source material of Harriet Tubman in a sincere way. Of course, given that very same material to work with, Lemmons does showcase the vitality of Harriet and the tremendous harrowing journey that she took to get to freedom and the work that she (i.e the Underground Railroad) in harboring slaves to freedom. As one can imagine, Harriet’s life is quite an inspiration one for many people: for African Americans, for women, and for just simply humanity (freeing people from enslavement bondage). Thus, the tale of Harriet Tubman is ripe for the picking and Lemmons seems to craft this particular movie in a powerful and moving way to both celebrate Harriet’s personal journey, but also to honor her legacy. It’s quite clear (from onset to conclusion) that the movie wants to invoke a sense of empowerment and to honor Tubman’s tale, with Lemmons carefully carving out a portion of Harriet’s life for a feature film. Although, I think Lemmons bites a little more off that she can chew, but more on that below. Still, looking beyond that, Lemmons absorbs a lot of the feature’s runtime with plenty to exam of the time period. What do I mean? Well, of course, the movie would focus on Harriet’s struggles and triumphs, but also smaller portions of the era by showcasing the deplorable life / conditions of slavery, a few snippets of the innerworkings of the Underground Railroad, and the Fugitive Slave Act. All in all, while Harriet might not be the brightest biopic drama out there, Lemmons gives the movie a sincere authenticity polish. As a side note, though the film deals with the harshness of the time period (i.e. slavery), the movie doesn’t go quite a brutally graphic within its racial violence in a way that’s similar to 12 Years a Slave ….in case viewers are wondering out there.

movie review harriet

Harriet does have a solid production quality to the movie, which brings to life the feature’s setting and various characters that partake in Harriet’s journey. With the movie taking place in United States (circa mid-1800s), Lemmons makes the film have a genuine quality, which makes the feature’s various location and costumes have an organic feel to them rather than just “period” piece clothing and locales. Thus, I do have to commend the movie’s “behind the scenes team”, including Warren Alan Young (production design), Marthe Pineau (set decorations), Paul Tazewell (costumes), and John Toll (cinematography), for creating such a vivid drama period world for the feature. Lastly, the movie’s score, which was done by Terence Blanchard, provides a subtle melodic piece to the feature’s proceedings. It’s not as bombastic or sweeping, but it hits all the right notes, especially in the more quiet / tender ones as well as dialogue driven sequences.

Unfortunately, Harriet does stumble within its own narrative framework and some wonky decision to the storytelling. How so? Well, the main problem with the movie is that, despite having palpable and compelling story to tell, it just feels like a standard dramatic biopic. Again, with so many theatrical biopic feature endeavors that have recently come out, it’s hard for many of them to physically stand out amongst its competition. Lemmons approach is (beyond a shadow doubt) sincere and a wholesome gesture towards shedding a cinematic light on Tubman’s life and the extraordinary things she has accomplished. However, Lemmons’s Harriet is very straightforward and lacks that cinematic flourish to make the movie “pop” or even be a sweeping piece of memorable engagement. Again, the material is there, but the movie itself just feels like a stereotypical biopic narrative, with the film’s framework following a formulaic touch.

Coinciding with that criticism, the movie does have a few pacing issues throughout, which makes the film’s runtime of 125 minutes (two hours and five minutes) feel quite long and a bit tedious in demonstrating certain sequences and emotions. Thus, Harriet would’ve been slightly better (flaws and all) if the editing process produced a tighter feature. Additionally, the film’s script, which was penned by Lemmons along with a story by Gregory Allen Howard, lacks substance within certain areas as the movie’s story tries to encompass a large portion of Tubman’s life, which range from inexperienced runaway slave to confidant leader in the Civil War. Because the script / story tries to cram in a lot of pieces of Tubman’s life, Harriet seems a tad bit bloated and skims over certain pieces that be should be more elaborated upon such as Tubman’s time in the Civil War, which feels “tacked on” during the film’s final moments. In short, Lemmons / Howard’s script should focused more on a particular point of Harriet’s life in the movie in a similar fashion to Lincoln, Steve Jobs , and Darkest Hour , but ends up muddling its approach throughout lack of substance in its crammed narrative.

movie review harriet

Also, the movie’s usage of making the character of Harriet Tubman, more or less, like a superhero of sorts feels a bit goofy. Things like Harriet’s prophesized visions, letting “god” speak to her, and her so-called “spells” all seems quite unreal and almost a bit of stretch for biopic drama feature. Of course, I’m sure there’s some type of grounds in truth to some of Tubman’s beliefs (and the things that she did and / or profess), but it all just feels a bit wonky and hackneyed towards a movie that’s grounded in realism and deals with hard-hitting issues of slavery and oppression. I know that superhero movies are still a prime staple in mainstream pop culture, but utilizing certain cues in Harriet just feels like a distraction than a means for cinematic storytelling.

