Up until 1865, slavery was the norm for society, and nobody in America gave a second thought to owning a slave—they were just part of the land and knew how to work it. Many slaves tried to escape north to freedom, but only a fraction of them were successful. Even after 1865 and still to this day, African-Americans have had to keep fighting in order to be seen as equals. This period of time will always leave a mark on American history.
One of the most iconic heroes of this time period was Harriet Tubman, who was a leader on the Underground Railroad—a passage used by slaves to escape to freedom. Surprisingly, it took what seemed like forever for a movie about her to be made. It’s unclear whether they were waiting for the right actress to come along or Hollywood writers were fine tuning a script, but Tubman finally gets her due in Harriet, a compelling slave drama watered down in an effort to appeal to a wider audience.
Harriet begins with Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) as a slave by the name of Minty. Her husband, John Tubman, is a free man and they ask her owner for her freedom so their children can be free. Her owner declines and Minty is later confronted by the owner’s son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn). Later, Minty makes her escape and after eluding hunters by jumping off a bridge, she makes her way 100 miles north to Philadelphia. She meets up with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), an abolitionist who is connected to the Underground Railroad, as well as a boarding house owner named Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). After changing her name to Harriet Tubman, she works her way back down to the plantation to rescue more slaves, including her family, earning the nickname “Moses.”
With many historical dramas, writers have a tendency to adjust historical events for dramatic purposes. Historical inaccuracies don’t bother me that much unless it completely changes the heart of the story, but what does interest me about Harriet is how safe it is. Director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons doesn’t offer anything new to the legacy of Harriet Tubman. I felt that a lot of the information presented in the film was already taught to me in various history classes over the years. I wouldn’t be surprised if history teachers across America showed Harriet during their classes.
The acting across the board is actually pretty good. Erivo plays Tubman with authenticity, balancing out fear and confidence while eluding slave owners at every turn. I wouldn’t be surprised if Erivo earns her first Oscar nomination for this role. Alongside her in smaller but equally important roles are Odom Jr. and Monáe as Still and Buchanon, respectively. Joe Alwyn plays Tubman’s owner Gideon with some moments of depth, but is just another slave owner at the end of the day.
I saw this movie twice in theaters. Not only was it a full house both times, but the audiences I saw it with loved it. In the end, I must admit that I did enjoy the movie even if it is a victim of the biopic formula. It’s a better than your average movie because the acting is so good. A PG-13 rating makes sense in this case because not every film about slavery has to be as brutal as 12 Years a Slave, but there’s a part of me that also thinks that Harriet could’ve been a great movie if it took more chances with its story.