‘Harriet’ breathes new life into American hero

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

In Kasi Lemmons’ historical drama Harriet, the audience sees a raw authenticity that transcends the legendary status often associated with the Black hero of the anti-slavery movement. Cynthia Erivo, in the titular role of Harriet Tubman, presents her character in an emotionally nuanced and vulnerable manner — providing room for her to grow as the film progresses. As the first biopic on Harriet Tubman, the movie has a large space to fill. The film manages to set an outstanding precedent in its portrayals of the historical figures, however, representing the intimate details of their lives with nuance and allowing them to shine as individuals. 

Within the film, the audience sees the evolution of the young slave formerly known as Minty into the Harriet acknowledged in textbooks today. In one of the first scenes of Harriet, the title character lays on a bed of grass, images of her companions escaping the plantation running through her head. It is a moment which foreshadows the pivotal role she will play in freeing countless enslaved people. This flashing in and out of Harriet’s mind is a common motif that runs throughout the film, giving Lemmons creative license and infusing the otherwise factual narrative with mysticism and spirituality. 

The beginning of the film covers Harriet’s life before she was the Harriet of the underground railroad, and sheds light on her origins as an enslaved woman struggling for liberation. After correspondence with a lawyer, Harriet learns her mother is obligated freedom by law — but Harriet and her sisters are denied this promise. This heartbreaking scene epitomizes the frustratingly endless cycle of enslavement in America. Nevertheless, Harriet Tubman takes matters into her own hands and claims what is rightfully hers by escaping the plantation. 

Throughout the biopic, Erivo lends a dynamic energy to her character and seamlessly embodies the tenacity of Harriet. We see her at her most fragile, as well as her most fierce. Joe Alwyn, who plays Gideon, the plantation owner’s son, also shines in the film — astutely capturing the hatred and cruelty of those born into slaveholding. In a riveting exchange of dialogue, Gideon tells Harriet, “Having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig … One day you’ll have to kill it or eat and when you eat it, you’ll forget its name.” This extended simile highlights the grim reality of objectification, degradation and subjugation Black bodies faced in the time period.  

One of the most unique attributes of the film is its ability to tackle the layered complexity of the relationships between slaves and freedmen. Harriet goes head-on with freed slaves like William Still, director of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery and Marie, beautifully portrayed by Janelle Monae. With this, Lemmons successfully articulates a dialogue on the nature of stratified levels of privilege, even in the era of slavery. 

Besides strong performances and masterful character development, Harriet boasts an incredible soundtrack by Terence Blanchard, whose score repertoire also includes the 2018 film BlackkKlansman. The call-and-response singing of the enslaved people weaves itself throughout the narrative and unites the various voices with one resounding wish for freedom led by Erivo’s strong alto. 

With determination and passion at its heart, Harriet allows viewers to see Harriet Tubman for who she truly was — an honorable, resilient champion of the people. As she declares in her speech to the Anti-Slavery League, “I’ve heard their groans, I’ve heard their sighs … so I ain’t giving up. God has shown me the future and my people are free. I will spill every last drop of my blood until this monster called slavery is dead.” Harriet is on a mission, and like its protagonist, won’t stop until it achieves it.

Contact Luna Khalil at [email protected].