What definitely helps the movie counterbalance those criticism is in the strong and pivotal performances of actress Cynthia Erivo, who portrays the feature’s main protagonist character of Minty / Harriet Tubman. Erivo, known for her roles in Genius , Widows , and Bad Times at the El Royale , Erivo certainly knows how to deliver a powerful and stirring performance within her many roles in her acting career and does so in Harriet . Her portrayal of Harriet / Minty is really theatrical moving and it’s clear from her performance that Erivo really digs deep in making the character feel multi-façade within her struggles and journey throughout. You feel her frustration, her sadness, her determination, and her unwilling strength to help free slaves from their harsh lifestyles. The true testament of what makes this movie memorable is indeed Erivo’s palpable and compelling portrayal of Harriet Tubman. Definitely one of the best (and perhaps the strongest) aspects of this particular bio-pic drama. As a side-note, Erivo, who also has a talent for singing (see her singing in Bad Times at the El Royale ), does get a chance to singing in the movie and does so in a memorable way (nothing grand, but still powerful / resonating).

While Erivo’s Harriet leads the charge as the feature’s protagonist character, actor Joe Alwyn plays the film’s antagonist villain of character Gideon Brodess, Harriet’s former slave owner. Alwyn, known for his roles in Boy Erased , Mary Queen of Scots , and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , can surely be a talented individual, but it doesn’t shine as much in this movie. His portrayal of Gideon works, but only to a certain degree. He gets the character, but often that not he’s just simply staring with blank expression on his face (much like his portrayal of Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ). Thus, Gideon only feels like a threat, but doesn’t have a profound screen presence due to Alwyn’s iffy acting talent or even Lemmons projecting of the character. In larger supporting roles, actress Janelle Monae ( Hidden Figures and Ugly Dolls ) and actor Leslie Odom Jr. ( Smash and Red Tails ) give solid performances in the movie as Marie Buchanon and William Still, two individual who help / aid Harriet’s journey of freeing slaves.

The rest of the cast, including actor Clarke Peters ( The Wire and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing , Missouri ) as Harriet’s father Ben Ross, actress Vanessa Bell Calloway ( Coming to America and Saints & Sinners ) as Harriet’s mother Rit Ross, actor Zackary Momoh ( Seven Seconds and Doctor Sleep ) as Harriet’s husband John, actress Jennifer Nettles ( The Righteous Gemstone and The Launch ) as Gideon’s mother Eliza Brodess, actor Henry Hunter Hall ( Waist Deep and Black Nativity ) as hunter / tracker Walter, and actor Omar J. Dorsey ( The Blind Side and Queen Sugar ) as slave hunter / tracker Bigger Long, are all good in their respective roles, but none of them make their respective characters memorable. Their talents are well-represented, yet nothing of them truly stand out in Harriet.

movie review harriet


The story of Harriet Tubman and the indomitable courage she displays of her involvement in freeing slaves takes center stage in the film Harriet . Director Kasi Lemmons’s biopic endeavor drums up cinematic empowerment for Harriet Tubman’s journey from frightened slave to one of the most prominent women in US history; providing a narrative that emboldens her tale and will definitely resonate with many viewers out there. While the movie itself struggles within its standard biopic framework, lacking a certain directorial finesse, and some wonky decisions, the movie’s approach to Tubman’s struggles / triumphs are well-represented with actress Cynthia Erivo delivering a powerful performance in the role. To me, this movie was good. Yes, I think that the movie could’ve been better handled (in terms of story / character development), but the film was still able to cultivate an alluring and entertaining historical bio drama piece. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is both a “recommended” one as well as a solid “rent it”. In the end, while the movie might not find its proper footing in today’s plethora of biopic movie endeavors, Harriet still retains a sensible (and almost heroic) journey towards Harriet Tubman’s life as well as honoring the defining legacy she left behind.

3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)

Released on: november 1st, 2019, reviewed on: november 17th, 2019.

Harriet  is 125 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets 

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Harriet Review


It’s been long past time for Harriet Tubman to get her due on the big screen. The infamous abolitionist was as close to a real-life superhero as it gets, guiding more than 300 slaves to freedom — which earned her the nickname of ‘Moses’ — and serving as a Union spy during the American Civil War. After eye-catching performances in Bad Times At The El Royale and Widows , Erivo was an exciting choice to bring the iconic figure to life, but Kasi Lemmons ’ biopic makes the fatal mistake of revering its subject without getting under her skin and illuminating her humanity.


Part of the problem lies in the attempt to make Harriet hit several beats of Tubman’s life rather than take the Selma route and focus on a shorter, more significant time period. Lemmons and co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard chart Tubman’s 100-mile escape to freedom and her work with the ‘Underground Railroad’, but we don’t slow down enough to fully connect with our titular character.

Tubman's perfectly timed psychic visions drain much of the tension from key sequences.

More issues arise with an on over-the-top and too frequently used score by the usually reliable Terence Blanchard which takes a lot of weight out of many an inspirational speech. Additionally, a narrative device depicting Tubman’s visions from God reads as more supernatural than spiritual, with her perfectly timed psychic visions draining much of the tension from key sequences.

Even with all these shortcomings, Erivo’s Harriet is almost always riveting to watch, especially once she begins to assert herself and come into her power. She’s ably supported by Leslie Odom Jr. as fellow abolitionist William Still, and Janelle Monáe ’s boarding-house proprietor Marie Buchanon. The latter provides rare moments of intimacy, as Marie — born into freedom instead of bondage — is forced to reckon with her preconceptions through her friendship with Harriet. The next Tubman biopic would do well to have more of these human moments, and less by-the-numbers heroics.

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Movie Review – Harriet (2019)

November 22, 2019 by Robert Kojder

Harriet , 2019.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Starring Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Jennifer Nettles, Joe Alwyn, Tim Guinee, Deborah Ayorinde, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Tory Kittles, Omar J. Dorsey, Zackary Momoh, Mike Marunde, and Claire Bronson.

The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Harriet somehow takes every one of the iconic figure’s legendary achievements the film touches on and rolls them out at such breakneck speed that none of them register as engaging, courageous and perilous acts of survival and heroism. Fearing to be sold to another plantation and having her family further split apart, Araminta “Minty” Ross decides to flee the Maryland-based plantation for a free life up north in Philadelphia (a dangerous trek supposedly impossible for someone with next to no travel experience to make alone). Obviously, the journey is successfully made, but moments later when another character is in shock, the audience is not there with him. We see roughly two minutes covering a vast distance, coming away feeling like brushing up on the Wikipedia entry would have elicited the same reaction. There is no struggle or sense of accomplishment, just victory after victory, which gets tiresome real fast even if someone as remarkable as Harriet Tubman doesn’t face obstacles.

It doesn’t help that the first 30 minutes of Harriet frustratingly just see her going from character to character awaiting further instructions on what to do next, and are sloppily edited together at that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the initial cut of the film was around three hours long with much of the first act chopped down to size so that the narrative can rightfully and timely get into Araminta’s transformation into Harriet Tubman. Still, there came a point where if one more character gave her a picture of another person to go talk to, I would have gone slightly insane.

Nevertheless, Araminta takes on the free name of Harriet Tubman, finds work, and adjusts to a new life, but after one year decides, out of loneliness, she must return back to Maryland and bring her husband back with her. You don’t even need to have ever opened a history textbook to know that something else happened entirely; Harriet Tubman began smuggling slaves (relatives included) all the way north with the assistance of other abolitionists (most notably William Still, here played by Leslie Odom Jr.) and the underground railroad.

None of this registers either, but there is one section that is a strong cut above the rest of the lackluster experience. Cynthia Erivo does not have much to work with (the three credited writers, of which director Kasi Lemmons is one of them, seem to have used the first four paragraphs of Wikipedia and grade school history books as all they need to get inside her mindset) as Harriet Tubman, although her gradual shift from shy and nervous to determined and fiery leader is on-point. Initially, the slaves are unsure of whether to trust her (the film does lean into Harriet’s brain damage that, to her, gifted her with visions from God on what to do, which is both awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative and doesn’t really instill confidence into them), until Harriet takes charge with a strong voice and wisdom. Additionally, the film tries to make an intriguing juxtaposition of the slaves that choose to run and create better lives for themselves versus those that would rather bear the suffering and torture to remain connected to their loved ones. However, like just about everything else in Harriet , this aspect is not explored deep enough.

Naturally, all of this slave rescuing doesn’t look good for Gideon (Joe Alwyn), Harriet’s former plantation runner who is slowly losing everything. The problem is that much of the dialogue from these owners is cartoonish, which might sound crazy considering who these people were and what they stood for, but bad dialogue is bad dialogue. Worse, Harriet and Gideon essentially become bitter rivals as the movie builds to a somewhat action-packed climax that feels entirely out of tune for a film about Harriet Tubman. Yes, she was a fighter (another characteristic that is handed to her in the span of two minutes without making the audience feel as if it was earned) and did go on to become one of the only woman to lead troops into battle, but such an element of her persona could have been incorporated better into the narrative. Then again, this is also a biopic that thinks anachronistic needle drops are a good idea.

Still, there is nothing more miscalculated than watching Harriet chalk up her many accomplishments as due to a literal connection with God. The filmmakers come dangerously close to making her appear slightly mental at times. Religious subtext is fine, but there needs to be subtlety and delicacy within its handling. Truthfully, nothing seems to have been crafted with care here outside of Cynthia Erivo competently filling some mighty historical shoes. Harriet just goes through the motions; it makes all of her sacrifices and bravery look boring and uneventful.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check  here  for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my  Twitter  or  Letterboxd , check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated  Patreon , or email me at [email protected]


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‘Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1’ Review: The Beauty, and the Bloodshed

In the first of a projected four-film cycle, Kevin Costner revisits the western genre and U.S. history in a big, busy drama.

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A man in a cowboy hat rides on a horse with a line of donkeys behind him.

By Manohla Dargis

Midway through Kevin Costner’s big, busy, decentered western “Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1,” the actor Danny Huston delivers a brief speech. The year is 1863 — two years into the Civil War — and his character, a colonel in charge of a military fort in the southwest, is discoursing on a nearby settlement called Horizon. Apaches have recently burned the hamlet to the ground, killing scores of settlers. You simply need look at the land, the colonel says, to see why the newcomers will keep coming.

“You may recall that’s what drove us across the ocean to this country in the first place.”

Huston, an imposing presence with a rich, sepulchral voice that can suggest depths, delivers this nod at Manifest Destiny with arid sobriety. His words certainly sound meaningful yet this reference to American expansionism just hangs in the air, untethered from history or ideology. Given this nod as well as the film’s large scale, crowded cast, multiple story lines and nearly three-hour run time, it’s reasonable to assume that Costner will add context, commentary or, really, anything . Yet all that’s clear from “Chapter 1,” the lead-in for his splashily publicized four-film cycle , is that the land was vast and beautiful, and everyone wanted a piece.

“Chapter 1” is the first movie that Costner has directed since his 2003 western “Open Range,” an earnest period drama about free-grazing cattlemen facing down a wealthy rancher. What’s striking about that film, beyond how Costner draws from so many different genre touchstones — John Ford, Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah, among others — is how he tries to honor old-fashioned westerns that he so clearly loves while also complicating the myth of the American West through his character, a violence-haunted gunfighter.

A version of that same man — tough, terse, good with a gun, not bad with the little ladies and now named Hayes Ellison — rides into “Chapter 1” about an hour in, handsomely framed against a bright blue sky. What takes him so long? Given how the movie plays like an extended prologue, I suspect that Costner timed his entrance for a four-part project rather than for a stand-alone film. That makes it tough to get a handle on precisely what he’s up to here, other than gesturing at history, re-engaging with an archetypically American genre and readying the foundation for an epic that will continue when “Chapter 2” opens in August.

Written by Costner and Jon Baird, “Chapter 1” features uneven lines of action that jump across the map, from the southwest to the Territory of Wyoming. In one section, bad men with good cheekbones, their dusters trimmed with animals skins à la Gladiatorial Rome, chase after a righteously violent woman (Jena Malone in a lively, credible turn). In time, they end up in one of those frontier towns with muddy streets and desperate characters, a sinkhole where Hayes rides in with some gold and exits with Marigold (Abbey Lee), a lady of the evening (and afternoon). In another section, Luke Wilson leads a wagon train peopled with tough Americans, Laplander goons and two British twits itching for some punishment.

The story line that revs up the action centers on the settlement, a riverfront hamlet on a ribbon of green that winds through the desert and has attracted the attention of a tribe of White Mountain Apache led by Tuayeseh (Gregory Cruz). Soon after the movie opens, the settlers are swinging their partners to fiddles like good John Ford folk; not long after, many are dead, cut down by Apaches. Among the survivors are the newly widowed, impeccably manicured Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) and her daughter, Elizabeth (Georgia MacPhail), who take refuge in the fort. There, they meet a first lieutenant, Trent Gephart (Sam Worthington), a thoughtful soul who refers to Native Americans as Indigenous.

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